Summary

Add a default lifetime bound for object types, so that it is no longer necessary to write things like Box<Trait+'static> or &'a (Trait+'a). The default will be based on the context in which the object type appears. Typically, object types that appear underneath a reference take the lifetime of the innermost reference under which they appear, and otherwise the default is 'static. However, user-defined types with T:'a annotations override the default.

Examples:

  • &'a &'b SomeTrait becomes &'a &'b (SomeTrait+'b)
  • &'a Box<SomeTrait> becomes &'a Box<SomeTrait+'a>
  • Box<SomeTrait> becomes Box<SomeTrait+'static>
  • Rc<SomeTrait> becomes Rc<SomeTrait+'static>
  • std::cell::Ref<'a, SomeTrait> becomes std::cell::Ref<'a, SomeTrait+'a>

Cases where the lifetime bound is either given explicitly or can be inferred from the traits involved are naturally unaffected.

Motivation

Current situation

As described in RFC 34, object types carry a single lifetime bound. Sometimes, this bound can be inferred based on the traits involved. Frequently, however, it cannot, and in that case the lifetime bound must be given explicitly. Some examples of situations where an error would be reported are as follows:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
struct SomeStruct {
    object: Box<Writer>, // <-- ERROR No lifetime bound can be inferred.
}

struct AnotherStruct<'a> {
    callback: &'a Fn(),  // <-- ERROR No lifetime bound can be inferred.
}
#}

Errors of this sort are a common source of confusion for new users (partly due to a poor error message). To avoid errors, those examples would have to be written as follows:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
struct SomeStruct {
    object: Box<Writer+'static>,
}

struct AnotherStruct<'a> {
    callback: &'a (Fn()+'a),
}
#}

Ever since it was introduced, there has been a desire to make this fully explicit notation more compact for common cases. In practice, the object bounds are almost always tightly linked to the context in which the object appears: it is relatively rare, for example, to have a boxed object type that is not bounded by 'static or Send (e.g., Box<Trait+'a>). Similarly, it is unusual to have a reference to an object where the object itself has a distinct bound (e.g., &'a (Trait+'b)). This is not to say these situations never arise; as we'll see below, both of these do arise in practice, but they are relatively unusual (and in fact there is never a good reason to do &'a (Trait+'b), though there can be a reason to have &'a mut (Trait+'b); see "Detailed Design" for full details).

The need for a shorthand is made somewhat more urgent by RFC 458, which disconnects the Send trait from the 'static bound. This means that object types now are written Box<Foo+Send> would have to be written Box<Foo+Send+'static>.

Therefore, the following examples would require explicit bounds:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
trait Message : Send { }
Box<Message> // ERROR: 'static no longer inferred from `Send` supertrait
Box<Writer+Send> // ERROR: 'static no longer inferred from `Send` bound
#}

The proposed rule

This RFC proposes to use the context in which an object type appears to derive a sensible default. Specifically, the default begins as 'static. Type constructors like & or user-defined structs can alter that default for their type arguments, as follows:

  • The default begins as 'static.
  • &'a X and &'a mut X change the default for object bounds within X to be 'a
  • The defaults for user-defined types like SomeType<X> are driven by the where-clauses defined on SomeType, see the next section for details. The high-level idea is that if the where-clauses on SomeType indicate the X will be borrowed for a lifetime 'a, then the default for objects appearing in X becomes 'a.

The motivation for these rules is basically that objects which are not contained within a reference default to 'static, and otherwise the default is the lifetime of the reference. This is almost always what you want. As evidence, consider the following statistics, which show the frequency of trait references from three Rust projects. The final column shows the percentage of uses that would be correctly predicted by the proposed rule.

As these statistics were gathered using ack and some simple regular expressions, they only include cover those cases where an explicit lifetime bound was required today. In function signatures, lifetime bounds can always be omitted, and it is impossible to distinguish &SomeTrait from &SomeStruct using only a regular expression. However, we belive that the proposed rule would be compatible with the existing defaults for function signatures in all or virtually all cases.

