lines masked in circle
purple circle at half opacity

Uninitialized Memory: Unsafe Rust is Too Hard

grid of red dots
white dots in concentric circle

Share This Post

Editor’s note: We’re thrilled to have Armin (creator of Flask and Principal Architect at Sentry) presenting “Overcoming Variable Payloads to Optimize for Performance ” at P99 CONF 2022 – free, virtual, and highly interactive. Register now to hear from Armin and scores of other amazing experts. This article was originally  published on Armin’s blog.

REGISTER FOR P99 CONF

 

Rust is in many ways not just a modern systems language, but also quite a pragmatic one. It promises safety and provides an entire framework that makes creating safe abstractions possible with minimal to zero runtime overhead. A well known pragmatic solution in the language is an explicit way to opt out of safety by using unsafe. In unsafe blocks anything goes.

If you have read this article before you might be surprised that it looks quite different now. This article in itself was a victim of the author being confused by the rules surrounding unsafe. It has since been changed with an alternative example that better explains the pitfalls. A thank you goes to eddyb who pointed out my mistakes on reddit.

I made the case on Twitter a few days ago that writing unsafe Rust is harder than C or C++, so I figured it might be good to explain what I mean by that.

From C to Rust

So let’s start with something simple: we have some struct that we want to initialize with some values. The interesting value here will be the name. It’s a pointer to an allocated string. Other than that where it’s allocated doesn’t matter to us so we keep the struct itself on the stack. The idea is that after the initialization that thing can be passed around safely and printed.


#include 
#include 
#include 

struct role {
    char *name;
    bool disabled;
    int flag;
};

int main() {
    struct role r;
    r.name = strdup("basic");
    r.flag = 1;
    r.disabled = false;
    printf("%s (%d, %s)\n", r.name, r.flag, r.disabled ? "true" : "false");
    free(r.name);
}

Now let’s write this in Rust. Let’s not read the docs too much, let’s just do a 1:1 translation to more or less the same but by using unsafe. One note here before you read the code: we’re purposefully trying to create an object that looks familiar to Rust programmers and can be seen as public API. So we use a String here instead of a C string so there are some changes to the C code.


use std::mem;

struct Role {
    name: String,
    disabled: bool,
    flag: u32,
}

fn main() {
    let role = unsafe {
        let mut role: Role = mem::zeroed();
        role.name = "basic".to_string();
        role.flag = 1;
        role.disabled = false;
        role
    };

    println!("{} ({}, {})", role.name, role.flag, role.disabled);
}

So immediately one will ask why unsafe is needed here and the answer is that of course you don’t need it here. However this code is also using a suboptimal function: std::mem::zeroed. If you run this on a recent Rust compiler you will get this result:


thread 'main' panicked at 'attempted to zero-initialize type `Role`,
  which is invalid', src/main.rs:11:30

On older Rust compilers this code will run but it was never really correct. So how do we solve this? The compiler already tells us that we need to use something else:


warning: the type `Role` does not permit zero-initialization
  --> src/main.rs:11:30
   |
11 | let mut role: Role = mem::zeroed();
   |                      ^^^^^^^^^^^^^
   |                      |
   |                      this code causes undefined behavior when executed
   |                      help: use `MaybeUninit` instead, and only call
   |                         `assume_init` after initialization is done
   |

So why does this type not support zero initialization? What do we have to change? Can zeroed not be used at all? Some of you might think that the answer is #[repr(C)] on the struct to force a C layout but that won’t solve the problem. We in fact need to reach for MaybeUninit as the compiler indicates. So let’s try that first and then afterwards we figure out why we need it:


use std::mem::MaybeUninit;

struct Role {
    name: String,
    disabled: bool,
    flag: u32,
}

fn main() {
    let role = unsafe {
        let mut uninit = MaybeUninit::::zeroed();
        let role = uninit.as_mut_ptr();
        (*role).name = "basic".to_string();
        (*role).flag = 1;
        (*role).disabled = false;
        uninit.assume_init()
    };

    println!("{} ({}, {})", role.name, role.flag, role.disabled);
}

By swapping out zeroed for MaybeUninit::zeroed everything changes. We can no longer manipulate our struct directly, we now need to manipulate a raw pointer. Because that raw pointer does not implement deref and because Rust has no -> operator we now need to dereference the pointer permanently to assign the fields with that awkward syntax.

So first of all: does this work now? The answer is yes. But is it correct? The answer is not. But let’s see what changed? The answer lies in the fact that any construct like a mutable reference (&mut) or value on the stack in itself (even in unsafe) that would be valid outside of unsafe code still needs to be in a valid state at all times. zeroed returns a zeroed struct and there is no guarantee that this is a valid representation of either the struct or the fields within it. In our case it happens that our String is valid with everything zeroed out but this is not guaranteed and undefined behavior.

One important note is that a mutable reference must also never point to an invalid object, so doing let role = &mut *uninit.as_mut_ptr() if that object is not fully initialized is also wrong.

So let’s change from zeroed to uninit. If we run it again we’re crashing. So why are we crashing? The answer is that by assigning a string to name we also drop the old string that was there before. We just happened to not encounter this before because Drop happened to be able to deal with a zeroed out string, but we were deep in undefined behavior there. Now how do we solve that? We need to somehow directly write to the pointer there.

