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Summary

This RFC describes changes to the Rust release process, primarily the division of Rust's time-based releases into 'release channels', following the 'release train' model used by e.g. Firefox and Chrome; as well as 'feature staging', which enables the continued development of unstable language features and libraries APIs while providing strong stability guarantees in stable releases.

It also redesigns and simplifies stability attributes to better integrate with release channels and the other stability-moderating system in the language, 'feature gates'. While this version of stability attributes is only suitable for use by the standard distribution, we leave open the possibility of adding a redesigned system for the greater cargo ecosystem to annotate feature stability.

Finally, it discusses how Cargo may leverage feature gates to determine compatibility of Rust crates with specific revisions of the Rust language.

Motivation

We soon intend to provide stable releases of Rust that offer backwards compatibility with previous stable releases. Still, we expect to continue developing new features at a rapid pace for some time to come. We need to be able to provide these features to users for testing as they are developed while also proving strong stability guarantees to users.

Detailed design

The Rust release process moves to a 'release train' model, in which there are three 'release channels' through which the official Rust binaries are published: 'nightly', 'beta', and 'stable', and these release channels correspond to development branches.

'Nightly` is exactly as today, and where most development occurs; a separate 'beta' branch provides time for vetting a release and fixing bugs - particularly in backwards compatibility - before it gets wide use. Each release cycle beta gets promoted to stable (the release), and nightly gets promoted to beta.

The benefits of this model are a few:

  • It provides a window for testing the next release before committing to it. Currently we release straight from the (very active) master branch, with almost no testing.

  • It provides a window in which library developers can test their code against the next release, and - importantly - report unintended breakage of stable features.

  • It provides a testing ground for unstable features in the nightly release channel, while allowing the primary releases to contain only features which are complete and backwards-compatible ('feature-staging').

This proposal describes the practical impact to users of the release train, particularly with regard to feature staging. A more detailed description of the impact on the development process is [available elsewhere][3].

Versioning and releases

The nature of development and releases differs between channels, as each serves a specific purpose: nightly is for active development, beta is for testing and bugfixing, and stable is for final releases.

Each pending version of Rust progresses in sequence through the 'nightly' and 'beta' channels before being promoted to the 'stable' channel, at which time the final commit is tagged and that version is considered 'released'.

Development cycles are reduced to six weeks from the current twelve.

Under normal circumstances, the version is only bumped on the nightly branch, once per development cycle, with the release channel controlling the label (-nightly, -beta) appended to the version number. Other circumstances, such as security incidents, may require point releases on the stable channel, the policy around which is yet undetermined.

Builds of the 'nightly' channel are published every night based on the content of the master branch. Each published build during a single development cycle carries the same version number, e.g. '1.0.0-nightly', though for debugging purposes rustc builds can be uniquely identified by reporting the commit number from which they were built. As today, published nightly artifacts are simply referred to as 'rust-nightly' (not named after their version number). Artifacts produced from the nightly release channel should be considered transient, though we will maintain historical archives for convenience of projects that occasionally need to pin to specific revisions.

Builds of the 'beta' channel are published periodically as fixes are merged, and like the 'nightly' channel each published build during a single development cycle retains the same version number, but can be uniquely identified by the commit number. Beta artifacts are likewise simply named 'rust-beta'.

We will ensure that it is convenient to perform continuous integration of Cargo packages against the beta channel on Travis CI. This will help detect any accidental breakage early, while not interfering with their build status.

Stable builds are versioned and named the same as today's releases, both with just a bare version number, e.g. '1.0.0'. They are published at the beginning of each development cycle and once published are never refreshed or overwritten. Provisions for stable point releases will be made at a future time.

Exceptions for the 1.0.0 beta period

Under the release train model version numbers are incremented automatically each release cycle on a predetermined schedule. Six weeks after 1.0.0 is released 1.1.0 will be released, and six weeks after that 1.2.0, etc.

The release cycles approaching 1.0.0 will break with this pattern to give us leeway to extend 1.0.0 betas for multiple cycles until we are confident the intended stability guarantees are in place.

