Pre-Pooping Your Pants With Rust

Alexis Beingessner - April 27, 2015


Much existential anguish and ennui was recently triggered by Rust Issue #24292: std::thread::JoinGuard (and scoped) are unsound because of reference cycles. If you feel like you're sufficiently familiar with Leakpocalypse 2k15, feel free to skip to the next section. If you've been thoroughly stalking all my online interactions, then you've basically seen everything in this post already. Feel free to close this tab and return to scanning my IRC logs.

The issue in question states:

You can use a reference cycle to leak a JoinGuard and then the scoped thread can access freed memory

This is a very serious claim, since all the relevant APIs are marked as safe, and a use-after-free is something that should be impossible for safe code to perform.

The main focus is on the thread::scoped API which spawns a thread that can safely access the contents of another thread's stack frame in a statically guaranteed way. The basic idea idea is that thread::scoped returns a JoinGuard type. JoinGuard's destructor blocks on the thread joining, and isn't allowed to outlive any of the things that were passed into thread::scoped. This enables really nice things like:

use std::vec::Vec;
use std::thread;
fn increment_elements(slice: &mut [u32]) {
    for a in slice.iter_mut() { *a += 1; }

fn main() {
    let mut v = Vec::new();
    for i in (0..100) { v.push(i); }

    let mut threads = Vec::new();
    for slice in v.chunks_mut(10) {
        threads.push(thread::scoped(move || {
    // when `threads` gets dropped here, `main` will block
    // on all the threads joining.

which dispatches some workload on every element in an array in 10-element chunks to separate threads (you'd probably want a pool for this; not the point). Magically Rust is able to statically guarantee this is safe without even knowing what a thread is! All it knows is that there's there's a Vec threads full of these JoinGuard things which borrow v, and thus can't outlive it. (Actually Rust also doesn't really understand Vec either. It really thinks threads is directly borrowing v, even if empty.)

Pretty nifty!

Unfortunately, this is completely wrong. This assumes that destructors are guaranteed to run in safe code. A lot of us in the Rust community (myself included) had grown to assume this was true. After all, we have a function that does nothing but drop an element without calling its destructor called mem::forget, and it's marked as unsafe!

Turns out this is simply a legacy detail from The Long Long Ago. There are in fact several ways to write mem::forget using only safe code provided by the standard library. A few of them can be regarded as simply implementation bugs, but one is fundamental: rc::Rc.

Rc is our reference counted smart pointer type. It's actually pretty simple: you put data in a reference counted pointer with Rc::new. The reference count increases when you clone an Rc, and decreases when you drop one. No need to touch the reference count otherwise; the lifetime system will ensure that any internal references to the data are relinquished before the Rc they were obtained through is dropped.

On its own, Rc is totally fine. Because reference-counting is inherently a sharing of data, you can only get shared references to the internal data. This generally precludes mutating the internals of the Rc, so everything is frozen in time once it's put in there.

Except Rust has internal mutability. While sharing generally implies immutability in Rust, internal mutability is the exception. The Cell types are the primary mechanism for internal mutability: they allow their contents to be mutated while being shared. For this reason they are marked as non-thread-safe. sync::Mutex is their thread-safe counterpart.

Now let's put those two tools together and write mem::forget:

fn safe_forget<T>(data: T) {
    use std::rc::Rc;
    use std::cell::RefCell;

    struct Leak<T> {
        cycle: RefCell<Option<Rc<Rc<Leak<T>>>>>,
        data: T,

    let e = Rc::new(Leak {
        cycle: RefCell::new(None),
        data: data,
    *e.cycle.borrow_mut() = Some(Rc::new(e.clone())); // Create a cycle

This is some janky nonsense, but long-story-short we can create reference-counted cycles using Rc and RefCell. The end result is that the destructor of the value put into our Leak type is never called, even though all of the Rcs have become unreachable! Never calling a destructor is actually fine on its own: you can abort the program or loop forever to similar effect. However in this case Rc has told us that it has called the destructor. We can verify this with this simple program:

fn main() {
    struct Foo<'a>(&'a mut i32);

    impl<'a> Drop for Foo<'a> {
        fn drop(&mut self) {
            *self.0 += 1;

    let mut data = 0;

        let foo = Foo(&mut data);

