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9fc802b Oct 5, 2018
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Summary

Add async & await syntaxes to make it more ergonomic to write code manipulating futures.

This has a companion RFC to add a small futures API to libstd and libcore.

Motivation

High performance network services frequently use asynchronous IO, rather than blocking IO, because it can be easier to get optimal performance when handling many concurrent connections. Rust has seen some adoption in the network services space, and we wish to continue to enable those users - and to enable adoption by other users - by making it more ergonomic to write asynchronous network services in Rust.

The development of asynchronous IO in Rust has gone through multiple phases. Prior to 1.0, we experimented with having a green-threading runtime built into the language. However, this proved too opinionated - because it impacted every program written in Rust - and it was removed shortly before 1.0. After 1.0, asynchronous IO initially focused around the mio library, which provided a cross-platform abstraction over the async IO primitives of Linux, Mac OS, and Windows. In mid-2016, the introduction of the futures crate had a major impact by providing a convenient, shared abstraction for asynchronous operations. The tokio library provided a mio-based event loop that could execute code implemented using the futures interfaces.

After gaining experience & user feedback with the futures-based ecosystem, we discovered certain ergonomics challenges. Using state which needs to be shared across await points was extremely unergonomic - requiring either Arcs or join chaining - and while combinators were often more ergonomic than manually writing a future, they still often led to messy sets of nested and chained callbacks.

Fortunately, the Future abstraction is well suited to use with a syntactic sugar which has become common in many languages with async IO - the async and await keywords. In brief, an asynchronous function returns a future, rather than evaluating immediately when it is called. Inside the function, other futures can be awaited using an await expression, which causes them to yield control while the future is being polled. From a user's perspective, they can use async/await as if it were synchronous code, and only need to annotate their functions and calls.

Async/await & futures can be a powerful abstraction for asynchronicity and concurrency in general, and likely has applications outside of the asynchronous IO space. The use cases we've experience with today are generally tied to async IO, but by introducing first class syntax and libstd support we believe more use cases for async & await will also flourish, that are not tied directly to asynchronous IO.

Guide-level explanation

Async functions

Functions can be annotated with the async keyword, making them "async functions":

async fn function(argument: &str) -> usize {
     // ...
}

Async functions work differently from normal functions. When an async function is called, it does not enter the body immediately. Instead, it evaluates to an anonymous type which implements Future. As that future is polled, the function is evaluated up to the next await or return point inside of it (see the await syntax section next).

An async function is a kind of delayed computation - nothing in the body of the function actually runs until you begin polling the future returned by the function. For example:

async fn print_async() {
     println!("Hello from print_async")
}

fn main() {
     let future = print_async();
     println!("Hello from main");
     futures::block_on(future);
}

This will print "Hello from main" before printing "Hello from print_async".

An async fn foo(args..) -> T is a function of the type fn(args..) -> impl Future<Output = T>. The return type is an anonymous type generated by the compiler.

async || closures

In addition to functions, async can also be applied to closures. Like an async function, an async closure has a return type of impl Future<Output = T>, rather than T. When you call that closure, it returns a future immediately without evaluating any of the body (just like an async function).

fn main() {
    let closure = async || {
         println("Hello from async closure.");
    };
    println!("Hello from main");
    let future = closure();
    println!("Hello from main again");
    futures::block_on(future);
}

This will print both "Hello from main" statements before printing "Hello from async closure."

async closures can be annotated with move to capture ownership of the variables they close over.

async blocks

You can create a future directly as an expression using an async block:

let my_future = async {
    println!("Hello from an async block");
};

This form is almost equivalent to an immediately-invoked async closure. That is:

async { /* body */ }

// is equivalent to

(async || { /* body */ })()

except that control-flow constructs like return, break and continue are not allowed within body (unless they appear within a fresh control-flow context like a closure or a loop). How the ?-operator and early returns should work inside async blocks has not yet been established (see unresolved questions).

As with async closures, async blocks can be annotated with move to capture ownership of the variables they close over.

The await! compiler built-in

A builtin called await! is added to the compiler. await! can be used to "pause" the computation of the future, yielding control back to the caller. await! takes any expression which implements IntoFuture, and evaluates to a value of the item type that that future has.

// future: impl Future<Output = usize>
let n = await!(future);

The expansion of await repeatedly calls poll on the future it receives, yielding control of the function when it returns Poll::Pending and eventually evaluating to the item value when it returns Poll::Ready.

await! can only be used inside of an async function, closure, or block. Using it outside of that context is an error.

(await! is a compiler built-in to leave space for deciding its exact syntax later. See more information in the unresolved questions section.)

Reference-level explanation

Keywords

Both async and await become keywords, gated on the 2018 edition.