In detail, when the development cycle begins in which we are ready to publish the 1.0.0 beta, we will not publish anything on the stable channel, and the release on the beta channel will be called 1.0.0-beta1. If 1.0.0 betas extend for multiple cycles, the will be called 1.0.0-beta2, -beta3, etc, before being promoted to the stable channel as 1.0.0 and beginning the release train process in full.

During the beta cycles, as with the normal release cycles, primary development will be on the nightly branch, with only bugfixes on the beta branch.

Feature staging

In builds of Rust distributed through the 'beta' and 'stable' release channels, it is impossible to turn on unstable features by writing the #[feature(...)] attribute. This is accomplished primarily through a new lint called unstable_features. This lint is set to allow by default in nightlies and forbid in beta and stable releases (and by the forbid setting cannot be disabled).

The unstable_features lint simply looks for all 'feature' attributes and emits the message 'unstable feature'.

The decision to set the feature staging lint is driven by a new field of the compilation Session, disable_staged_features. When set to true the lint pass will configure the feature staging lint to 'forbid', with a LintSource of ReleaseChannel. When a ReleaseChannel lint is triggered, in addition to the lint's error message, it is accompanied by the note 'this feature may not be used in the {channel} release channel', where {channel} is the name of the release channel.

In feature-staged builds of Rust, rustdoc sets disable_staged_features to false. Without doing so, it would not be possible for rustdoc to successfully run against e.g. the accompanying std crate, as rustdoc runs the lint pass. Additionally, in feature-staged builds, rustdoc does not generate documentation for unstable APIs for crates (read below for the impact of feature staging on unstable APIs).

With staged features disabled, the Rust build itself is not possible, and some portion of the test suite will fail. To build the compiler itself and keep the test suite working the build system activates a hack via environment variables to disable the feature staging lint, a mechanism that is not be available under typical use. The build system additionally includes a way to run the test suite with the feature staging lint enabled, providing a means of tracking what portion of the test suite can be run without invoking unstable features.

The prelude causes complications with this scheme because prelude injection presently uses two feature gates: globs, to import the prelude, and phase, to import the standard macro_rules! macros. In the short term this will be worked-around with hacks in the compiler. It's likely that these hacks can be removed before 1.0 if globs and macro_rules! imports become stable.

Merging stability attributes and feature gates

In addition to the feature gates that, in conjuction with the aforementioned unstable_features lint, manage the stable evolution of language features, Rust additionally has another independent system for managing the evolution of library features, 'stability attributes'. This system, inspired by node.js, divides APIs into a number of stability levels: #[experimental], #[unstable], #[stable], #[frozen], #[locked], and #[deprecated], along with unmarked functions (which are in most cases considered unstable).

As a simplifying measure stability attributes are unified with feature gates, and thus tied to release channels and Rust language versions.

  • All existing stability attributes are removed of any semantic meaning by the compiler. Existing code that uses these attributes will continue to compile, but neither rustc nor rustdoc will interpret them in any way.
  • New #[staged_unstable(...)], #[staged_stable(...)], and #[staged_deprecated(...)] attributes are added.
  • All three require a feature parameter, e.g. #[staged_unstable(feature = "chicken_dinner")]. This signals that the item tagged by the attribute is part of the named feature.
  • The staged_stable and staged_deprecated attributes require an additional parameter since, whose value is equal to a version of the language (where currently the language version is equal to the compiler version), e.g. #[stable(feature = "chicken_dinner", since = "1.6")].

All stability attributes continue to support an optional description parameter.

The intent of adding the 'staged_' prefix to the stability attributes is to leave the more desirable attribute names open for future use.

With these modifications, new API surface area becomes a new "language feature" which is controlled via the #[feature] attribute just like other normal language features. The compiler will disallow all usage of #[staged_unstable(feature = "foo")] APIs unless the current crate declares #![feature(foo)]. This enables crates to declare what API features of the standard library they rely on without opting in to all unstable API features.

Examples of APIs tagged with stability attributes:

#[staged_unstable(feature = "a")]
fn foo() { }

#[staged_stable(feature = "b", since = "1.6")]
fn bar() { }

#[staged_stable(feature = "c", since = "1.6")]
#[staged_deprecated(feature = "c", since = "1.7")]
fn baz() { }

Since all feature additions to Rust are associated with a language version, source code can be finely analyzed for language compatibility. Association with distinct feature names leads to a straightforward process for tracking the progression of new features into the language. More detail on these matters below.

