Object system design and implementation

lkuper edited this page Jan 4, 2013 · 10 revisions

Note: As of January 2012, this version of the Rust object system is no more. The code examples in this article still compile and run under old versions of Rust, such as fdebd1e2ef440312ac791d505af7dd089efa2499.

At the time of this writing (August 2011), Rust has a lightweight, structural object system with support for self-dispatch, object extension, and method overriding.


Here's a very simple example of an object where a method contains a self-call:

    obj cat() {
        fn ack() -> str {
            ret "ack";
        fn meow() -> str {
            ret "meow";
        fn zzz() -> str {
            ret self.meow();

    let shortcat = cat();

    // Tests self-call.
    assert (shortcat.zzz() == "meow");

Here we have an object definition, or object item as it's called in Rust. This definition causes there to be a constructor cat; we're calling that constructor to create an object called shortcat. One of the methods on that object contains a self-call.

If the parser sees the token self, it assumes that whatever follows the dot is a call expression, and it parses the function part of that call expression into a special flavor of AST node (expr_self_method). During typechecking, the crate context keeps a stack obj_infos to track the current object, so when it comes time to typecheck a self-call, we grab self's type out of the current object type. During translation, we again have a context that keeps track of the current object, if there is one, so we can look up the method's identifier on that object in much the same way that we would look up a field of a record.

Limitations of self

Rust's notion of self is currently limited to support for self-calls like self.meow(). The only thing you can put after the dot is an identifier, and self doesn't exist as a standalone, first-class entity; it's nothing more than a prefix to method calls. You can't do things like return self from a method, nor can you write methods that explicitly take arguments of type self.

Object extension

An example of Rust's object extension syntax:

    let longcat = obj() {
        fn lol() -> str {
            ret "lol";
        fn nyan() -> str {
            ret "nyan";
        with shortcat

    // Tests forwarding/backwarding + self-call.
    assert (longcat.zzz() == "meow");

Here we're extending shortcat (see with shortcat clause) with two new methods to create an object called longcat. The expression being assigned to longcat is what Rust calls an anonymous object expression. It's not a definition as for shortcat, rather, it's an expression that can appear in any expression context and evaluates to an object. No constructor is called; instead, the object is created "inline".

longcat is a bona fide object with five entries in its vtable, appearing in alphabetical order: ack, lol, meow, nyan, zzz. Rather than "copying forward" stuff from the object being extended, Rust puts a wrapper around it: lol and nyan are "normal" vtable entries, and the others are "forwarding functions" that, roughly speaking, forward us along to the appropriate vtable entries from shortcat.


When we call longcat.zzz(), we're forwarded along to shortcat's vtable entry for zzz, which contains the compiled code for ret self.meow(). However, shortcat's vtable (which contains three entries, ack, meow, and zzz, in that order) was created under the assumption that self is shortcat. The call to self.meow() therefore compiles to the equivalent of "do whatever the (zero-indexed) slot 1 in my vtable says to do". At this point, self is supposed to be longcat, but if we simply use longcat for self, since the zero-indexed slot 1 of longcat will be the wrong method -- lol instead of meow.

We need whatever we use for self inside shortcat to have the same type as shortcat does. By "same type", we mean that its vtable must have the same number of methods, with the same names, in the same order, and having the same types as the original. We accomplish this by adding another level of indirection. When we create the forwarding functions, we replace self with a vtable that contains three "backwarding" functions, one for each of the original three methods ack, meow, and zzz, which points to the corresponding entries in longcat's vtable. From there, of course, they'll forward right back to shortcat's vtable -- unless they're being overridden.


Rust allows methods in an extended object to override methods on the original:

    let longercat = obj() {
        fn meow() -> str {
            ret "zzz";
        with shortcat

    // Tests forwarding/backwarding + self-call + override.
    assert (longercat.zzz() == "zzz");

Here, the call longercat.zzz() will forward us to the zzz method on shortcat. The call self.meow() will use the backwarding vtable provided for shortcat, which will point us to longercat.meow(), which returns "zzz", as we expect. So we get the overriding behavior "for free" with the backwarding/forwarding architecture that makes object extension possible.

Multi-level extension

Objects can be extended to arbitrary depth. At this point, we could write:

    let evenlongercat = obj() {
        fn meow() -> str {
            ret "zzzzzz";
        with longercat

    // Tests two-level forwarding/backwarding + self-call + override.
    assert (evenlongercat.zzz() == "zzzzzz");

This behavior is implemented using, once again, a stack that keeps track of what vtable should be used for self. This stack is pushed and popped each time a forwarding or backwarding call is made, respectively, and is threaded through the run-time stack using space allocated in the forwarding and backwarding functions' frames.


The notion of self-type, or "the type of the current object", is a type-theoretic approach to reasoning about the semantics of self-dispatch (and expressions involving "self" in general). Object extension and method overriding are the situations that make self-types most useful and interesting, since, as illustrated above, those are the situations that change the meaning of "self" at run-time. Although the Rust object system doesn't use self-types explicitly, it's possible that what Rust has would fit into a theory of objects that uses self-types.

Some relevant literature

Bono et al. [1] write: "an appropriate type for self would allow to specialize automatically those inherited/overridden methods that either return the host object, or have some parameters of the same type as the host object (binary methods)" -- that is, return self and take arguments of type self Fisher et al. [2] is another example of a system with self-types, and like Bono et al., deals with nesting.

Abadi and Cardelli's "Theory of Objects" tutorial from OOPSLA '96 [3] suggests that the simplest object calculus with self types is ςOb ("sigma-ob"), (Slide 42 (p. 11 of the PDF). Of the features they consider, sigma-ob has only objects, object types, subtyping, and self types. The sigma-ob paper [4] explains why using ordinary recursive types to try to implement self doesn't work in the presence of method override. They offer two fixes for this problem. The fix laid out in [4] uses a "Self quantifier"; the other fix is "the standard solution", which is apparently what Modula-3 did, and is laid out in [5]; its disadvantage is that it "sacrifices static typing information which must be recovered dynamically, thus abandoning the static typing of subsumption".

[1] Type Inference for Nested Self Types. Viviana Bono, Jerzy Tiuryn, and Pawel Urzyczyn. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

[2] A Lambda Calculus of Objects and Method Specialization. Kathleen Fisher, Furio Honsell, and John C. Mitchell. http://citeseer.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=

[3] A Theory of Objects (OOPSLA Tutorial). Martin Abadi and Luca Cardelli. http://lucacardelli.name/Talks/1996-10%20A%20Theory%20of%20Objects%20(OOPSLA%20Tutorial).pdf

[4] A Theory of Primitive Objects: Second-Order Systems. Martin Abadi and Luca Cardelli. http://lucacardelli.name/Papers/PrimObj2ndOrder.A4.pdf

[5] A theory of primitive objects: Untyped and first-order systems. Martín Abadi and Luca Cardelli. http://lucacardelli.name/Papers/PrimObj1stOrder.A4.pdf