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An experimental Lua VM implemented in pure Rust
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Build Status

luster - An experimental Lua VM implemented in pure Rust

My eventual goals with luster are somewhat ambitious:

  • Be a practical, useful Lua interpreter that is "pragmatically compatible" with the latest PUC-Rio Lua (5.3, soon 5.4)
  • Be generally at least as fast as PUC-Rio Lua
    • Using primarily safe Rust
  • Allow creating safe Lua bindings to Rust that are dramatically easier and faster than what is possible with rlua and PUC-Rio's C API.
  • Demonstrate a novel set of techniques for using garbage collected pointers in safe Rust, and show that the techniques work by implementing a real project with them.

This project is in active development and currently very WIP. Most of the above is not true yet! Currently luster mostly serves as an example of the experimental garbage collection technique it uses.

A unique system for Rust <-> GC interaction

The garbage collector system for luster is now in its own repo, and also on (luster may need to go back to having its own fork in order to support object finalization). See the README in the linked repo for more detail about the GC design.

luster has a real, cycle detecting, incremental garbage collector with zero-cost Gc pointers (they are machine pointer sized and implement Copy) and are usable from safe Rust. It achieves this by combining three techniques:

  1. An unsafe Collect trait which allows tracing through garbage collected types that, despite being unsafe, can be implemented safely using procedural macros.
  2. Branding Gc pointers by unique, invariant "generative" lifetimes to ensure that such pointers are isolated to a single root object, and to guarantee that, outside an active call to mutate, all such pointers are either reachable from the root object or are safe to collect.
  3. The mutation API, while being safe via "generativity", does not make it easy to allow garbage collection to take place continuously. Since no garbage collection at all can take place during a call to mutate, long running mutations are problematic. By using a futures-like combinator based "sequencing" API, we can recover the ability for garbage collect to take place with as fine of a granularity as necessary, with garbage collection taking place in-between the "sequence" steps.

The last point has benefits beyond safe garbage collection: it means that the entire VM including sequences of Lua -> Rust and Rust -> Lua callbacks is expressed in a sort of "stackless" or what is sometimes called "trampoline" style. Rather than implementing the VM or callbacks with recursion and the Rust stack, VM executions and callbacks are constructed as Sequence state machines via combinators. The interpreter receives this Sequence to execute and simply loops, calling Sequence::step until the operation is finished (and garbage collecting in-between the step calls). This "stackless" style allows for some interesting concurrency patterns that are difficult or impossible to do using PUC-Rio Lua.

While the interface to garbage collected pointers is interesting, the actual garbage collector itself is currently only a very basic incremental mark-and-sweep collector. This could be replaced in the future with a better design.

What currently works

  • An actual cycle detecting, incremental GC similar to the one in PUC-Rio Lua 5.3
  • A basic Lua bytecode compiler
  • Lua source code is compiled to a VM bytecode similar to PUC-Rio Lua's, and there are a complete set of VM instructions implemented
  • Almost all of the core Lua language (minus metatables) works. Some tricky Lua features that are included in this:
    • Real closures with proper upvalue handling
    • Tail calls
    • Variable arguments and returns
    • Coroutines, including yielding through Rust callbacks (like through pcall)
    • gotos with label handling that matches Lua 5.3
    • proper _ENV handling
  • A few bits of the stdlib (print, error, pcall, math, and the hard bits from coroutine)
  • Basic support for Rust callbacks
  • A simple REPL (try it with cargo run luster!)

What currently doesn't work

  • Most of the stdlib is not implemented (debug (which may never be completely implemented), io, os, package, string, table, utf8, most top-level functions are unimplemented.
  • Metatables and metamethods. Most of this should not be terribly hard to implement except __gc, which will require implementing finalizers in gc-arena.
  • Garbage collector finalization. An algorithm and basic API for finalization is not difficult, but I am not quite sure yet how to design an API around finalizers with failure, which is required to implement Lua __gc metamethods.
  • Lua userdata. Basic support for a Box<Any> userdata type is not difficult, but letting userdata safely participate in garbage collection and having easy, performant APIs for userdata methods are much harder.
  • Tables with weak keys / values, "ephemeron" tables.
  • The compiled VM code is in a couple of ways worse than what PUC-Rio Lua will generate. Notably, there is a JMP chaining optimization that is not yet implemented that makes most loops much slower than in PUC-Rio Lua.
  • Error messages that don't make you want to cry
  • Stack traces
  • Debugger
  • Actual optimization and real effort towards matching PUC-Rio Lua's performance
  • Probably much more that I haven't listed

What may never be implemented

This is not an exhaustive list, but these are some things which I currently consider non-goals. This list is also preliminary, everything here is up for discussion:

  • An API compatible with the PUC-Rio Lua C API. It would be amazingly difficult to implement and would be very slow, and some of it would be basically impossible (longjmp error handling and adjacent behavior).
  • Perfect compatibility with certain classes of behavior in PUC-Rio Lua:
    • PUC-Rio Lua behaves differently on systems depending on the OS, environment, compilation settings, system locale (lexing numbers changes depending on the system locale!), etc. luster is more or less aiming to emulate PUC-Rio Lua behavior with the "C" locale set with the default settings in luaconf.h on 64-bit Linux.
    • The specific format of error messages.
    • The specific iteration order of tables, and the specific behavior of the length operator (the length operator currently functions correctly and will always return a table "border", but for tables that are not sequences, the choice of border that is returned may differ).
  • Some of the debug library may be problematic to implement (I am not completely sure what yet, though)
  • Compatibility with PUC-Rio Lua bytecode
  • os.setlocale
  • package.loadlib and all functionality which allows loading C libraries.
  • Being able to predictably catch __gc errors in Lua (I am not sure about this one yet, this may be difficult or it may not).


The project is still in an early state and there is lots left to do! If you are interested in contributing, please take a look at for ideas.

Much of the work left to do is design work rather than simply implementing features, and this is probably the place where help would be most appreciated. Almost none of the internal APIs are what I would consider final, and for some of the very tricky pieces like gc-sequence and callbacks, there is a LOT of room for improvement in the API design (to put it mildly!). If you think you have a way to make using luster more ergonomic, or simply want to complain about ways that it is not ergonomic (there are many), please feel free to file an issue and we can discuss it!


luster is licensed under either of:

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