Extract a very small sliver of today’s procedural macro system in the compiler, just enough to get basic features like custom derive working, to have an eventually stable API. Ensure that these features will not pose a maintenance burden on the compiler but also don’t try to provide enough features for the “perfect macro system” at the same time. Overall, this should be considered an incremental step towards an official “macros 2.0”.


Some large projects in the ecosystem today, such as serde and diesel, effectively require the nightly channel of the Rust compiler. Although most projects have an alternative to work on stable Rust, this tends to be far less ergonomic and comes with its own set of downsides, and empirically it has not been enough to push the nightly users to stable as well.

These large projects, however, are often the face of Rust to external users. Common knowledge is that fast serialization is done using serde, but to others this just sounds like “fast Rust needs nightly”. Over time this persistent thought process creates a culture of “well to be serious you require nightly” and a general feeling that Rust is not “production ready”.

The good news, however, is that this class of projects which require nightly Rust almost all require nightly for the reason of procedural macros. Even better, the full functionality of procedural macros is rarely needed, only custom derive! Even better, custom derive typically doesn’t require the features one would expect from a full-on macro system, such as hygiene and modularity, that normal procedural macros typically do. The purpose of this RFC, as a result, is to provide these crates a method of working on stable Rust with the desired ergonomics one would have on nightly otherwise.

Unfortunately today’s procedural macros are not without their architectural shortcomings as well. For example they’re defined and imported with arcane syntax and don’t participate in hygiene very well. To address these issues, there are a number of RFCs to develop a “macros 2.0” story:

Many of these designs, however, will require a significant amount of work to not only implement but also a significant amount of work to stabilize. The current understanding is that these improvements are on the time scale of years, whereas the problem of nightly Rust is today!

As a result, it is an explicit non-goal of this RFC to architecturally improve on the current procedural macro system. The drawbacks of today’s procedural macros will be the same as those proposed in this RFC. The major goal here is to simply minimize the exposed surface area between procedural macros and the compiler to ensure that the interface is well defined and can be stably implemented in future versions of the compiler as well.

Put another way, we currently have macros 1.0 unstable today, we’re shooting for macros 2.0 stable in the far future, but this RFC is striking a middle ground at macros 1.1 today!

Detailed design

First, before looking how we’re going to expose procedural macros, let’s take a detailed look at how they work today.

Today’s procedural macros

A procedural macro today is loaded into a crate with the #![plugin(foo)] annotation at the crate root. This in turn looks for a crate named foo via the same crate loading mechanisms as extern crate, except with the restriction that the target triple of the crate must be the same as the target the compiler was compiled for. In other words, if you’re on x86 compiling to ARM, macros must also be compiled for x86.

Once a crate is found, it’s required to be a dynamic library as well, and once that’s all verified the compiler opens it up with dlopen (or the equivalent therein). After loading, the compiler will look for a special symbol in the dynamic library, and then call it with a macro context.

So as we’ve seen macros are compiled as normal crates into dynamic libraries. One function in the crate is tagged with #[plugin_registrar] which gets wired up to this “special symbol” the compiler wants. When the function is called with a macro context, it uses the passed in plugin registry to register custom macros, attributes, etc.

After a macro is registered, the compiler will then continue the normal process of expanding a crate. Whenever the compiler encounters this macro it will call this registration with essentially and AST and morally gets back a different AST to splice in or replace.

Today’s drawbacks

This expansion process suffers from many of the downsides mentioned in the motivation section, such as a lack of hygiene, a lack of modularity, and the inability to import macros as you would normally other functionality in the module system.

Additionally, though, it’s essentially impossible to ever stabilize because the interface to the compiler is… the compiler! We clearly want to make changes to the compiler over time, so this isn’t acceptable. To have a stable interface we’ll need to cut down this surface area dramatically to a curated set of known-stable APIs.

Somewhat more subtly, the technical ABI of procedural macros is also exposed quite thinly today as well. The implementation detail of dynamic libraries, and especially that both the compiler and the macro dynamically link to libraries like libsyntax, cannot be changed. This precludes, for example, a completely statically linked compiler (e.g. compiled for x86_64-unknown-linux-musl). Another goal of this RFC will also be to hide as many of these technical details as possible, allowing the compiler to flexibly change how it interfaces to macros.