Some additional restrictions are enforced by the compiler as a sanity check that they are being used correctly.

  • The staged_deprecated attribute must be paired with a staged_stable attribute, enforcing that the progression of all features is from 'staged_unstable' to 'staged_stable' to 'staged_deprecated' and that the version in which the feature was promoted to stable is recorded and maintained as well as the version in which a feature was deprecated.
  • Within a crate, the compiler enforces that for all APIs with the same feature name where any are marked staged_stable, all are either staged_stable or staged_deprecated. In other words, no single feature may be partially promoted from unstable to stable, but features may be partially deprecated. This ensures that no APIs are accidentally excluded from stabilization and that entire features may be considered either 'unstable' or 'stable'.

It's important to note that these stability attributes are only known to be useful to the standard distribution, because of the explicit linkage to language versions and release channels. There is though no mechanism to explicitly forbid their use outside of the standard distribution. A general mechanism for indicating API stability will be reconsidered in the future.

API lifecycle

These attributes alter the process of how new APIs are added to the standard library slightly. First an API will be proposed via the RFC process, and a name for the API feature being added will be assigned at that time. When the RFC is accepted, the API will be added to the standard library with an #[staged_unstable(feature = "...")]attribute indicating what feature the API was assigned to.

After receiving test coverage from nightly users (who have opted into the feature) or thorough review, all APIs with a given feature will be changed from staged_unstable to staged_stable, adding since = "..." to mark the version in which the promotion occurred, and the feature is considered stable and may be used on the stable release channel.

When a stable API becomes deprecated the staged_deprecated attribute is added in addition to the existing staged_stable attribute, as well recording the version in which the deprecation was performed with the since parameter.

(Occassionally unstable APIs may be deprecated for the sake of easing user transitions, in which case they receive both the staged_stable and staged_deprecated attributes at once.)

Checking #[feature]

The names of features will no longer be a hardcoded list in the compiler due to the free-form nature of the #[staged_unstable] feature names. Instead, the compiler will perform the following steps when inspecting #[feature] attributes lists:

  1. The compiler will discover all #![feature] directives enabled for the crate and calculate a list of all enabled features.
  2. While compiling, all unstable language features used will be removed from this list. If a used feature is not enabled, then an error is generated.
  3. A new pass, the stability pass, will be extracted from the current stability lint pass to detect usage of all unstable APIs. If an unstable API is used, an error is generated if the feature is not used, and otherwise the feature is removed from the list.
  4. If the remaining list of enabled features is not empty, then the features were not used when compiling the current crate. The compiler will generate an error in this case unconditionally.

These steps ensure that the #[feature] attribute is used exhaustively and will check unstable language and library features.

Features, Cargo and version detection

Over time, it has become clear that with an ever-growing number of Rust releases that crates will want to be able to manage what versions of rust they indicate they can be compiled with. Some specific use cases are:

  • Although upgrades are highly encouraged, not all users upgrade immediately. Cargo should be able to help out with the process of downloading a new dependency and indicating that a newer version of the Rust compiler is required.
  • Not all users will be able to continuously upgrade. Some enterprises, for example, may upgrade rarely for technical reasons. In doing so, however, a large portion of the crates.io ecosystem becomes unusable once accepted features begin to propagate.
  • Developers may wish to prepare new releases of libraries during the beta channel cycle in order to have libraries ready for the next stable release. In this window, however, published versions will not be compatible with the current stable compiler (they use new features).

To solve this problem, Cargo and crates.io will grow the knowledge of the minimum required Rust language version required to compile a crate. Currently the Rust language version coincides with the version of the rustc compiler.

In the absense of user-supplied information about minimum language version requirements, Cargo will attempt to use feature information to determine version compatibility: by knowing in which version each feature of the language and each feature of the library was stabilized, and by detecting every feature used by a crate, rustc can determine the minimum version required; and rustc may assume that the crate will be compatible with future stable releases. There are two caveats: first, conditional compilation makes it not possible in some cases to detect all features in use, which may result in Cargo detecting a minumum version less than that required on all platforms. For this and other reasons Cargo will allow the minimum version to be specified manually. Second, rustc can not make any assumptions about compatibility across major revisions of the language.

