Rust’s Write trait has the write_all method, which is a convenience method that writes a whole buffer, failing with ErrorKind::WriteZero if the buffer cannot be written in full.

This RFC proposes adding its Read counterpart: a method (here called read_exact) that reads a whole buffer, failing with an error (here called ErrorKind::UnexpectedEOF) if the buffer cannot be read in full.


When dealing with serialization formats with fixed-length fields, reading or writing less than the field’s size is an error. For the Write side, the write_all method does the job; for the Read side, however, one has to call read in a loop until the buffer is completely filled, or until a premature EOF is reached.

This leads to a profusion of similar helper functions. For instance, the byteorder crate has a read_full function, and the postgres crate has a read_all function. However, their handling of the premature EOF condition differs: the byteorder crate has its own Error enum, with UnexpectedEOF and Io variants, while the postgres crate uses an io::Error with an io::ErrorKind::Other.

That can make it unnecessarily hard to mix uses of these helper functions; for instance, if one wants to read a 20-byte tag (using one’s own helper function) followed by a big-endian integer, either the helper function has to be written to use byteorder::Error, or the calling code has to deal with two different ways to represent a premature EOF, depending on which field encountered the EOF condition.

Additionally, when reading from an in-memory buffer, looping is not necessary; it can be replaced by a size comparison followed by a copy_memory (similar to write_all for &mut [u8]). If this non-looping implementation is #[inline], and the buffer size is known (for instance, it’s a fixed-size buffer in the stack, or there was an earlier check of the buffer size against a larger value), the compiler could potentially turn a read from the buffer followed by an endianness conversion into the native endianness (as can happen when using the byteorder crate) into a single-instruction direct load from the buffer into a register.

Detailed design

First, a new variant UnexpectedEOF is added to the io::ErrorKind enum.

The following method is added to the Read trait:

fn read_exact(&mut self, buf: &mut [u8]) -> Result<()>;

Additionally, a default implementation of this method is provided:

fn read_exact(&mut self, mut buf: &mut [u8]) -> Result<()> {
    while !buf.is_empty() {
        match {
            Ok(0) => break,
            Ok(n) => { let tmp = buf; buf = &mut tmp[n..]; }
            Err(ref e) if e.kind() == ErrorKind::Interrupted => {}
            Err(e) => return Err(e),
    if !buf.is_empty() {
        Err(Error::new(ErrorKind::UnexpectedEOF, "failed to fill whole buffer"))
    } else {

And an optimized implementation of this method for &[u8] is provided:

fn read_exact(&mut self, buf: &mut [u8]) -> Result<()> {
    if (buf.len() > self.len()) {
        return Err(Error::new(ErrorKind::UnexpectedEOF, "failed to fill whole buffer"));
    let (a, b) = self.split_at(buf.len());
    slice::bytes::copy_memory(a, buf);
    *self = b;

The detailed semantics of read_exact are as follows: read_exact reads exactly the number of bytes needed to completely fill its buf parameter. If that’s not possible due to an “end of file” condition (that is, the read method would return 0 even when passed a buffer with at least one byte), it returns an ErrorKind::UnexpectedEOF error.

On success, the read pointer is advanced by the number of bytes read, as if the read method had been called repeatedly to fill the buffer. On any failure (including an ErrorKind::UnexpectedEOF), the read pointer might have been advanced by any number between zero and the number of bytes requested (inclusive), and the contents of its buf parameter should be treated as garbage (any part of it might or might not have been overwritten by unspecified data).

Even if the failure was an ErrorKind::UnexpectedEOF, the read pointer might have been advanced by a number of bytes less than the number of bytes which could be read before reaching an “end of file” condition.

The read_exact method will never return an ErrorKind::Interrupted error, similar to the read_to_end method.

Similar to the read method, no guarantees are provided about the contents of buf when this function is called; implementations cannot rely on any property of the contents of buf being true. It is recommended that implementations only write data to buf instead of reading its contents.

About ErrorKind::Interrupted

Whether or not read_exact can return an ErrorKind::Interrupted error is orthogonal to its semantics. One could imagine an alternative design where read_exact could return an ErrorKind::Interrupted error.

The reason read_exact should deal with ErrorKind::Interrupted itself is its non-idempotence. On failure, it might have already partially advanced its read pointer an unknown number of bytes, which means it can’t be easily retried after an ErrorKind::Interrupted error.

One could argue that it could return an ErrorKind::Interrupted error if it’s interrupted before the read pointer is advanced. But that introduces a non-orthogonality in the design, where it might either return or retry depending on whether it was interrupted at the beginning or in the middle. Therefore, the cleanest semantics is to always retry.

There’s precedent for this choice in the read_to_end method. Users who need finer control should use the read method directly.

About the read pointer

This RFC proposes a read_exact function where the read pointer (conceptually, what would be returned by Seek::seek if the stream was seekable) is unspecified on failure: it might not have advanced at all, have advanced in full, or advanced partially.

