Pre-RFC: Explicit Opt-in OIBIT for truly POD data and safe transmutes


Bear with me. I've been banging my head against a wall for a while, trying to express the bound a type needs to satisfy for it to be truly POD: can be serialized as [u8] and read back with no memory unsafety. mmap'd, etc, all that goodness. I don't think it can be done in the existing type system.

This basically means types that are Copy, #[repr(packed)] and contain no references transitively (not even 'static). I'm going to call this trait Mappable for lack of a better term (Pod is overloaded in the Copy: Pod: Clone debate). This would open the door to a family of tremendously useful safe functions:

fn transmute_mappable<S, D>(src: S) -> D  // compile error for size mismatch
    where S: Mappable, D: Mappable;
fn map_bytes<S>(src: &S) -> &[u8]
    where S: Mappable + ?Sized;
fn map_bytes_mut<S>(src: &mut S) -> &mut [u8]
    where S: Mappable + ?Sized;

Of course other helper functions like Read::read_mappable would also be trivially definable.

This would be hugely useful for talking to devices (where the need is to serialize structs and the like) as well as any other place where exact layout and fast serialization is desired, such as video games (this is currently one of the only inevitable uses of unsafe in my doom renderer).

I think there are two things missing, essentially:

  1. Expressing #[repr(packed)] as a trait bound.
  2. And something which I'd call "explicit opt-in OIBITs". EOIOIBIT, if you will. Although you probably don't.


The reason we can't make Mappable an OIBIT is that we don't want any type whose members are Mappable to also be implicitly mappable since it could be used to violate privacy and thus all sorts of invariants (imagine something like SmallAsciiString([u8; 16]) or whatever).

On the other hand for a type to satisfy an EOIOBIT it needs two things: (a) all its fields also satisfy the EOIOBIT and (b) an explicit impl block for the trait exists in the same module as the type. I'll get to the latter restriction in a bit. Some syntax:

pub trait Mappable: Copy + ReprPacked {}
impl Mappable for ?.. {}  // notice the ?
impl Mappable for u8, u16, u32, u64, i8, i16, i32, i64, f32, f64 {}
// no explicitly !Mappable for &'a T, since it requires explicit **opt-in**.
// no usize/isize since that's platform dependent (?)
// no bool since it must be 0 or 1.
// no char because invariants.

Then any type which only contains the above is eligible to implement Mappable:

mod x {
    struct A(String);
    impl Mappable for A {}  // compile error, A is not Mappable (String not Mappable).

    struct B<'a>(&'a str); 
    impl Mappable for B {}  // compile error, B is not Mappable (has refs).
    struct C(u32);  // not Mappable--no explicit impl block in this module

    struct E(u32);
    impl Mappable for E {}  // compile error, E not repr(packed).

    struct E(u32, u64); 
    impl Mappable for E {}  // u32 and u64 are Mappable, have impl, so E is now mappable.

mod y {
    impl Mappable for x::C {}   // compile error, impl block needs to be in same module


Why not allow reference transmutes between Mappable types?

Initially I had suggested a

fn transmute_mappable_ref<S, D>(src: &S) -> &D
    where S: Mappable + ?Sized, D: Mappable + ?Sized;

This, however, falls foul of strict aliasing rules. I'm interpreting these based on C++'s restrictions of reinterpret_cast. In particular:

When a pointer or reference to object of type T1 is reinterpret_cast (or C-style cast) to a pointer or reference to object of a different type T2, the cast always succeeds, but the resulting pointer or reference may only be accessed if both T1 and T2 are standard-layout types and one of the following is true:

  1. T2 is the (possibly cv-qualified) dynamic type of the object
  • T2 and T1 are both (possibly multi-level, possibly cv-qualified at each level) pointers to the same type T3 (since C++11)
  • T2 is the (possibly cv-qualified) signed or unsigned variant of the dynamic type of the object
  • T2 is an aggregate type or a union type which holds one of the aforementioned types as an element or non-static member (including, recursively, elements of subaggregates and non-static data members of the contained unions): this makes it safe to cast from the first member of a struct and from an element of a union to the struct/union that contains it.
  • T2 is a (possibly cv-qualified) base class of the dynamic type of the object
  • T2 is char or unsigned char

If T2 does not satisfy these requirements, accessing the object through the new pointer or reference invokes undefined behavior. This is known as the strict aliasing rule and applies to both C++ and C programming languages.

So we can cast to &[u8] or &[i8] (6), but not to anything else without violating strict aliasing. Maybe thanks to Rust's ability to rule out simultaneous mutability and aliasing, these rules could be relaxed (since they generally concern optimisations which allow skipping loads after stores of unrelated types), but let's be conservative for now.

This sadly rules out transmuting [f64] to [SimdVec4] or [u8] to [u32] for performance.

Can't Mappable eligibility be implemented as an OIBIT?

Basically this idea boils down to:

trait MappableEligible {}
impl MappableEligible for .. {}
impl<'a, T> !MappableEligible for &'a T {}
impl<'a, T> !MappableEligible for &'a mut T {}
trait Mappable: MappableEligible {}

The issue here is something like:

struct A(u32, u32);

struct B(A);
impl Mappable for B {}

The last line succeeds because B is MappableEligible because A is MappableEligible. But A is not Mappable! So by making B Mappable we may be violating invariants of A. OIBIT-s are too viral to support this by themselves.

Why not #[repr(C)]?

Because reading padding bits would be reading uninitialised memory, which is unsafe in Rust. Just manage your own padding for Mappable types and you're fine.

Why same module?