    // super make sure there's no outstanding borrows
    // this will not compile if `foo` was not dropped!
    data += 1;

    println!("{:?}", data); // prints 1, should print 2

which totally runs. Now that we have safe_drop, let's get to the problematic code in the issue that started this mess. Most of it is really just guaranteeing that the bug is reliably observable. It can be boiled down to the following:

fn main() {
    let mut v = Ok(4);
    if let &mut Ok(ref v) = v {
        let jg = thread::scoped(move || {
            println!("{}", v); // read on separate thread
        safe_forget(jg); // now the thread won't be joined
    *v = Err("foo"); // concurrent mutate with read; data race!

which also observes Undefined Behaviour, but less reliably.

This is unquestionably a flaw in something in the Rust standard library since it should be statically impossible to use-after-free or data-race in safe code, and we've managed to do both. The question is really which thing is wrong. The original issue placed the blame on thread::scoped, because it was posted by a compiler dev who was well aware that you could leak destructors in safe code.

However this triggered a huge amount of frustration in the community because everything they'd seen up until then had seemed to point to leaking destructors being unsafe. The thread::scoped API was stabilized. Another API RFC was based on this assumption! mem::forget is marked as unsafe and that's all it does!

The only real problem seemed to be the alignment of the following stars:

If you remove any of the following then there is no problem. This of course resulted in people (again, myself included) variously demanding every possible combination of the above being removed. Yet more demanded an opt-in-built-in-trait Leak for specifying if your destructor can be leaked safely.

All of this would be major breakage and work with 1.0 three weeks away. So the status quo is almost certainly going to win: mem::forget is in fact totally safe, and code cannot assume this to be the case. thread::scoped must be redone.

Relevant RFCs are as follows:

Note that Rust has never guaranteed leaks don't occur in general. Leaks, like race conditions (not to be mistaken with data races), are such a vague concept that they're basically impossible to prevent. Putting stuff in a HashMap that you'll never ask for again is a kind of leak. Allocating stuff on the stack and then looping forever is a kind of leak. The case where you put it on the heap and forget to ever free it is a specific kind of leak that people seem particularly terrified of for whatever reason. The issue at hand is whether data that is statically known to be "gone" can fail to have its destructor called during normal, safe execution.

Dealing With It

So initially I was pretty crestfallen. My work with collections had always assumed destructors were guaranteed to be run. This gave you the really nice property that you could make a special "handler" type that completely mangled the internal representation of a type transiently, and then fixed it when it was destructed. Paired with Rust's lifetime system, this guaranteed that the transient inconsistent state was statically unobservable (except by the handler, of course)! Rust code could be more reckless than C++!

The canonical example of this was to be Vec::drain_range(a, b):

// do we need all these fields? Maybe? Don't want to think about it
// for an example!
struct DrainRange<'a, T> {
    vec: &'a mut Vec<T>,
    num_to_drain: usize,
    start_pos: usize,
    left: *mut T,
    right: *mut T,

impl<T> Vec<T> {
    // Produces an iterator that removes the elements in `self[a..b]`
    // Note: b is excluded per Rust range notation
    fn drain_range(&mut self, a: usize, b: usize) -> DrainRange<T> {
        assert!(a <= b, "invalid range");
        assert!(b <= self.len(), "index out of bounds");

        DrainRange {
            left: self.ptr().offset(a as isize),
            right: self.ptr().offset(b as isize),
            start_pos: a,
            num_to_drain: b - a,
            vec: self,

impl<'a, T> Drop for DrainRange<'a, T> {
    fn drop(&mut self) {
        // Drop all outstanding contents
        for _ in self { }

        let ptr = self.vec.ptr();
        let backshift_src = self.start_pos + self.num_to_drain;
        let backshift_dst = self.start_pos;

        let old_len = self.vec.len();
        let new_len = old_len - self.num_to_drain;
        let to_move = new_len - self.start_pos;

        unsafe {
            // Backshift all the elements!
                ptr.offset(backshift_src as isize),
                ptr.offset(backshift_dst as isize),