The first table shows the results for objects that appear within a Box:

package Box<Trait+Send> Box<Trait+'static> Box<Trait+'other> %
iron 6 0 0 100%
cargo 7 0 7 50%
rust 53 28 20 80%

Here rust refers to both the standard library and rustc. As you can see, cargo (and rust, specifically libsyntax) both have objects that encapsulate borrowed references, leading to types Box<Trait+'src>. This pattern is not aided by the current defaults (though it is also not made any more explicit than it already is). However, this is the minority.

The next table shows the results for references to objects.

package &(Trait+Send) &'a [mut] (Trait+'a) &'a mut (Trait+'b) %
iron 0 0 0 100%
cargo 0 0 5 0%
rust 1 9 0 100%

As before, the defaults would not help cargo remove its existing annotations (though they do not get any worse), though all other cases are resolved. (Also, from casual examination, it appears that cargo could in fact employ the proposed defaults without a problem, though the types would be different than the types as they appear in the source today, but this has not been fully verified.)

Detailed design

This section extends the high-level rule above with suppor for user-defined types, and also describes potential interactions with other parts of the system.

User-defined types. The way that user-defined types like SomeType<...> will depend on the where-clauses attached to SomeType:

  • If SomeType contains a single where-clause like T:'a, where T is some type parameter on SomeType and 'a is some lifetime, then the type provided as value of T will have a default object bound of 'a. An example of this is std::cell::Ref: a usage like Ref<'x, X> would change the default for object types appearing in X to be 'a.
  • If SomeType contains no where-clauses of the form T:'a then the default is not changed. An example of this is Box or Rc. Usages like Box<X> would therefore leave the default unchanged for object types appearing in X, which probably means that the default would be 'static (though &'a Box<X> would have a default of 'a).
  • If SomeType contains multiple where-clausess of the form T:'a, then the default is cleared and explicit lifetiem bounds are required. There are no known examples of this in the standard library as this situation arises rarely in practice.

The motivation for these rules is that T:'a annotations are only required when a reference to T with lifetime 'a appears somewhere within the struct body. For example, the type std::cell::Ref is defined:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
pub struct Ref<'b, T:'b> {
    value: &'b T,
    borrow: BorrowRef<'b>,
}
#}

Because the field value has type &'b T, the declaration T:'b is required, to indicate that borrowed pointers within T must outlive the lifetime 'b. This RFC uses this same signal to control the defaults on objects types.

It is important that the default is not driven by the actual types of the fields within Ref, but solely by the where-clauses declared on Ref. This is both because it better serves to separate interface and implementation and because trying to examine the types of the fields to determine the default would create a cycle in the case of recursive types.

Precedence of this rule with respect to other defaults. This rule takes precedence over the existing existing defaults that are applied in function signatures as well as those that are intended (but not yet implemented) for impl declarations. Therefore:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
fn foo1(obj: &SomeTrait) { }
fn foo2(obj: Box<SomeTrait>) { }
#}

expand under this RFC to:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
// Under this RFC:
fn foo1<'a>(obj: &'a (SomeTrait+'a)) { }
fn foo2(obj: Box<SomeTrait+'static>) { }
#}

whereas today those same functions expand to:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
// Under existing rules:
fn foo1<'a,'b>(obj: &'a (SomeTrait+'b)) { }
fn foo2(obj: Box<SomeTrait+'static>) { }
#}

The reason for this rule is that we wish to ensure that if one writes a struct declaration, then any types which appear in the struct declaration can be safely copy-and-pasted into a fn signature. For example:


# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
struct Foo {
    x: Box<SomeTrait>, // equiv to `Box<SomeTrait+'static>`
}

fn bar(foo: &mut Foo, x: Box<SomeTrait>) {
    foo.x = x; // (*)
}
#}

The goal is to ensure that the line marked with (*) continues to compile. If we gave the fn signature defaults precedence over the object defaults, the assignment would in this case be illegal, because the expansion of Box<SomeTrait> would be different.

Interaction with object coercion. The rules specify that &'a SomeTrait and &'a mut SomeTrait are expanded to &'a (SomeTrait+'a)and &'a mut (SomeTrait+'a) respecively. Today, in fn signatures, one would get the expansions &'a (SomeTrait+'b) and &'a mut (SomeTrait+'b), respectively. In the case of a shared reference &'a SomeTrait, this difference is basically irrelevant, as the lifetime bound can always be approximated to be shorter when needed.

