Appendix G - How Rust is Made and “Nightly Rust”

This appendix is about how Rust is made and how that affects you as a Rust developer.

Stability Without Stagnation

As a language, Rust cares a lot about the stability of your code. We want Rust to be a rock-solid foundation you can build on, and if things were constantly changing, that would be impossible. At the same time, if we can’t experiment with new features, we may not find out important flaws until after their release, when we can no longer change things.

Our solution to this problem is what we call “stability without stagnation”, and our guiding principle is this: you should never have to fear upgrading to a new version of stable Rust. Each upgrade should be painless, but should also bring you new features, fewer bugs, and faster compile times.

Choo, Choo! Release Channels and Riding the Trains

Rust development operates on a train schedule. That is, all development is done on the master branch of the Rust repository. Releases follow a software release train model, which has been used by Cisco IOS and other software projects. There are three release channels for Rust:

  • Nightly
  • Beta
  • Stable

Most Rust developers primarily use the stable channel, but those who want to try out experimental new features may use nightly or beta.

Here’s an example of how the development and release process works: let’s assume that the Rust team is working on the release of Rust 1.5. That release happened in December of 2015, but it will provide us with realistic version numbers. A new feature is added to Rust: a new commit lands on the master branch. Each night, a new nightly version of Rust is produced. Every day is a release day, and these releases are created by our release infrastructure automatically. So as time passes, our releases look like this, once a night:

nightly: * - - * - - *

Every six weeks, it’s time to prepare a new release! The beta branch of the Rust repository branches off from the master branch used by nightly. Now, there are two releases:

nightly: * - - * - - *
beta:                *

Most Rust users do not use beta releases actively, but test against beta in their CI system to help Rust discover possible regressions. In the meantime, there’s still a nightly release every night:

nightly: * - - * - - * - - * - - *
beta:                *

Let’s say a regression is found. Good thing we had some time to test the beta release before the regression snuck into a stable release! The fix is applied to master, so that nightly is fixed, and then the fix is backported to the beta branch, and a new release of beta is produced:

nightly: * - - * - - * - - * - - * - - *
beta:                * - - - - - - - - *

Six weeks after the first beta was created, it’s time for a stable release! The stable branch is produced from the beta branch:

nightly: * - - * - - * - - * - - * - - * - * - *
beta:                * - - - - - - - - *
stable:                                *

Hooray! Rust 1.5 is done! However, we’ve forgotten one thing: because the six weeks have gone by, we also need a new beta of the next version of Rust, 1.6. So after stable branches off of beta, the next version of beta branches off of nightly again:

nightly: * - - * - - * - - * - - * - - * - * - *
                     |                         |
beta:                * - - - - - - - - *       *
stable:                                *

This is called the “train model” because every six weeks, a release “leaves the station”, but still has to take a journey through the beta channel before it arrives as a stable release.

Rust releases every six weeks, like clockwork. If you know the date of one Rust release, you can know the date of the next one: it’s six weeks later. A nice aspect of having releases scheduled every six weeks is that the next train is coming soon. If a feature happens to miss a particular release, there’s no need to worry: another one is happening in a short time! This helps reduce pressure to sneak possibly unpolished features in close to the release deadline.

Thanks to this process, you can always check out the next build of Rust and verify for yourself that it’s easy to upgrade to: if a beta release doesn’t work as expected, you can report it to the team and get it fixed before the next stable release happens! Breakage in a beta release is relatively rare, but rustc is still a piece of software, and bugs do exist.

Maintenance time

The Rust project supports the most recent stable version. When a new stable version is released, the old version reaches its end of life (EOL). This means each version is supported for six weeks.

Unstable Features

There’s one more catch with this release model: unstable features. Rust uses a technique called “feature flags” to determine what features are enabled in a given release. If a new feature is under active development, it lands on master, and therefore, in nightly, but behind a feature flag. If you, as a user, wish to try out the work-in-progress feature, you can, but you must be using a nightly release of Rust and annotate your source code with the appropriate flag to opt in.

If you’re using a beta or stable release of Rust, you can’t use any feature flags. This is the key that allows us to get practical use with new features before we declare them stable forever. Those who wish to opt into the bleeding edge can do so, and those who want a rock-solid experience can stick with stable and know that their code won’t break. Stability without stagnation.

This book only contains information about stable features, as in-progress features are still changing, and surely they’ll be different between when this book was written and when they get enabled in stable builds. You can find documentation for nightly-only features online.

Rustup and the Role of Rust Nightly

Rustup makes it easy to change between different release channels of Rust, on a global or per-project basis. By default, you’ll have stable Rust installed. To install nightly, for example:

$ rustup toolchain install nightly

You can see all of the toolchains (releases of Rust and associated components) you have installed with rustup as well. Here’s an example on one of your authors’ Windows computer:

> rustup toolchain list
stable-x86_64-pc-windows-msvc (default)

As you can see, the stable toolchain is the default. Most Rust users use stable most of the time. You might want to use stable most of the time, but use nightly on a specific project, because you care about a cutting-edge feature. To do so, you can use rustup override in that project’s directory to set the nightly toolchain as the one rustup should use when you’re in that directory:

$ cd ~/projects/needs-nightly
$ rustup override set nightly

Now, every time you call rustc or cargo inside of ~/projects/needs-nightly, rustup will make sure that you are using nightly Rust, rather than your default of stable Rust. This comes in handy when you have a lot of Rust projects!

The RFC Process and Teams

So how do you learn about these new features? Rust’s development model follows a Request For Comments (RFC) process. If you’d like an improvement in Rust, you can write up a proposal, called an RFC.

Anyone can write RFCs to improve Rust, and the proposals are reviewed and discussed by the Rust team, which is comprised of many topic subteams. There’s a full list of the teams on Rust’s website, which includes teams for each area of the project: language design, compiler implementation, infrastructure, documentation, and more. The appropriate team reads the proposal and the comments, writes some comments of their own, and eventually, there’s consensus to accept or reject the feature.

If the feature is accepted, an issue is opened on the Rust repository, and someone can implement it. The person who implements it very well may not be the person who proposed the feature in the first place! When the implementation is ready, it lands on the master branch behind a feature gate, as we discussed in the “Unstable Features” section.

After some time, once Rust developers who use nightly releases have been able to try out the new feature, team members will discuss the feature, how it’s worked out on nightly, and decide if it should make it into stable Rust or not. If the decision is to move forward, the feature gate is removed, and the feature is now considered stable! It rides the trains into a new stable release of Rust.