            // Tell the Vec to only consider this range of memory "used"

// impl details for sake of completion
impl<'a, T> Iterator for DrainRange<'a, T> {
    type Item = T;

    fn next(&mut self) -> Option<T> {
        if self.left == self.right {
        } else {
            unsafe {
                let result = Some(ptr::read(self.left));
                // let's ignore size_of<T> == 0 for simplicity
                self.left = self.left.offset(1);

impl<'a, T> DoubleEndedIterator for DrainRange<'a, T> {
    fn next_back(&mut self) -> Option<T> {
        if self.left == self.right {
        } else {
            unsafe {
                // let's ignore size_of<T> == 0 for simplicity
                self.right = self.right.offset(-1);

This design is even unwinding-safe! Yay! ...but not destructor leak safe. Consider the following:

fn main() {
    let vec = vec![Box::new(1)];
        let drainer = vec.drain_range(0, 1);
        // pull out and drop `box 1`, freeing the memory it points to;
    println!("{}", vec); // use after free of memory pointed to by `box 1`

This was troubling! I looked through some of the collections code in std to see if there was anything else that was relying on destructors for safety, and was pleased to see that there wasn't any that I could find (which isn't to say none exist)! I came to see that there was a vague hierarchy of how bad leaking a dtor is:

  1. no dtor - leaking is irrelevant: primitives, pointers.
  2. leaks system resources - not a big deal: Most collections and smaht pointer types, when they contain primitives will simply waste heap space if leaked.
  3. leaks arbitrary other dtors - acceptable but nasty: Collections and smaht pointer types in general.
  4. leaves the world in an unexpected but safe state - a scary footgun: RingBuf::drain should make the collection empty after the borrow its Drain iterator produces expires, but this is only guaranteed by the destructor as currently written. The collection is left in a consistent state otherwise.
  5. leaves the world in a broken state - unacceptable: Vec::drain_range as written above.

Generally, one should strive to push their destructor reliance as far up this hierarchy as is practical, with the last category in the hierarchy verboten by an API that claims to be safe.

This hierarchy is based on the assumption that leaking a destructor should be considered a bug in running code. That is, application code should be welcome to assume that a leak doesn't randomly occur in code they control or under reasonable conditions in code they call. As is always the case in Rust, libraries have the onerous position of ensuring they are hardened against a leak.

The fact that an API admits causing a leak (such as Rc) should not be considered a bug in and of itself. Especially if the leak is convoluted to invoke (as is arguably the case with Rc). While mem::forget is going to be safe to call, it should generally still be regarded as something that unsafe code does.

Pre-Pooping Your Pants

So how do we push drain_range up the hierarchy? It turns out this is totally trivial! Just add this single line to the drain_range constructor:

// Tell the Vec that it doesn't have any elements
// stored after the minimum bound.
unsafe { self.set_len(a); }

Now if we leak a DrainRange, we leak the destructors of the values that were supposed to be drained, as well as completely lose all the values that were supposed to be backshifted at the end. This is pretty squarely in the "unexpected but safe state" category, in addition to causing arbitrary other leaks. This is definitely not great, but still a big improvement over admitting accessing logically uninitialized memory!

This is what I call the Pre-Poop Your Pants (PPYP) pattern: do part of the right thing in the constructor so that if the destructor doesn't run, then less bad things should happen. Why Pre-Poop Your Pants? Well I like to think of the constructor-destructor pattern like a person eating. You eat some stuff (construction), process it, and then clean up any junk by pooping it out (destruction).

If a destructor gets lost, this is like never pooping. Dependent on the destructor, this can have varying consequences.

The Pre-Poop Your Pants pattern is the following deviation from the normal digestion pattern: as soon as you consume something, be sure to poop the nastiest bits right into your pants. If everything goes according to plan, you can clean out your pants when you take your normal poop. If something goes wrong, you've got poopy pants but at least you're better off than otherwise.

The PPYP name emphasizes the following:

Oh, and drain_range lives!