Return type of async functions, closures, and blocks

The return type of an async function is a unique anonymous type generated by the compiler, similar to the type of a closure. You can think of this type as being like an enum, with one variant for every "yield point" of the function - the beginning of it, the await expressions, and every return. Each variant stores the state that is needed to be stored to resume control from that yield point.

When the function is called, this anonymous type is returned in its initial state, which contains all of the arguments to this function.

Trait bounds

The anonymous return type implements Future, with the return type as its Item. Polling it advances the state of the function, returning Pending when it hits an await point, and Ready with the item when it hits a return point. Any attempt to poll it after it has already returned Ready once will panic.

The anonymous return type has a negative impl for the Unpin trait - that is impl !Unpin. This is because the future could have internal references which means it needs to never be moved.

Lifetime capture in the anonymous future

All of the input lifetimes to this function are captured in the future returned by the async function, because it stores all of the arguments to the function in its initial state (and possibly later states). That is, given a function like this:

async fn foo(arg: &str) -> usize { ... }

It has an equivalent type signature to this:

fn foo<'a>(arg: &'a str) -> impl Future<Output = usize> + 'a { ... }

This is different from the default for impl Trait, which does not capture the lifetime. This is a big part of why the return type is T instead of impl Future<Output = T>.

"Initialization" pattern

One pattern that sometimes occurs is that a future has an "initialization" step which should be performed during its construction. This is useful when dealing with data conversion and temporary borrows. Because the async function does not begin evaluating until you poll it, and it captures the lifetimes of its arguments, this pattern cannot be expressed directly with an async fn.

One option is to write a function that returns impl Future using a closure which is evaluated immediately:

// only arg1's lifetime is captured in the returned future
fn foo<'a>(arg1: &'a str, arg2: &str) -> impl Future<Output = usize> + 'a {
    // do some initialization using arg2

    // closure which is evaluated immediately
    async move {
         // asynchronous portion of the function
    }
}

The expansion of await

The await! builtin expands roughly to this:

let mut future = IntoFuture::into_future($expression);
let mut pin = unsafe { Pin::new_unchecked(&mut future) };
loop {
    match Future::poll(Pin::borrow(&mut pin), &mut ctx) {
          Poll::Ready(item) => break item,
          Poll::Pending     => yield,
    }
}

This is not a literal expansion, because the yield concept cannot be expressed in the surface syntax within async functions. This is why await! is a compiler builtin instead of an actual macro.

The order of async and move

Async closures and blocks can be annotated with move to capture ownership of the variables they close over. The order of the keywords is fixed to async move. Permitting only one ordering avoids confusion about whether it is significant for the meaning.

async move {
    // body
}

Drawbacks

Adding async & await syntax to Rust is a major change to the language - easily one of the most significant additions since 1.0. Though we have started with the smallest beachhead of features, in the long term the set of features it implies will grow as well (see the unresolved questions section). Such a significant addition mustn't be taken lightly, and only with strong motivation.

We believe that an ergonomic asynchronous IO solution is essential to Rust's success as a language for writing high performance network services, one of our goals for 2018. Async & await syntax based on the Future trait is the most expedient & low risk path to achieving that goal in the near future.

This RFC, along with its companion lib RFC, makes a much firmer commitment to futures & async/await than we have previously as a project. If we decide to reverse course after stabilizing these features, it will be quite costly. Adding an alternative mechanism for asynchronous programming would be more costly because this exists. However, given our experience with futures, we are confident that this is the correct path forward.

There are drawbacks to several of the smaller decisions we have made as well. There is a trade off between using the "inner" return type and the "outer" return type, for example. We could have a different evaluation model for async functions in which they are evaluated immediately up to the first await point. The decisions we made on each of these questions are justified in the appropriate section of the RFC.

Rationale and alternatives

This section contains alternative design decisions which this RFC rejects (as opposed to those it merely postpones).

The return type (T instead of impl Future<Output = T>)

The return type of an asynchronous function is a sort of complicated question. There are two different perspectives on the return type of an async fn: the "interior" return type - the type that you return with the return keyword, and the "exterior" return type - the type that the function returns when you call it.

Most statically typed languages with async fns display the "outer" return type in the function signature. This RFC proposes instead to display the "inner" return type in the function signature. This has both advantages and disadvantages.

The lifetime elision problem

As eluded to previously, the returned future captures all input lifetimes. By default, impl Trait does not capture any lifetimes. To accurately reflect the outer return type, it would become necessary to eliminate lifetime elision:

async fn foo<'ret, 'a: 'ret, 'b: 'ret>(x: &'a i32, y: &'b i32) -> impl Future<Output = i32> + 'ret {
     *x + *y
}

This would be very unergonomic and make async both much less pleasant to use and much less easy to learn. This issue weighs heavily in the decision to prefer returning the interior type.

We could have it return impl Future but have lifetime capture work differently for the return type of async fn than other functions; this seems worse than showing the interior type.

