a bit of respite


Better Dependency Tracking for the Rust Compiler

The Rust compiler uses dependency tracking in order to find out what needs to be re-compiled during incremental compilation. The model of data dependency currently used by the compiler is less powerful than it could be though. In this blog post I’ll show what its shortcomings are and what a more expressive model could look like.

The Current Model

The compiler uses a dependency graph to track what data depends on what other data. Each node in the graph represents some piece of data and an edge between two nodes means that the data at the source of the edge was needed to compute the data at the target of the edge:

   MIR(foo) --> MachineCode(foo)

   ^^^ the MIR of function foo is needed to compute the machine code of it

This graph tells us that if the MIR of foo changes then we have to re-compute the machine code for that function. And this is probably fine in most cases, there are hardly any changes to the already pretty detailed MIR of a function that would not require re-generating its machine code. But let’s take a look at another example:

   AST(foo) --> FnSig(foo) --> TypeCheck(user_of_foo)

This graph tells us that the function signature of foo depends on the AST of foo and that type checking another function (which contains a call to foo) in turn depends on foo’s function signature. Now suppose we change the AST in some way that does not actually affect the function signature – like making a parameter mut, something which is only meaningful within the body of a function but has not influence on callers. The dependency tracking won’t be able to determine that the signature actually hasn’t changed. It just sees that the AST has changed and that there’s an edge from the AST to the signature, so the signature might have changed too. As a consequence, we need to re-compile all callers of foo in order to be really sure that everything is up-to-date again.

The underlying problem is that the dependency graph can only give very conservative information about changes. An edge from A to B in the graph means that changing the value of A might potentially have an influence on the value of B. This is always correct but it might lead to many false positives for cases, like the one above, where a change to the input of some function does not actually change its output. In fact, the quality of dependency information given by this model is so weak that we only get any meaningful re-use during incremental compilation because we manually augmented it with an additional mechanism. Somewhat unintendedly, this additional mechanism turns out to be exactly what I’d wanted to introduce to the dependency tracking model anyway in order to alleviate the current model’s shortcomings.

A More Powerful Model

It’s a natural extension for the existing dependency tracking model to add some means that allows to determine if a node has actually changed after being flagged as having potentially changed. We do something like this already for the input nodes of our dependency graph: the AST/HIR nodes and commandline arguments. For each of those we compare if the current version has changed with respect to the cached version and only then flag dependents as also having (potentially) changed. In theory this can be done for any node in the graph. All you need is some way to tell whether the current value of a node is the same as the previous one. In the case of the AST, for each node we store a hash value of the nodes’ contents when persisting the dependency graph. But you could also store the actual value if that happens to be cheaper than the hash.

With this information we can implement cache invalidation “firewalls” as Niko likes to call them: We can switch a node’s status back from maybe changed back to unchanged, thus stop cache invalidation short at that point – with potentially huge implications on transitive dependents of the node. Let’s take a look again at the example from before:

   AST(foo) --> FnSig(foo) --> TypeCheck(user_of_foo)

When the compiler discovers that the AST of foo has changed, it will flag FnSig and TypeCheck as potentially out-of-date. However, in contrast to what would happen with the current model, when it’s time to re-compute the function signature of foo, the compiler may discover that it is actually exactly the same as before and propagate this information down to its dependents, thus marking TypeCheck(user_of_foo) as unchanged again (that is, if no other dependency of TypeCheck(user_of_foo) requires it to be recomputed – more on that some other time). In a case like the above this can easily make the difference between having to re-compile one module and having to re-compile every single module in the code base.


I’m sure that switching to the more powerful model will result in much better re-use rates, especially when we start to cache MIR and type-checking information – because what we have now won’t scale well to that. The new model will also make the compiler’s implementation more unified by not requiring additional concepts for some places, like we do now for AST/HIR and codegen unit partitioning.

On the other hand, there will be some new implementation challenges. The current model is so simple and conservative that we can make some assumptions that make its implementation much easier (like the assumption that there is no harm in doing cache invalidation in one big swoop at the beginning of the compilation process). I’ll try to write about these new challenges and subtleties in follow-up posts, in no small part in order to get a good understanding of them myself before jumping into an actual implementation.