We need to enforce privacy. That leaves us with same modules or types whose members are all public. The problem with the latter is that it becomes a backwards incompatible change to add a private field to a struct (it would still be limited to the same crate, so maybe not so terrible).


  • Implement map_bytes and map_bytes_mut as trait methods.
  • Don't provide the methods in std at all. If the Mappable guarantee is provided, then they can be implemented with unsafe code and transmutes anywhere.
  • Mappable is a great name for the trait because everyone can get behind the fact that it's a terrible name. Some potentially better names: BitSafe, Bytes, MapBytes, StdLayout, Pod, SafeTransmute, Transmute, SuperReallyPod.
  • Some kind of #[derive(...)] shenanigans? I can't think how to do that.
  • Some very obvious solution which I'm too dumb to see.

Couldn’t you use two traits, one to track whether a type is eligible and one to track whether it has opted-in? Use an unsafe trait with a default impl to track eligibility, and then use a normal trait for the opt-in which requires the unsafe trait. This seems like it could work, unless I’m missing something…

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Be warned that you can definitely get undefined behavior out of LLVM with transmutes to floats. We’d need some solution for this.


Can you elaborate on this? Does this happen when you transmute invalid representations? Does this happen with plain integers as well?

There are also issues with reading from padding that this doesn’t address.

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I’d also like an example of that. It seems wrong. I know that casts can cause UB, but transmute just copies the bits verbatim. All bit strings of length 32 are valid binary32 floats (though about 2^23 are NaNs) and all bit strings of length 64 are valid binary64 values (though about 2^52 are NaNs). There are no invalid representations that a transmute could produce, unless some layer between Rust and the silicon is actively breaking NaN with weird bit patterns (I say “actively” because I can’t imagine anything to be gained from such a restriction).

That’s a great point. I always took the read of padding bits to be functionally equivalent to a read of uninitialized memory: UB only in the sense of non-deterministic jumps based on it, etc. But even if not memory unsafe, converting padding bits to non-padding is probably not what you want.

So how about changing the ReprC bound to ReprPacked. You can still have fully aligned access, by dealing with your own padding fields—which is what you should be doing in the situations I’ve mentioned anyway.

I’m sure you’re right but I’m baffled by this a bit—all float bit patterns are valid (I was in fact tempted to call the trait BitSafe because of this definition). Is there any reference I could read which supports this?

In Rust, it’s considered unsafe to read an uninitialized value, which includes padding. If we were to go forward with this RFC, presumably we’d need to weaken it to “reading uninitialized values of types that do not implement Mappable is unsafe”.

Makes perfect sense. I changed the pre-RFC to require ReprPacked, which doesn’t have any padding and is strictly more general since you can include your padding if you want to—does it seem OK to you?

I had considered it, but not included why I thought it didn’t work. I edited the post to include it, let me know what you think—maybe I’m missing something (see last alternative :P).


Alternately, it would be great to understand why it is considered unsafe to read uninitialized values. LLVM doesn’t make reads of undefined values into undefined behavior unless you use them in certain ways (e.g. dividing by an undefined float). Is the Rust position on uninitialized values overly conservative? Who wrote that text in the first place?

For most data, reading an undef is a memory safety hazard. Many types contain pointers or other data that unsafe code relies on to be well-formed with respect to some chunk of memory (accurate bounds etc). In this particular case (the proposed Mappable trait’s guarantees), reading an undef is “fine”.

Rust guarantees that all values have been initialized. This guarantee has always stood. This is a good guarantee to have, I think, especially in terms of “do what I want”.

Another risk is accidentally exposing sensitive information. If the uninitalized spot used to hold a private key, this could be easily exploited.

Sorry, a think-o in the previous post may have asked the wrong question. Lemme rephrase:

It would be great to understand whether and why it is considered undefined behavior (rather than “unsafe”) to read uninitialized u8 values (specifically).

Safe Rust guarantees that all values have been initialized. That’s great, should always stand, etc. I’m happily using unsafe, where many of Rust’s guarantees don’t hold, but I want to avoid undefined behavior. I don’t see why it should be undefined behavior to read an undef u8, but I’d be happy to be corrected.

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That’s a reasonable question, to which I don’t know the answer. However, I think for the purposes of this proposal, requiring #[repr(packed)] may be the right call regardless.

Suppose you use the u8 to index into an array afterwards. This will run code similar to

let index: u8 = unsafe { mem::uninitialized(); }
let index = index as usize;
if index >= array.len() {
    panic!("array access out of bounds");
return &array[index];

Now LLVM says about undef values that they don't even need to have a consistent value. That means that it can first have a value smaller than array.len() in the condition, and a bigger one afterwards. This leads to ineffectice bounds checking and thus to memory unsafety (undefined behavior), as you now obtained a reference for a member outside the array's bounds.


Ha, never thought of that. LLVM is perfectly within its right to use padding space to put other things there that need to be on stack.

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I’m totally ok with “using undef values poorly is undefined behavior”, in the same spirit as Rust’s guidelines on aliasing (“don’t do anything that breaks LLVM’s aliasing model”).

Maybe the use case I have is sufficiently narrow that asking for clarification in language is not going to be helpful. Roughly, and I think in the intent of this RFC too: memcpy on undef data shouldn’t be undefined behavior unless it really is undefined behavior.

To be honest, all I’d really like to know is where Rust makes its Faustian bargains with LLVM, and whether/why it promises anything that would cause putting an undef byte in a file or socket (or back into a padding byte) to be undefined behavior. It makes a very big difference in serialization performance for general types.