Why Async?

We all love how Rust empowers us to write fast, safe software. But how does asynchronous programming fit into this vision?

Asynchronous programming, or async for short, is a concurrent programming model supported by an increasing number of programming languages. It lets you run a large number of concurrent tasks on a small number of OS threads, while preserving much of the look and feel of ordinary synchronous programming, through the async/await syntax.

Async vs other concurrency models

Concurrent programming is less mature and "standardized" than regular, sequential programming. As a result, we express concurrency differently depending on which concurrent programming model the language is supporting. A brief overview of the most popular concurrency models can help you understand how asynchronous programming fits within the broader field of concurrent programming:

  • OS threads don't require any changes to the programming model, which makes it very easy to express concurrency. However, synchronizing between threads can be difficult, and the performance overhead is large. Thread pools can mitigate some of these costs, but not enough to support massive IO-bound workloads.
  • Event-driven programming, in conjunction with callbacks, can be very performant, but tends to result in a verbose, "non-linear" control flow. Data flow and error propagation is often hard to follow.
  • Coroutines, like threads, don't require changes to the programming model, which makes them easy to use. Like async, they can also support a large number of tasks. However, they abstract away low-level details that are important for systems programming and custom runtime implementors.
  • The actor model divides all concurrent computation into units called actors, which communicate through fallible message passing, much like in distributed systems. The actor model can be efficiently implemented, but it leaves many practical issues unanswered, such as flow control and retry logic.

In summary, asynchronous programming allows highly performant implementations that are suitable for low-level languages like Rust, while providing most of the ergonomic benefits of threads and coroutines.

Async in Rust vs other languages

Although asynchronous programming is supported in many languages, some details vary across implementations. Rust's implementation of async differs from most languages in a few ways:

  • Futures are inert in Rust and make progress only when polled. Dropping a future stops it from making further progress.
  • Async is zero-cost in Rust, which means that you only pay for what you use. Specifically, you can use async without heap allocations and dynamic dispatch, which is great for performance! This also lets you use async in constrained environments, such as embedded systems.
  • No built-in runtime is provided by Rust. Instead, runtimes are provided by community maintained crates.
  • Both single- and multithreaded runtimes are available in Rust, which have different strengths and weaknesses.

Async vs threads in Rust

The primary alternative to async in Rust is using OS threads, either directly through std::thread or indirectly through a thread pool. Migrating from threads to async or vice versa typically requires major refactoring work, both in terms of implementation and (if you are building a library) any exposed public interfaces. As such, picking the model that suits your needs early can save a lot of development time.

OS threads are suitable for a small number of tasks, since threads come with CPU and memory overhead. Spawning and switching between threads is quite expensive as even idle threads consume system resources. A thread pool library can help mitigate some of these costs, but not all. However, threads let you reuse existing synchronous code without significant code changes—no particular programming model is required. In some operating systems, you can also change the priority of a thread, which is useful for drivers and other latency sensitive applications.

Async provides significantly reduced CPU and memory overhead, especially for workloads with a large amount of IO-bound tasks, such as servers and databases. All else equal, you can have orders of magnitude more tasks than OS threads, because an async runtime uses a small amount of (expensive) threads to handle a large amount of (cheap) tasks. However, async Rust results in larger binary blobs due to the state machines generated from async functions and since each executable bundles an async runtime.

On a last note, asynchronous programming is not better than threads, but different. If you don't need async for performance reasons, threads can often be the simpler alternative.

Example: Concurrent downloading

In this example our goal is to download two web pages concurrently. In a typical threaded application we need to spawn threads to achieve concurrency:

fn get_two_sites() {
    // Spawn two threads to do work.
    let thread_one = thread::spawn(|| download("https://www.foo.com"));
    let thread_two = thread::spawn(|| download("https://www.bar.com"));

    // Wait for both threads to complete.
    thread_one.join().expect("thread one panicked");
    thread_two.join().expect("thread two panicked");

However, downloading a web page is a small task; creating a thread for such a small amount of work is quite wasteful. For a larger application, it can easily become a bottleneck. In async Rust, we can run these tasks concurrently without extra threads:

async fn get_two_sites_async() {
    // Create two different "futures" which, when run to completion,
    // will asynchronously download the webpages.
    let future_one = download_async("https://www.foo.com");
    let future_two = download_async("https://www.bar.com");

    // Run both futures to completion at the same time.
    join!(future_one, future_two);

Here, no extra threads are created. Additionally, all function calls are statically dispatched, and there are no heap allocations! However, we need to write the code to be asynchronous in the first place, which this book will help you achieve.

Custom concurrency models in Rust

On a last note, Rust doesn't force you to choose between threads and async. You can use both models within the same application, which can be useful when you have mixed threaded and async dependencies. In fact, you can even use a different concurrency model altogether, such as event-driven programming, as long as you find a library that implements it.