In the case a mutable reference &'a mut SomeTrait, however, using two lifetime variables is in principle a more general expansion. The reason has to do with "variance" -- specifically, because the proposed expansion places the 'a lifetime qualifier in the reference of a mutable reference, the compiler will be unable to allow 'a to be approximated with a shorter lifetime. You may have experienced this if you have types like &'a mut &'a mut Foo; the compiler is also forced to be conservative about the lifetime 'a in that scenario.

However, in the specific case of object types, this concern is ameliorated by the existing object coercions. These coercions permit &'a mut (SomeTrait+'a) to be coerced to &'b mut (SomeTrait+'c) where 'a : 'b and 'a : 'c. The reason that this is legal is because unsized types (like object types) cannot be assigned, thus sidestepping the variance concerns. This means that programs like the following compile successfully (though you will find that you get errors if you replace the object type (Counter+'a) with the underlying type &'a mut u32):

#![allow(unused_variables)]
#![allow(dead_code)]

trait Counter {
    fn inc_and_get(&mut self) -> u32;
}

impl<'a> Counter for &'a mut u32 {
    fn inc_and_get(&mut self) -> u32 {
        **self += 1;
        **self
    }
}

fn foo<'a>(x: &'a u32, y: &'a mut (Counter+'a)) {
}

fn bar<'a>(x: &'a mut (Counter+'a)) {
    let value = 2_u32;
    foo(&value, x)
}

fn main() {
}

This may seem surprising, but it's a reflection of the fact that object types give the user less power than if the user had direct access to the underlying data; the user is confined to accessing the underlying data through a known interface.

Drawbacks

A. Breaking change. This change has the potential to break some existing code, though given the statistics gathered we believe the effect will be minimal (in particular, defaults are only permitted in fn signatures today, so in most existing code explicit lifetime bounds are used).

B. Lifetime errors with defaults can get confusing. Defaults always carry some potential to surprise users, though it's worth pointing out that the current rules are also a big source of confusion. Further improvements like the current system for suggesting alternative fn signatures would help here, of course (and are an expected subject of investigation regardless).

C. Inferring T:'a annotations becomes inadvisable. It has sometimes been proposed that we should infer the T:'a annotations that are currently required on structs. Adopting this RFC makes that inadvisable because the effect of inferred annotations on defaults would be quite subtle (one could ignore them, which is suboptimal, or one could try to use them, but that makes the defaults that result quite non-obvious, and may also introduce cyclic dependencies in the code that are very difficult to resolve, since inferring the bounds needed without knowing object lifetime bounds would be challenging). However, there are good reasons not to want to infer those bounds in any case. In general, Rust has adopted the principle that type definitions are always fully explicit when it comes to reference lifetimes, even though fn signatures may omit information (e.g., omitted lifetimes, lifetime elision, etc). This principle arose from past experiments where we used extensive inference in types and found that this gave rise to particularly confounding errors, since the errors were based on annotations that were inferred and hence not always obvious.

Alternatives

  1. Leave things as they are with an improved error message. Besides the general dissatisfaction with the current system, a big concern here is that if RFC 458 is accepted (which seems likely), this implies that object types like SomeTrait+Send will now require an explicit region bound. Most of the time, that would be SomeTrait+Send+'static, which is very long indeed. We considered the option of introducing a new trait, let's call it Own for now, that is basically Send+'static. However, that required (1) finding a reasonable name for Own; (2) seems to lessen one of the benefits of RFC 458, which is that lifetimes and other properties can be considered orthogonally; and (3) does nothing to help with cases like &'a mut FnMut(), which one would still have to write as &'a mut (FnMut()+'a).

  2. Do not drive defaults with the T:'a annotations that appear on structs. An earlier iteration of this RFC omitted the consideration of T:'a annotations from user-defined structs. While this retains the option of inferring T:'a annotations, it means that objects appearing in user-defined types like Ref<'a, Trait> get the wrong default.

Unresolved questions

None.