Polymorphic return (a non-factor for us)

According to the C# developers, one of the major factors in returning Task<T> (their "outer type") was that they wanted to have async functions which could return types other than Task. We do not have a compelling use case for this:

  1. In the 0.2 branch of futures, there is a distinction between Future and StableFuture. However, this distinction is artificial and only because object-safe custom self-types are not available on stable yet.
  2. The current #[async] macro has a (boxed) variant. We would prefer to have async functions always be unboxed and only box them explicitly at the call site. The motivation for the attribute variant was to support async methods in object-safe traits. This is a special case of supporting impl Trait in object-safe traits (probably by boxing the return type in the object case), a feature we want separately from async fn.
  3. It has been proposed that we support async fn which return streams. However, this mean that the semantics of the internal function would differ significantly between those which return futures and streams. As discussed in the unresolved questions section, a solution based on generators and async generators seems more promising.

For these reasons, we don't think there's a strong argument from polymorphism to return the outer type.

Learnability / documentation trade off

There are arguments from learnability in favor of both the outer and inner return type. One of the most compelling arguments in favor of the outer return type is documentation: when you read automatically generated API docs, you will definitely see what you get as the caller. In contrast, it can be easier to understand how to write an async function using the inner return type, because of the correspondence between the return type and the type of the expressions you return.

Rustdoc can handle async functions using the inner return type in a couple of ways to make them easier to understand. At minimum we should make sure to include the async annotation in the documentation, so that users who understand async notation know that the function will return a future. We can also perform other transformations, possibly optionally, to display the outer signature of the function. Exactly how to handle API documentation for async functions is left as an unresolved question.

Built-in syntax instead of using macros in generators

Another alternative is to focus on stabilizing procedural macros and generators, rather than introducing built-in syntax for async functions. An async function can be modeled as a generator which yields ().

In the long run, we believe we will want dedicated syntax for async functions, because it is more ergonomic & the use case is compelling and significant enough to justify it (similar to - for example - having built in for loops and if statements rather than having macros which compile to loops and match statements). Given that, the only question is whether or not we could have a more expedited stability by using generators for the time being than by introducing async functions now.

It seems unlikely that using macros which expand to generators will result in a faster stabilization. Generators can express a wider range of possibilities, and have a wider range of open questions - both syntactic and semantic. This does not even address the open questions of stabilizing more procedural macros. For this reason, we believe it is more expedient to stabilize the minimal built-in async/await functionality than to attempt to stabilize generators and proc macros.

async based on generators alone

Another alternative design would be to have async functions be the syntax for creating generators. In this design, we would write a generator like this:

async fn foo(arg: Arg) -> Return yield Yield

Both return and yield would be optional, default to (). An async fn that yields () would implement Future, using a blanket impl. An async fn that returns () would implement Iterator.

The problem with this approach is that does not ergonomically handle Streams, which need to yield Poll<Option<T>>. It's unclear how await inside of an async fn yielding something other than () (which would include streams) would work. For this reason, the "matrix" approach in which we have independent syntax for generator functions, async functions, and async generator functions, seems like a more promising approach.

"Hot async functions"

As proposed by this RFC, all async functions return immediately, without evaluating their bodies at all. As discussed above, this is not convenient for use cases in which you have an immediate "initialization" step - those use cases need to use a terminal async block, for example.

An alternative would be to have async functions immediately evaluate up until their first await, preserving their state until then. The implementation of this would be quite complicated - they would need to have an additional yield point within the await, prior to polling the future being awaited, conditional on whether or not the await is the first await in the body of the future.

A fundamental difference between Rust's futures and those from other languages is that Rust's futures do not do anything unless polled. The whole system is built around this: for example, cancellation is dropping the future for precisely this reason. In contrast, in other languages, calling an async fn spins up a future that starts executing immediately. This difference carries over to async fn and async blocks as well, where it's vital that the resulting future be actively polled to make progress. Allowing for partial, eager execution is likely to lead to significant confusion and bugs.

This is also complicated from a user perspective - when a portion of the body is evaluated depends on whether or not it appears before all await statements (which could possibly be macro generated). The use of a terminal async block provide a clearer mechanism for distinguishing between the immediately evaluated and asynchronously evaluated portions of a future with an initialization step.

Using async/await instead of alternative asynchronicity systems

A final - and extreme - alternative would be to abandon futures and async/await as the mechanism for async/await in Rust and to adopt a different paradigm. Among those suggested are a generalized effects system, monads & do notation, green-threading, and stack-full coroutines.

While it is hypothetically plausible that some generalization beyond async/await could be supported by Rust, there has not enough research in this area to support it in the near-term. Given our goals for 2018 - which emphasize shipping - async/await syntax (a concept available widely in many languages which interacts well with our existing async IO libraries) is the most logical thing to implement at this stage in Rust's evolution.

