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Summary

Divide global declarations into two categories:

  • constants declare constant values. These represent a value, not a memory address. This is the most common thing one would reach for and would replace static as we know it today in almost all cases.
  • statics declare global variables. These represent a memory address. They would be rarely used: the primary use cases are global locks, global atomic counters, and interfacing with legacy C libraries.

Motivation

We have been wrestling with the best way to represent globals for some times. There are a number of interrelated issues:

  • Significant addresses and inlining: For optimization purposes, it is useful to be able to inline constant values directly into the program. It is even more useful if those constant values do not have known addresses, because that means the compiler is free to replicate them as it wishes. Moreover, if a constant is inlined into downstream crates, then they must be recompiled whenever that constant changes.
  • Read-only memory: Whenever possible, we'd like to place large constants into read-only memory. But this means that the data must be truly immutable, or else a segfault will result.
  • Global atomic counters and the like: We'd like to make it possible for people to create global locks or atomic counters that can be used without resorting to unsafe code.
  • Interfacing with C code: Some C libraries require the use of global, mutable data. Other times it's just convenient and threading is not a concern.
  • Initializer constants: There must be a way to have initializer constants for things like locks and atomic counters, so that people can write static MY_COUNTER: AtomicUint = INIT_ZERO or some such. It should not be possible to modify these initializer constants.

The current design is that we have only one keyword, static, which declares a global variable. By default, global variables do not have significant addresses and can be inlined into the program. You can make a global variable have a significant address by marking it #[inline(never)]. Furthermore, you can declare a mutable global using static mut: all accesses to static mut variables are considered unsafe. Because we wish to allow static values to be placed in read-only memory, they are forbidden from having a type that includes interior mutable data (that is, an appearance of UnsafeCell type).

Some concrete problems with this design are:

  • There is no way to have a safe global counter or lock. Those must be placed in static mut variables, which means that access to them is illegal. To resolve this, there is an alternative proposal, according to which, access to static mut is considered safe if the type of the static mut meets the Sync trait.
  • The significance (no pun intended) of the #[inline(never)] annotation is not intuitive.
  • There is no way to have a generic type constant.

Other less practical and more aesthetic concerns are:

  • Although static and let look and feel analogous, the two behave quite differently. Generally speaking, static declarations do not declare variables but rather values, which can be inlined and which do not have fixed addresses. You cannot have interior mutability in a static variable, but you can in a let. So that static variables can appear in patterns, it is illegal to shadow a static variable -- but let variables cannot appear in patterns. Etc.
  • There are other constructs in the language, such as nullary enum variants and nullary structs, which look like global data but in fact act quite differently. They are actual values which do not have addresses. They are categorized as rvalues and so forth.

Detailed design

Constants

Reintroduce a const declaration which declares a constant:

const name: type = value;

Constants may be declared in any scope. They cannot be shadowed. Constants are considered rvalues. Therefore, taking the address of a constant actually creates a spot on the local stack -- they by definition have no significant addresses. Constants are intended to behave exactly like nullary enum variants.

Possible extension: Generic constants

As a possible extension, it is perfectly reasonable for constants to have generic parameters. For example, the following constant is legal:

struct WrappedOption<T> { value: Option<T> }
const NONE<T> = WrappedOption { value: None }

Note that this makes no sense for a static variable, which represents a memory location and hence must have a concrete type.

Possible extension: constant functions

It is possible to imagine constant functions as well. This could help to address the problem of encapsulating initialization. To avoid the need to specify what kinds of code can execute in a constant function, we can limit them syntactically to a single constant expression that can be expanded at compilation time (no recursion).

struct LockedData<T:Send> { lock: Lock, value: T }

const LOCKED<T:Send>(t: T) -> LockedData<T> {
    LockedData { lock: INIT_LOCK, value: t }
}

This would allow us to make the value field on UnsafeCell private, among other things.

Static variables

Repurpose the static declaration to declare static variables only. Static variables always have single addresses. static variables can optionally be declared as mut. The lifetime of a static variable is 'static. It is not legal to move from a static. Accesses to a static variable generate actual reads and writes: the value is not inlined (but see "Unresolved Questions" below).

Non-mut statics must have a type that meets the Sync bound. All access to the static is considered safe (that is, reading the variable and taking its address). If the type of the static does not contain an UnsafeCell in its interior, the compiler may place it in read-only memory, but otherwise it must be placed in mutable memory.

mut statics may have any type. All access is considered unsafe. They may not be placed in read-only memory.

Globals referencing Globals

const => const

It is possible to create a const or a static which references another const or another static by its address. For example:

struct SomeStruct { x: uint }
const FOO: SomeStruct = SomeStruct { x: 1 };
const BAR: &'static SomeStruct = &FOO;

Constants are generally inlined into the stack frame from which they are referenced, but in a static context there is no stack frame. Instead, the compiler will reinterpret this as if it were written as:

struct SomeStruct { x: uint }
const FOO: SomeStruct = SomeStruct { x: 1 };
const BAR: &'static SomeStruct = {
    static TMP: SomeStruct = FOO;
    &TMP
};

Here a static is introduced to be able to give the const a pointer which does indeed have the 'static lifetime. Due to this rewriting, the compiler will disallow SomeStruct from containing an UnsafeCell (interior mutability). In general, a constant A cannot reference the address of another constant B if B contains an UnsafeCell in its interior.

const => static

It is illegal for a constant to refer to another static. A constant represents a constant value while a static represents a memory location, and this sort of reference is difficult to reconcile in light of their definitions.

static => const

If a static references the address of a const, then a similar rewriting happens, but there is no interior mutability restriction (only a Sync restriction).

static => static

It is illegal for a static to reference another static by value. It is required that all references be borrowed. Additionally, not all kinds of borrows are allowed, only explicitly taking the address of another static is allowed. For example, interior borrows of fields and elements or accessing elements of an array are both disallowed.

If a by-value reference were allowed, then this sort of reference would require that the static being referenced fall into one of two categories:

  1. It's an initializer pattern. This is the purpose of const, however.
  2. The values are kept in sync. This is currently technically infeasible.

Instead of falling into one of these two categories, the compiler will instead disallow any references to statics by value (from other statics).

Patterns

Today, a static is allowed to be used in pattern matching. With the introduction of const, however, a static will be forbidden from appearing in a pattern match, and instead only a const can appear.

Drawbacks

This RFC introduces two keywords for global data. Global data is kind of an edge feature so this feels like overkill. (On the other hand, the only keyword that most Rust programmers should need to know is const -- I imagine static variables will be used quite rarely.)

Alternatives

The other design under consideration is to keep the current split but make access to static mut be considered safe if the type of the static mut is Sync. For the details of this discussion, please see RFC 177.

One serious concern is with regard to timing. Adding more things to the Rust 1.0 schedule is inadvisable. Therefore, it would be possible to take a hybrid approach: keep the current static rules, or perhaps the variation where access to static mut is safe, for the time being, and create const declarations after Rust 1.0 is released.

Unresolved questions

  • Should the compiler be allowed to inline the values of static variables which are deeply immutable (and thus force recompilation)?

  • Should we permit static variables whose type is not Sync, but simply make access to them unsafe?

  • Should we permit static variables whose type is not Sync, but whose initializer value does not actually contain interior mutability? For example, a static of Option<UnsafeCell<uint>> with the initializer of None is in theory safe.

  • How hard are the envisioned extensions to implement? If easy, they would be nice to have. If hard, they can wait.