So let’s just accept that MaybeUninit is necessary and we need to deal with raw references here. It’s somewhat cumbersome but it doesn’t look too bad. So now we have two new problems: we know that &mut X is not allowed, but *mut X is. How do we get a *mut X without using &mut X first? Ironically until Rust 1.51 it was impossible to construct such a thing without breaking the rules. Today you can use the addr_of_mut! macro. So we can do this:


let name_ptr = std::ptr::addr_of_mut!((*role).name);

Great, so now we have this pointer. How do we write into it? We can use the write method instead:


addr_of_mut!((*role).name).write("basic".to_string());

Are we okay now? Remember how we used a regular struct? If we read the documentation we learn that there are no guarantees of such a struct at all. It turns out that despite what the documentation currently says we can rely on fields being aligned. If however we were dealing with #[repr(packed)] we would have to use write_unaligned instead which is legal if Rust were to pick for a member of the struct to be unaligned. So this could be the final version:


use std::mem::MaybeUninit;
use std::ptr::addr_of_mut;

struct Role {
    name: String,
    disabled: bool,
    flag: u32,
}

fn main() {
    let role = unsafe {
        let mut uninit = MaybeUninit::::uninit();
        let role = uninit.as_mut_ptr();
        addr_of_mut!((*role).name).write("basic".to_string());
        (*role).flag = 1;
        (*role).disabled = false;
        uninit.assume_init()
    };

    println!("{} ({}, {})", role.name, role.flag, role.disabled);
}

When to use addr_of_mut!

There are two cases to consider: uninitialized memory and unaligned references. You’re not allowed to (even temporarily) create an unaligned reference to something and you’re not allowed to create a reference to uninitialized memory. So when are these references created?

If you write (*role).flag = 1; this is fine by Rust rules if the type does not Drop. If it does, then we have more a problem: Drop::drop gets called and it gets called on uninitialized memory. So in that case we need to go via addr_of_mut!. This is why we can directly assign to flag, but we need to go via addr_of_mut! for the name as it is a String.

MaybeUninit

A meta issue is that the understanding of safety changed with time. At one point mem::uninitialized was considered a sound API. At a later point MaybeUninit was added to address the detected short comings. However MaybeUninit in practical terms not ideal because of partially initialized types. While MaybeUninit<T> and T are memory compatible thanks to #[repr(transparent)] this does not work well with nested use.

It’s not uncommon that you need to have a MaybeUninit on a field of a struct, but at a later point you want this abstraction not to be there. Actually working with MaybeUninit in practice can be a very challenging experience which this blog post does not sufficiently capture.

Is my Unsafe Correct?

It’s 2022 and I will admit that I no longer feel confident writing unsafe Rust code. The rules were probably always complex but I know from reading a lot of unsafe Rust code over many years that most unsafe code just did not care about those rules and just disregarded them. There is a reason that addr_of_mut! did not get added to the language until 1.53. Even today the docs both say there are no guarantees on the alignment on native rust struct reprs.

Over the last few years it seems to have happened that the Rust developers have made writing unsafe Rust harder in practice and the rules are so complex now that it’s very hard to understand for a casual programmer and the documentation surrounding it can be easily misinterpreted. An earlier version of this article for instance assumed that some uses of addr_of_mut! were necessary that really were not. And that article got quite a few shares overlooking this before someone pointed that mistake out!

These rules have made one of Rust’s best features less and less approachable and also harder to understand. The requirement for the existence MaybeUninit instead of “just” having the old mem::uninitialized API is obvious but shows how complex the rules of the language are.

I don’t think this is good. In fact, I believe this is not at all a great trend that fewer and fewer people seem to understand unsafe rust. C interop is a bit part of what made Rust great, and that we’re creating such massive barriers should be seen as undesirable. More importantly: the compiler is not helpful in pointing out when I’m doing something wrong.

Making unsafe more ergonomic is a hard problem for sure but it might be worth addressing. Because one thing is clear: people won’t be stopping writing unsafe code any time soon.

Armin @ P99 CONF: Overcoming Variable Payloads to Optimize for Performance

Editor’s note: Here’s a preview of what Armin will be presenting at this year’s P99 CONF:

When you have a significant amount of events coming in from individual customers, but do not want to spend the majority of your time on latency issues, how do you optimize for performance? This becomes increasingly difficult when you are dealing with payload sizes that are multiple orders of magnitude difference, have complex data that impacts processing, and the stream of data is impossible to predict. In this session, Armin shares how to build ingestion and processing pipelines to accommodate for complex events, helping to ensure your teams are reaching a throughput of hundreds of thousands of events per second. 

REGISTER FOR P99 CONF

About Armin Ronacher

Armin Ronacher is a Principal Architect at Sentry and is the creator of the Flask web framework for Python. He has worked on various Open Source and commercial projects, largely on the backend for the last 10+ years. Prior to joining Sentry, he was a Consultant and a Systems Architect on the Fireline project at Fireteam, leading many Open Source projects like the Flask
microframework for Python, the Jinja2 template engine and many more. He has been credited on Batman Arkham Asylum, Halo The Master Chief Collection, and other games. His field of expertise is in large scale backend infrastructure, networking and online services and API design.

More To Explore

Background Texture
Background Texture

Register for 2 days of keynotes & interactive tech talks on all things P99.

Virtual Event

October 19-20, 2022

Share on social with #p99conf and a link to p99conf.io for a chance to win $500.