Macros 1.1

Ok, with the background knowledge of what procedural macros are today, let’s take a look at how we can solve the major problems blocking its stabilization:

  • Sharing an API of the entire compiler
  • Frozen interface between the compiler and macros


Proposed in RFC 1566 and described in this blog post the distribution will now ship with a new librustc_macro crate available for macro authors. The intention here is that the gory details of how macros actually talk to the compiler is entirely contained within this one crate. The stable interface to the compiler is then entirely defined in this crate, and we can make it as small or large as we want. Additionally, like the standard library, it can contain unstable APIs to test out new pieces of functionality over time.

The initial implementation of librustc_macro is proposed to be incredibly bare bones:

#![crate_name = "macro"]

pub struct TokenStream {
    // ...

pub struct LexError {
    // ...

impl FromStr for TokenStream {
    type Err = LexError;

    fn from_str(s: &str) -> Result<TokenStream, LexError> {
        // ...

impl fmt::Display for TokenStream {
    fn fmt(&self, f: &mut fmt::Formatter) -> fmt::Result {
        // ...

That is, there will only be a handful of exposed types and TokenStream can only be converted to and from a String. Eventually TokenStream type will more closely resemble token streams in the compiler itself, and more fine-grained manipulations will be available as well.

Defining a macro

A new crate type will be added to the compiler, rustc-macro (described below), indicating a crate that’s compiled as a procedural macro. There will not be a “registrar” function in this crate type (like there is today), but rather a number of functions which act as token stream transformers to implement macro functionality.

A macro crate might look like:

#![crate_type = "rustc-macro"]
#![crate_name = "double"]

extern crate rustc_macro;

use rustc_macro::TokenStream;

pub fn double(input: TokenStream) -> TokenStream {
    let source = input.to_string();

    // Parse `source` for struct/enum declaration, and then build up some new
    // source code representing a number of items in the implementation of
    // the `Double` trait for the struct/enum in question.
    let source = derive_double(&source);

    // Parse this back to a token stream and return it

This new rustc_macro_derive attribute will be allowed inside of a rustc-macro crate but disallowed in other crate types. It defines a new #[derive] mode which can be used in a crate. The input here is the entire struct that #[derive] was attached to, attributes and all. The output is expected to include the struct/enum itself as well as any number of items to be contextually “placed next to” the initial declaration.

Again, though, there is no hygiene. More specifically, the TokenStream::from_str method will use the same expansion context as the derive attribute itself, not the point of definition of the derive function. All span information for the TokenStream structures returned by from_source will point to the original #[derive] annotation. This means that error messages related to struct definitions will get worse if they have a custom derive attribute placed on them, because the entire struct’s span will get folded into the #[derive] annotation. Eventually, though, more span information will be stable on the TokenStream type, so this is just a temporary limitation.

The rustc_macro_derive attribute requires the signature (similar to macros 2.0):

fn(TokenStream) -> TokenStream

If a macro cannot process the input token stream, it is expected to panic for now, although eventually it will call methods in rustc_macro to provide more structured errors. The compiler will wrap up the panic message and display it to the user appropriately. Eventually, however, librustc_macro will provide more interesting methods of signaling errors to users.

Customization of user-defined #[derive] modes can still be done through custom attributes, although it will be required for rustc_macro_derive implementations to remove these attributes when handing them back to the compiler. The compiler will still gate unknown attributes by default.

rustc-macro crates

Like the rlib and dylib crate types, the rustc-macro crate type is intended to be an intermediate product. What it actually produces is not specified, but if a -L path is provided to it then the compiler will recognize the output artifacts as a macro and it can be loaded for a program.

Initially if a crate is compiled with the rustc-macro crate type (and possibly others) it will forbid exporting any items in the crate other than those functions tagged #[rustc_macro_derive] and those functions must also be placed at the crate root. Finally, the compiler will automatically set the cfg(rustc_macro) annotation whenever any crate type of a compilation is the rustc-macro crate type.

While these properties may seem a bit odd, they’re intended to allow a number of forwards-compatible extensions to be implemented in macros 2.0:

  • Macros eventually want to be imported from crates (e.g. use foo::bar!) and limiting where #[derive] can be defined reduces the surface area for possible conflict.
  • Macro crates eventually want to be compiled to be available both at runtime and at compile time. That is, an extern crate foo annotation may load both a rustc-macro crate and a crate to link against, if they are available. Limiting the public exports for now to only custom-derive annotations should allow for maximal flexibility here.

Using a procedural macro

Using a procedural macro will be very similar to today’s extern crate system, such as:

extern crate double;

pub struct Foo;

fn main() {
    // ...

That is, the extern crate directive will now also be enhanced to look for crates compiled as rustc-macro in addition to those compiled as dylib and rlib. Today this will be temporarily limited to finding either a rustc-macro crate or an rlib/dylib pair compiled for the target, but this restriction may be lifted in the future.

