Find file
dc2ce74 Sep 23, 2016
@nrc @earthrid @bradleygibson
269 lines (206 sloc) 11.2 KB

Arrays and Vectors

Rust arrays are pretty different from C arrays. For starters they come in statically and dynamically sized flavours. These are more commonly known as fixed length arrays and slices. As we'll see, the former is kind of a bad name since both kinds of array have fixed (as opposed to growable) length. For a growable 'array', Rust provides the Vec collection.

Fixed length arrays

The length of a fixed length array is known statically and features in its type. E.g., [i32; 4] is the type of an array of i32s with length four.

Array literal and array access syntax is the same as C:

let a: [i32; 4] = [1, 2, 3, 4];     // As usual, the type annotation is optional.
println!("The second element is {}", a[1]);

You'll notice that array indexing is zero-based, just like C.

However, unlike C/C++, array indexing is bounds checked. In fact all access to arrays is bounds checked, which is another way Rust is a safer language.

If you try to do a[4], then you will get a runtime panic. Unfortunately, the Rust compiler is not clever enough to give you a compile time error, even when it is obvious (as in this example).

If you like to live dangerously, or just need to get every last ounce of performance out of your program, you can still get unchecked access to arrays. To do this, use the get_unchecked method on an array. Unchecked array accesses must be inside an unsafe block. You should only need to do this in the rarest circumstances.

Just like other data structures in Rust, arrays are immutable by default and mutability is inherited. Mutation is also done via the indexing syntax:

let mut a = [1, 2, 3, 4];
a[3] = 5;
println!("{:?}", a);

And just like other data, you can borrow an array by taking a reference to it:

fn foo(a: &[i32; 4]) {
    println!("First: {}; last: {}", a[0], a[3]);

fn main() {
    foo(&[1, 2, 3, 4]);

Notice that indexing still works on a borrowed array.

This is a good time to talk about the most interesting aspect of Rust arrays for C++ programmers - their representation. Rust arrays are value types: they are allocated on the stack like other values and an array object is a sequence of values, not a pointer to those values (as in C). So from our examples above, let a = [1_i32, 2, 3, 4]; will allocate 16 bytes on the stack and executing let b = a; will copy 16 bytes. If you want a C-like array, you have to explicitly make a pointer to the array, this will give you a pointer to the first element.

A final point of difference between arrays in Rust and C++ is that Rust arrays can implement traits, and thus have methods. To find the length of an array, for example, you use a.len().


A slice in Rust is just an array whose length is not known at compile time. The syntax of the type is just like a fixed length array, except there is no length: e.g., [i32] is a slice of 32 bit integers (with no statically known length).

There is a catch with slices: since the compiler must know the size of all objects in Rust, and it can't know the size of a slice, then we can never have a value with slice type. If you try and write fn foo(x: [i32]), for example, the compiler will give you an error.

So, you must always have pointers to slices (there are some very technical exceptions to this rule so that you can implement your own smart pointers, but you can safely ignore them for now). You must write fn foo(x: &[i32]) (a borrowed reference to a slice) or fn foo(x: *mut [i32]) (a mutable raw pointer to a slice), etc.

The simplest way to create a slice is by coercion. There are far fewer implicit coercions in Rust than there are in C++. One of them is the coercion from fixed length arrays to slices. Since slices must be pointer values, this is effectively a coercion between pointers. For example, we can coerce &[i32; 4] to &[i32], e.g.,

let a: &[i32] = &[1, 2, 3, 4];

Here the right hand side is a fixed length array of length four, allocated on the stack. We then take a reference to it (type &[i32; 4]). That reference is coerced to type &[i32] and given the name a by the let statement.

Again, access is just like C (using [...]), and access is bounds checked. You can also check the length yourself by using len(). So clearly the length of the array is known somewhere. In fact all arrays of any kind in Rust have known length, since this is essential for bounds checking, which is an integral part of memory safety. The size is known dynamically (as opposed to statically in the case of fixed length arrays), and we say that slice types are dynamically sized types (DSTs, there are other kinds of dynamically sized types too, they'll be covered elsewhere).

Since a slice is just a sequence of values, the size cannot be stored as part of the slice. Instead it is stored as part of the pointer (remember that slices must always exist as pointer types). A pointer to a slice (like all pointers to DSTs) is a fat pointer - it is two words wide, rather than one, and contains the pointer to the data plus a payload. In the case of slices, the payload is the length of the slice.

So in the example above, the pointer a will be 128 bits wide (on a 64 bit system). The first 64 bits will store the address of the 1 in the sequence [1, 2, 3, 4], and the second 64 bits will contain 4. Usually, as a Rust programmer, these fat pointers can just be treated as regular pointers. But it is good to know about (it can affect the things you can do with casts, for example).

