Improve the target-specific dependency experience in Cargo by leveraging the same #[cfg] syntax that Rust has.


Currently in Cargo it’s relatively painful to list target-specific dependencies. This can only be done by listing out the entire target string as opposed to using the more-convenient #[cfg] annotations that Rust source code has access to. Consequently a Windows-specific dependency ends up having to be defined for four triples: {i686,x86_64}-pc-windows-{gnu,msvc}, and this is unfortunately not forwards compatible as well!

As a result most crates end up unconditionally depending on target-specific dependencies and rely on the crates themselves to have the relevant #[cfg] to only be compiled for the right platforms. This experience leads to excessive downloads, excessive compilations, and overall “unclean methods” to have a platform specific dependency.

This RFC proposes leveraging the same familiar syntax used in Rust itself to define these dependencies.

Detailed design

The target-specific dependency syntax in Cargo will be expanded to include not only full target strings but also #[cfg] expressions:

winapi = "0.2"

unix-socket = "0.4"

[target.'cfg(target_os = "macos")'.dependencies]
core-foundation = "0.2"

Specifically, the “target” listed here is considered special if it starts with the string “cfg(” and ends with “)”. If this is not true then Cargo will continue to treat it as an opaque string and pass it to the compiler via --target (Cargo’s current behavior).

Cargo will implement its own parser of this syntax inside the cfg expression, it will not rely on the compiler itself. The grammar, however, will be the same as the compiler for now:

cfg := "cfg(" meta-item * ")"
meta-item := ident |
             ident "=" string |
             ident "(" meta-item * ")"

Like Rust, Cargo will implement the any, all, and not operators for the ident(list) syntax. The last missing piece is simply understand what ident and ident = "string" values are defined for a particular target. To learn this information Cargo will query the compiler via a new command line flag:

$ rustc --print cfg

$ rustc --print cfg --target i686-pc-windows-msvc

The --print cfg command line flag will print out all built-in #[cfg] directives defined by the compiler onto standard output. Each cfg will be printed on its own line to allow external parsing. Cargo will use this to call the compiler once (or twice if an explicit target is requested) when resolution starts, and it will use these key/value pairs to execute the cfg queries in the dependency graph being constructed.


This is not a forwards-compatible extension to Cargo, so this will break compatibility with older Cargo versions. If a crate is published with a Cargo that supports this cfg syntax, it will not be buildable by a Cargo that does not understand the cfg syntax. The registry itself is prepared to handle this sort of situation as the “target” string is just opaque, however.

This can be perhaps mitigated via a number of strategies:

  1. Have reject the cfg syntax until the implementation has landed on stable Cargo for at least one full cycle. Applications, path dependencies, and git dependencies would still be able to use this syntax, but wouldn’t be able to leverage it immediately.
  2. Crates on wishing for compatibility could simply hold off on using this syntax until this implementation has landed in stable Cargo for at least a full cycle. This would mean that everyone could use it immediately but “big crates” would be advised to hold off for compatibility for awhile.
  3. Have rewrite dependencies as they’re published. If you publish a crate with a cfg(windows) dependency then could expand this to all known triples which match cfg(windows) when storing the metadata internally. This would mean that crates using cfg syntax would continue to be compatible with older versions of Cargo so long as they were only used as a dependency.

For ease of implementation this RFC would recommend strategy (1) to help ease this into the ecosystem without too much pain in terms of compatibility or implementation.


Instead of using Rust’s #[cfg] syntax, Cargo could support other options such as patterns over the target string. For example it could accept something along the lines of:

winapi = "0.2"

core-foundation = "0.2"

While certainly more flexible than today’s implementation, it unfortunately is relatively error prone and doesn’t cover all the use cases one may want:

  • Matching against a string isn’t necessarily guaranteed to be robust moving forward into the future.
  • This doesn’t support negation and other operators, e.g. all(unix, not(osx)).
  • This doesn’t support meta-families like cfg(unix).

Another possible alternative would be to have Cargo supply pre-defined families such as windows and unix as well as the above pattern matching, but this eventually just moves into the territory of what #[cfg] already provides but may not always quite get there.

Unresolved questions

  • This is not the only change that’s known to Cargo which is known to not be forwards-compatible, so it may be best to lump them all together into one Cargo release instead of releasing them over time, but should this be blocked on those ideas? (note they have not been formed into an RFC yet)