Async blocks vs async closures

As noted in the main text, async blocks and async closures are closely related, and are roughly inter-expressible:

// almost equivalent
async { ... }
(async || { ... })()

// almost equivalent
async |..| { ... }
|..| async { ... }

We could consider having only one of the two constructs. However:

  • There's a strong reason to have async || for consistency with async fn; such closures are often useful for higher-order constructs like constructing a service.

  • There's a strong reason to have async blocks: The initialization pattern mentioned in the RFC text, and the fact that it provides a more direct/primitive way of constructing futures.

The RFC proposes to include both constructs up front, since it seems inevitable that we will want both of them, but we can always reconsider this question before stabilization.

Prior art

There is a lot of precedence from other languages for async/await syntax as a way of handling asynchronous operation - notable examples include C#, JavaScript, and Python.

There are three paradigms for asynchronous programming which are dominant today:

  • Async and await notation.
  • An implicit concurrent runtime, often called "green-threading," such as communicating sequential processes (e.g. Go) or an actor model (e.g. Erlang).
  • Monadic transformations on lazily evaluated code, such as do notation (e.g. Haskell).

Async/await is the most compelling model for Rust because it interacts favorably with ownership and borrowing (unlike systems based on monads) and it enables us to have an entirely library-based asynchronicity model (unlike green-threading).

One way in which our handling of async/await differs from most other statically typed languages (such as C#) is that we have chosen to show the "inner" return type, rather than the outer return type. As discussed in the alternatives section, Rust's specific context (lifetime elision, the lack of a need for return type polymorphism here) make this deviation well-motivated.

Unresolved questions

This section contains design extensions which have been postponed & not included in this initial RFC.

Final syntax for the await expression

Though this RFC proposes that await be a built-in macro, we'd prefer that some day it be a normal control flow construct. The unresolved question about this is how to handle its precedence & whether or not to require delimiters of some kind.

In particular, await has an interesting interaction with ?. It is very common to have a future which will evaluate to a Result, which the user will then want to apply ? to. This implies that await should have a tighter precedence than ?, so that the pattern will work how users wish it to. However, because it introduces a space, it doesn't look like this is the precedence you would get:

await future?

There are a couple of possible solutions:

  1. Require delimiters of some kind, maybe braces or parens or either, so that it will look more like how you expect - await { future }? - this is rather noisy.
  2. Define the precedence as the obvious, if inconvenient precedence, requiring users to write (await future)? - this seems very surprising for users.
  3. Define the precedence as the inconvenient precedence - this seems equally surprising as the other precedence.
  4. Introduce a special syntax to handle the multiple applications, such as await? future - this seems very unusual in its own way.

This is left as an unresolved question to find another solution or decide which of these is least bad.

for await and processing streams

Another extension left out of the RFC for now is the ability to process streams using a for loop. One could imagine a construct like for await, which takes an IntoStream instead of an IntoIterator:

for await value in stream {
    println!("{}", value);
}

This is left out of the initial RFC to avoid having to stabilize a definition of Stream in the standard library (to keep the companion RFC to this one as small as possible).

Generators and Streams

In the future, we may also want to be able to define async functions that evaluate to streams, rather than evaluating to futures. We propose to handle this use case by way of generators. Generators can evaluate to a kind of iterator, while async generators can evaluate to a kind of stream.

For example (using syntax which could change);

// Returns an iterator of i32
fn foo(mut x: i32) yield i32 {
     while x > 0 {
          yield x;
          x -= 2;
     }
}

// Returns a stream of i32
async fn foo(io: &AsyncRead) yield i32 {
    async for line in io.lines() {
        yield line.unwrap().parse().unwrap();
    }
}

Async functions which implement Unpin

As proposed in this RFC, all async functions do not implement Unpin, making it unsafe to move them out of a Pin. This allows them to contain references across yield points.

We could also, with an annotation, typecheck an async function to confirm that it does not contain any references across yield points, allowing it to implement Unpin. The annotation to enable this is left unspecified for the time being.

?-operator and control-flow constructs in async blocks

This RFC does not propose how the ?-operator and control-flow constructs like return, break and continue should work inside async blocks.

It was discussed that async blocks should act as a boundary for the ?-operator. This would make them suitable for fallible IO:

let reader: AsyncRead = ...;
async {
    let foo = await!(reader.read_to_end())?;
    Ok(foo.parse().unwrap_or(0))
}: impl Future<Output = io::Result<u32>>

Also, it was discussed to allow the use of break to return early from an async block:

async {
    if true { break "foo" }
}

The use of the break keyword instead of return could be beneficial to indicate that it applies to the async block and not its surrounding function. On the other hand this would introduce a difference to closures and async closures which make use the return keyword.