The custom derive annotations loaded from rustc-macro crates today will all be placed into the same global namespace. Any conflicts (shadowing) will cause the compiler to generate an error, and it must be resolved by loading only one or the other of the rustc-macro crates (eventually this will be solved with a more principled use system in macros 2.0).

Initial implementation details

This section lays out what the initial implementation details of macros 1.1 will look like, but none of this will be specified as a stable interface to the compiler. These exact details are subject to change over time as the requirements of the compiler change, and even amongst platforms these details may be subtly different.

The compiler will essentially consider rustc-macro crates as --crate-type dylib -C prefer-dynamic. That is, compiled the same way they are today. This namely means that these macros will dynamically link to the same standard library as the compiler itself, therefore sharing resources like a global allocator, etc.

The librustc_macro crate will compiled as an rlib and a static copy of it will be included in each macro. This crate will provide a symbol known by the compiler that can be dynamically loaded. The compiler will dlopen a macro crate in the same way it does today, find this symbol in librustc_macro, and call it.

The rustc_macro_derive attribute will be encoded into the crate’s metadata, and the compiler will discover all these functions, load their function pointers, and pass them to the librustc_macro entry point as well. This provides the opportunity to register all the various expansion mechanisms with the compiler.

The actual underlying representation of TokenStream will be basically the same as it is in the compiler today. (the details on this are a little light intentionally, shouldn’t be much need to go into too much detail).

Initial Cargo integration

Like plugins today, Cargo needs to understand which crates are rustc-macro crates and which aren’t. Cargo additionally needs to understand this to sequence compilations correctly and ensure that rustc-macro crates are compiled for the host platform. To this end, Cargo will understand a new attribute in the [lib] section:

rustc-macro = true

This annotation indicates that the crate being compiled should be compiled as a rustc-macro crate type for the host platform in the current compilation.

Eventually Cargo may also grow support to understand that a rustc-macro crate should be compiled twice, once for the host and once for the target, but this is intended to be a backwards-compatible extension to Cargo.

Pieces to stabilize

Eventually this RFC is intended to be considered for stabilization (after it’s implemented and proven out on nightly, of course). The summary of pieces that would become stable are:

  • The rustc_macro crate, and a small set of APIs within (skeleton above)
  • The rustc-macro crate type, in addition to its current limitations
  • The #[rustc_macro_derive] attribute
  • The signature of the #![rustc_macro_derive] functions
  • Semantically being able to load macro crates compiled as rustc-macro into the compiler, requiring that the crate was compiled by the exact compiler.
  • The semantic behavior of loading custom derive annotations, in that they’re just all added to the same global namespace with errors on conflicts. Additionally, definitions end up having no hygiene for now.
  • The rustc-macro = true attribute in Cargo

Macros 1.1 in practice

Alright, that’s a lot to take in! Let’s take a look at what this is all going to look like in practice, focusing on a case study of #[derive(Serialize)] for serde.

First off, serde will provide a crate, let’s call it serde_macros. The Cargo.toml will look like:

name = "serde-macros"
# ...

rustc-macro = true

syntex_syntax = "0.38.0"

The contents will look similar to

extern crate rustc_macro;
extern crate syntex_syntax;

use rustc_macro::TokenStream;

pub fn derive_serialize(input: TokenStream) -> TokenStream {
    let input = input.to_string();

    // use syntex_syntax from to parse `input` into an AST

    // use this AST to generate an impl of the `Serialize` trait for the type in
    // question

    // convert that impl to a string

    // parse back into a token stream
    return impl_source.parse().unwrap()

Next, crates will depend on this such as:

serde = "0.9"
serde-macros = "0.9"

And finally use it as such:

extern crate serde;
extern crate serde_macros;

pub struct Foo {
    a: usize,
    #[serde(rename = "foo")]
    b: String,


  • This is not an interface that would be considered for stabilization in a void, there are a number of known drawbacks to the current macro system in terms of how it architecturally fits into the compiler. Additionally, there’s work underway to solve all these problems with macros 2.0.

    As mentioned before, however, the stable version of macros 2.0 is currently quite far off, and the desire for features like custom derive are very real today. The rationale behind this RFC is that the downsides are an acceptable tradeoff from moving a significant portion of the nightly ecosystem onto stable Rust.

  • This implementation is likely to be less performant than procedural macros are today. Round tripping through strings isn’t always a speedy operation, especially for larger expansions. Strings, however, are a very small implementation detail that’s easy to see stabilized until the end of time. Additionally, it’s planned to extend the TokenStream API in the future to allow more fine-grained transformations without having to round trip through strings.