Two possible alternatives could be considered: never advance the read pointer on failure, or always advance the read pointer to the “point of error” (in the case of ErrorKind::UnexpectedEOF, to the end of the stream).

Never advancing the read pointer on failure would make it impossible to have a default implementation (which calls read in a loop), unless the stream was seekable. It would also impose extra costs (like creating a temporary buffer) to allow “seeking back” for non-seekable streams.

Always advancing the read pointer to the end on failure is possible; it happens without any extra code in the default implementation. However, it can introduce extra costs in optimized implementations. For instance, the implementation given above for &[u8] would need a few more instructions in the error case. Some implementations (for instance, reading from a compressed stream) might have a larger extra cost.

The utility of always advancing the read pointer to the end is questionable; for non-seekable streams, there’s not much that can be done on an “end of file” condition, so most users would discard the stream in both an “end of file” and an ErrorKind::UnexpectedEOF situation. For seekable streams, it’s easy to seek back, but most users would treat an ErrorKind::UnexpectedEOF as a “corrupted file” and discard the stream anyways.

Users who need finer control should use the read method directly, or when available use the Seek trait.

About the buffer contents

This RFC proposes that the contents of the output buffer be undefined on an error return. It might be untouched, partially overwritten, or completely overwritten (even if less bytes could be read; for instance, this method might in theory use it as a scratch space).

Two possible alternatives could be considered: do not touch it on failure, or overwrite it with valid data as much as possible.

Never touching the output buffer on failure would make it much more expensive for the default implementation (which calls read in a loop), since it would have to read into a temporary buffer and copy to the output buffer on success. Any implementation which cannot do an early return for all failure cases would have similar extra costs.

Overwriting as much as possible with valid data makes some sense; it happens without any extra cost in the default implementation. However, for optimized implementations this extra work is useless; since the caller can’t know how much is valid data and how much is garbage, it can’t make use of the valid data.

Users who need finer control should use the read method directly.


It’s unfortunate that write_all used WriteZero for its ErrorKind; were it named UnexpectedEOF (which is a much more intuitive name), the same ErrorKind could be used for both functions.

The initial proposal for this read_exact method called it read_all, for symmetry with write_all. However, that name could also be interpreted as “read as many bytes as you can that fit on this buffer, and return what you could read” instead of “read enough bytes to fill this buffer, and fail if you couldn’t read them all”. The previous discussion led to read_exact for the later meaning, and read_full for the former meaning.


If this method fails, the buffer contents are undefined; the `read_exact’ method might have partially overwritten it. If the caller requires “all-or-nothing” semantics, it must clone the buffer. In most use cases, this is not a problem; the caller will discard or overwrite the buffer in case of failure.

In the same way, if this method fails, there is no way to determine how many bytes were read before it determined it couldn’t completely fill the buffer.

Situations that require lower level control can still use read directly.


The first alternative is to do nothing. Every Rust user needing this functionality continues to write their own read_full or read_exact function, or have to track down an external crate just for one straightforward and commonly used convenience method. Additionally, unless everybody uses the same external crate, every reimplementation of this method will have slightly different error handling, complicating mixing users of multiple copies of this convenience method.

The second alternative is to just add the ErrorKind::UnexpectedEOF or similar. This would lead in the long run to everybody using the same error handling for their version of this convenience method, simplifying mixing their uses. However, it’s questionable to add an ErrorKind variant which is never used by the standard library.

Another alternative is to return the number of bytes read in the error case. That makes the buffer contents defined also in the error case, at the cost of increasing the size of the frequently-used io::Error struct, for a rarely used return value. My objections to this alternative are:

  • If the caller has an use for the partially written buffer contents, then it’s treating the “buffer partially filled” case as an alternative success case, not as a failure case. This is not a good match for the semantics of an Err return.
  • Determining that the buffer cannot be completely filled can in some cases be much faster than doing a partial copy. Many callers are not going to be interested in an incomplete read, meaning that all the work of filling the buffer is wasted.
  • As mentioned, it increases the size of a commonly used type in all cases, even when the code has no mention of read_exact.

The final alternative is read_full, which returns the number of bytes read (Result<usize>) instead of failing. This means that every caller has to check the return value against the size of the passed buffer, and some are going to forget (or misimplement) the check. It also prevents some optimizations (like the early return in case there will never be enough data). There are, however, valid use cases for this alternative; for instance, reading a file in fixed-size chunks, where the last chunk (and only the last chunk) can be shorter. I believe this should be discussed as a separate proposal; its pros and cons are distinct enough from this proposal to merit its own arguments.

I believe that the case for read_full is weaker than read_exact, for the following reasons:

  • While read_exact needs an extra variant in ErrorKind, read_full has no new error cases. This means that implementing it yourself is easy, and multiple implementations have no drawbacks other than code duplication.
  • While read_exact can be optimized with an early return in cases where the reader knows its total size (for instance, reading from a compressed file where the uncompressed size was given in a header), read_full has to always write to the output buffer, so there’s not much to gain over a generic looping implementation calling read.