To calculate this information, Cargo will compile crates just before publishing. In this process, the Rust compiler will record all used language features as well as all used #[staged_stable] APIs. Each compiler will contain archival knowledge of what stable version of the compiler language features were added to, and each #[staged_stable] API has the since metadata to tell which version of the compiler it was released in. The compiler will calculate the maximum of all these versions (language plus library features) to pass to Cargo. If any #[feature] directive is detected, however, the required Rust language version is "nightly".

Cargo will then pass this required language version to crates.io which will both store it in the index as well as present it as part of the UI. Each crate will have a "badge" indicating what version of the Rust compiler is needed to compile it. The "badge" may indicate that the nightly or beta channels must be used if the version required has not yet been released (this happens when a crate is published on a non-stable channel). If the required language version is "nightly", then the crate will permanently indicate that it requires the "nightly" version of the language.

When resolving dependencies, Cargo will discard all incompatible candidates based on the version of the available compiler. This will enable authors to publish crates which rely on the current beta channel while not interfering with users taking advantage of the stable channel.

Drawbacks

Adding multiple release channels and reducing the release cycle from 12 to 6 weeks both increase the amount of release engineering work required.

The major risk in feature staging is that, at the 1.0 release not enough of the language is available to foster a meaningful library ecosystem around the stable release. While we might expect many users to continue using nightly releases with or without this change, if the stable 1.0 release cannot be used in any practical sense it will be problematic from a PR perspective. Implementing this RFC will require careful attention to the libraries it affects.

Recognizing this risk, we must put in place processes to monitor the compatibility of known Cargo crates with the stable release channel, using evidence drawn from those crates to prioritize the stabilization of features and libraries. This work has already begun, with popular feature gates being ungated, and library stabilization work being prioritized based on the needs of Cargo crates.

Syntax extensions, lints, and any program using the compiler APIs will not be compatible with the stable release channel at 1.0 since it is not possible to stabilize #[plugin_registrar] in time. Plugins are very popular. This pain will partially be alleviated by a proposed Cargo feature that enables Rust code generation. macro_rules! is expected to be stable by 1.0 though.

With respect to stability attributes and Cargo, the proposed design is very specific to the standard library and the Rust compiler without being intended for use by third-party libraries. It is planned to extend Cargo's own support for features (distinct from Rust features) to enable this form of feature development in a first-class method through Cargo. At this time, however, there are no concrete plans for this design and it is unlikely to happen soon.

The attribute syntax for declaring feature names is different for declaring feature names (a string) and for turning them on (an ident). This is done as a judgement call that in each context the given syntax looks best, and accepting that since this is a feature that is not intended for general use the discrepancy is not a major problem.

Having Cargo do version detection through feature analysis is known not to be foolproof, and may present further unknown obstacles.

Alternatives

Leave feature gates and unstable APIs exposed to the stable channel, as precedented by Haskell, web vendor prefixes, and node.js.

Make the beta channel a compromise between the nightly and stable channels, allowing some set of unstable features and APIs. This would allow more projects to use a 'more stable' release, but would make beta no longer representative of the pending stable release.

Unresolved questions

The exact method for working around the prelude's use of feature gates is undetermined. Fixing #18102 will complicate the situation as the prelude relies on a bug in lint checking to work at all.

Rustdoc disables the feature-staging lints so they don't cause it to fail, but I don't know why rustdoc needs to be running lints. It may be possible to just stop running lints in rustdoc.

If stability attributes are only for std, that takes away the #[deprecated] attribute from Cargo libs, which is more clearly applicable.

What mechanism ensures that all API's have stability coverage? Probably the will just default to unstable with some 'default' feature name.

See Also

[2]: https://github.com/rust-lang/meeting-minutes/blob/master/workweek-2014-08-18/versioning.md) [3]: http://discuss.rust-lang.org/t/rfc-impending-changes-to-the-release-process/508