  • Users will still have an inferior experience to today’s nightly macros specifically with respect to compile times. The syntex_syntax crate takes quite a few seconds to compile, and this would be required by any crate which uses serde. To offset this, though, the syntex_syntax could be massively stripped down as all it needs to do is parse struct declarations mostly. There are likely many other various optimizations to compile time that can be applied to ensure that it compiles quickly.

  • Plugin authors will need to be quite careful about the code which they generate as working with strings loses much of the expressiveness of macros in Rust today. For example:

    macro_rules! foo {
        ($x:expr) => {
            enum Foo { Bar = $x, Baz = $x * 2 }
    foo!(1 + 1);

    Plugin authors would have to ensure that this is not naively interpreted as Baz = 1 + 1 * 2 as this will cause incorrect results. The compiler will also need to be careful to parenthesize token streams like this when it generates a stringified source.

  • By having separate library and macro crate support today (e.g. serde and serde_macros) it’s possible for there to be version skew between the two, making it tough to ensure that the two versions you’re using are compatible with one another. This would be solved if serde itself could define or reexport the macros, but unfortunately that would require a likely much larger step towards “macros 2.0” to solve and would greatly increase the size of this RFC.

  • Converting to a string and back loses span information, which can lead to degraded error messages. For example, currently we can make an effort to use the span of a given field when deriving code that is caused by that field, but that kind of precision will not be possible until a richer interface is available.


  • Wait for macros 2.0, but this likely comes with the high cost of postponing a stable custom-derive experience on the time scale of years.

  • Don’t add rustc_macro as a new crate, but rather specify that #[rustc_macro_derive] has a stable-ABI friendly signature. This does not account, however, for the eventual planned introduction of the rustc_macro crate and is significantly harder to write. The marginal benefit of being slightly more flexible about how it’s run likely isn’t worth it.

  • The syntax for defining a macro may be different in the macros 2.0 world (e.g. pub macro foo vs an attribute), that is it probably won’t involve a function attribute like #[rustc_macro_derive]. This interim system could possibly use this syntax as well, but it’s unclear whether we have a concrete enough idea in mind to implement today.

  • The TokenStream state likely has some sort of backing store behind it like a string interner, and in the APIs above it’s likely that this state is passed around in thread-local-storage to avoid threading through a parameter like &mut Context everywhere. An alternative would be to explicitly pass this parameter, but it might hinder trait implementations like fmt::Display and FromStr. Additionally, threading an extra parameter could perhaps become unwieldy over time.

  • In addition to allowing definition of custom-derive forms, definition of custom procedural macros could also be allowed. They are similarly transformers from token streams to token streams, so the interface in this RFC would perhaps be appropriate. This addition, however, adds more surface area to this RFC and the macro 1.1 system which may not be necessary in the long run. It’s currently understood that only custom derive is needed to move crates like serde and diesel onto stable Rust.

  • Instead of having a global namespace of #[derive] modes which rustc-macro crates append to, we could at least require something along the lines of #[derive(serde_macros::Deserialize)]. This is unfortunately, however, still disconnected from what name resolution will actually be eventually and also deviates from what you actually may want, #[derive(serde::Deserialize)], for example.

Unresolved questions

  • Is the interface between macros and the compiler actually general enough to be implemented differently one day?

  • The intention of macros 1.1 is to be as close as possible to macros 2.0 in spirit and implementation, just without stabilizing vast quantities of features. In that sense, it is the intention that given a stable macros 1.1, we can layer on features backwards-compatibly to get to macros 2.0. Right now, though, the delta between what this RFC proposes and where we’d like to is very small, and can get get it down to actually zero?

  • Eventually macro crates will want to be loaded both at compile time and runtime, and this means that Cargo will need to understand to compile these crates twice, once as rustc-macro and once as an rlib. Does Cargo have enough information to do this? Are the extensions needed here backwards-compatible?

  • What sort of guarantees will be provided about the runtime environment for plugins? Are they sandboxed? Are they run in the same process?

  • Should the name of this library be rustc_macros? The rustc_ prefix normally means “private”. Other alternatives are macro (make it a contextual keyword), macros, proc_macro.

  • Should a Context or similar style argument be threaded through the APIs? Right now they sort of implicitly require one to be threaded through thread-local-storage.

  • Should the APIs here be namespaced, perhaps with a _1_1 suffix?

  • To what extent can we preserve span information through heuristics? Should we adopt a slightly different API, for example one based on concatenation, to allow preserving spans?