Slicing notation and ranges

A slice can be thought of as a (borrowed) view of an array. So far we have only seen a slice of the whole array, but we can also take a slice of part of an array. There is a special notation for this which is like the indexing syntax, but takes a range instead of a single integer. E.g., a[0..4], which takes a slice of the first four elements of a. Note that the range is exclusive at the top and inclusive at the bottom. Examples:

let a: [i32; 4] = [1, 2, 3, 4];
let b: &[i32] = &a;   // Slice of the whole array.
let c = &a[0..4];     // Another slice of the whole array, also has type &[i32].
let c = &a[1..3];     // The middle two elements, &[i32].
let c = &a[1..];      // The last three elements.
let c = &a[..3];      // The first three elements.
let c = &a[..];       // The whole array, again.
let c = &b[1..3];     // We can also slice a slice.

Note that in the last example, we still need to borrow the result of slicing. The slicing syntax produces an unborrowed slice (type: [i32]) which we must then borrow (to give a &[i32]), even if we are slicing a borrowed slice.

Range syntax can also be used outside of slicing syntax. a..b produces an iterator which runs from a to b-1. This can be combined with other iterators in the usual way, or can be used in for loops:

// Print all numbers from 1 to 10.
for i in 1..11 {
    println!("{}", i);


A vector is heap allocated and is an owning reference. Therefore (and like Box<_>), it has move semantics. We can think of a fixed length array analogously to a value, a slice to a borrowed reference. Similarly, a vector in Rust is analogous to a Box<_> pointer.

It helps to think of Vec<_> as a kind of smart pointer, just like Box<_>, rather than as a value itself. Similarly to a slice, the length is stored in the 'pointer', in this case the 'pointer' is the Vec value.

A vector of i32s has type Vec<i32>. There are no vector literals, but we can get the same effect by using the vec! macro. We can also create an empty vector using Vec::new():

let v = vec![1, 2, 3, 4];      // A Vec<i32> with length 4.
let v: Vec<i32> = Vec::new();  // An empty vector of i32s.

In the second case above, the type annotation is necessary so the compiler can know what the vector is a vector of. If we were to use the vector, the type annotation would probably not be necessary.

Just like arrays and slices, we can use indexing notation to get a value from the vector (e.g., v[2]). Again, these are bounds checked. We can also use slicing notation to take a slice of a vector (e.g., &v[1..3]).

The extra feature of vectors is that their size can change - they can get longer or shorter as needed. For example, v.push(5) would add the element 5 to the end of the vector (this would require that v is mutable). Note that growing a vector can cause reallocation, which for large vectors can mean a lot of copying. To guard against this you can pre-allocate space in a vector using with_capacity, see the Vec docs for more details.

The Index traits

Note for readers: there is a lot of material in this section that I haven't covered properly yet. If you're following the tutorial, you can skip this section, it is a somewhat advanced topic in any case.

The same indexing syntax used for arrays and vectors is also used for other collections, such as HashMaps. And you can use it yourself for your own collections. You opt-in to using the indexing (and slicing) syntax by implementing the Index trait. This is a good example of how Rust makes available nice syntax to user types, as well as built-ins (Deref for dereferencing smart pointers, as well as Add and various other traits, work in a similar way).

The Index trait looks like

pub trait Index<Idx: ?Sized> {
    type Output: ?Sized;

    fn index(&self, index: Idx) -> &Self::Output;

Idx is the type used for indexing. For most uses of indexing this is usize. For slicing this is one of the std::ops::Range types. Output is the type returned by indexing, this will be different for each collection. For slicing it will be a slice, rather than the type of a single element. index is a method which does the work of getting the element(s) out of the collection. Note that the collection is taken by reference and the method returns a reference to the element with the same lifetime.

Let's look at the implementation for Vec to see how what an implementation looks like:

impl<T> Index<usize> for Vec<T> {
    type Output = T;

    fn index(&self, index: usize) -> &T {

As we said above, indexing is done using usize. For a Vec<T>, indexing will return a single element of type T, thus the value of Output. The implementation of index is a bit weird - (**self) gets a view of the whole vec as a slice, then we use indexing on slices to get the element, and finally take a reference to it.

If you have your own collections, you can implement Index in a similar way to get indexing and slicing syntax for your collection.

Initialiser syntax

As with all data in Rust, arrays and vectors must be properly initialised. Often you just want an array full of zeros to start with and using the array literal syntax is a pain. So Rust gives you a little syntactic sugar to initialise an array full of a given value: [value; len]. So for example to create an array with length 100 full of zeros, we'd use [0; 100].

Similarly for vectors, vec![42; 100] would give you a vector with 100 elements, each with the value 42.

The initial value is not limited to integers, it can be any expression. For array initialisers, the length must be an integer constant expression. For vec!, it can be any expression with type usize.