Summary

This experimental RFC lays out a high-level plan for improving Cargo's ability to integrate with other build systems and environments. As an experimental RFC, it opens the door to landing unstable features in Cargo to try out ideas, but not to stabilizing those features, which will require follow-up RFCs. It proposes a variety of features which, in total, permit a wide spectrum of integration cases -- from customizing a single aspect of Cargo to letting an external build system run almost the entire show.

Motivation

One of the first hurdles for using Rust in production is integrating it into your organization's build system. The level of challenge depends on the level of integration required: it's relatively painless to invoke Cargo from a makefile and let it fully manage building Rust code, but gets harder as you want the external build system to exert finer-grained control over how Rust code is built. The goal of this RFC is to lay out a vision for making integration at any scale much easier than it is today.

After extensive discussion with stakeholders, there appear to be two distinct kinds of use-cases (or "customers") involved here:

  • Mixed build systems, where building already involves a variety of language- or project-specific build systems. For this use case, the desire is to use Cargo as-is, except for some specific concerns. Those concerns take a variety of shapes: customizing caching, having a local crate registry, custom handling for native dependencies, and so on. Addressing these concerns well means adding new points of extensibility or control to Cargo.

  • Homogeneous build systems like Bazel, where there is a single prevailing build system and methodology that works across languages and projects and is expected to drive all aspects of the build. In such cases the goal of Cargo integration is largely interoperability, including easy use of the crates.io ecosystem and Rust-centric tooling, both of which expect Cargo-driven build management.

The interoperability constraints are, in actuality, hard constraints around any kind of integration.

In more detail, a build system integration must:

  • Make it easy for the outer build system to control the aspects of building that are under its purview (e.g. artifact management, caching, network access).
  • Make it easy to depend on arbitrary crates in the crates.io ecosystem.
  • Make it easy to use Rust tooling like rustfmt or the RLS with projects that depend on the external build system.

A build system integration should:

  • Provide Cargo-based or Cargo-like workflows when developing Rust projects, so that documentation and guidance from the Rust community applies even when working within a different build system.
  • To the extent possible, support Cargo concepts in a smooth, first-class way in the external build system (e.g. Cargo features, profiles, etc)

This RFC does not attempt to provide a detailed solution for all of the needed extensibility points in Cargo, but rather to outline a general plan for how to get there over time. Individual components that add significant features to Cargo will need follow-up RFCs before stabilization.

Guide-level explanation

The plan proposed in this RFC is to address the two use-cases from the motivation section in parallel:

  • For the mixed build system case, we will triage feature requests and work on adding further points of extensibility to Cargo based on expected impact. Each added point of extensibility should ease build system integration for another round of customers.

  • For the homoegenous build system case, we will immediately pursue extensibility points that will enable the external build system to perform many of the tasks that Cargo does today--but while still meeting our interoperability constraints. We will then work on smoothing remaining rough edges, which have a high degree of overlap with the work on mixed build systems.

In the long run, these two parallel lines of work will converge, such that we offer a complete spectrum of options (in terms of what Cargo controls versus an external system). But they start at critically different points, and working on those in parallel is the key to delivering value quickly and incrementally.

A high-level model of what Cargo does

Before delving into the details of the plan, it's helpful to lay out a mental model of the work that Cargo does today, broken into several stages:

Step Conceptual output Related concerns
Dependency resolution Lock file Custom registries, mirrors, offline/local, native deps, ...
Build configuration Cargo settings per crate in graph Profiles
Build lowering A build plan: a series of steps that must be run in sequence, including rustc and binary invocations Build scripts, plugins
Build execution Compiled artifacts Caching

The first stage, dependency resolution, is the most complex; it's where our model of semver comes into play, as well as a huge list of related concerns.

Dependency resolution produces a lockfile, which records what crates are included in the dependency graph, coming from what sources and at what versions, as well as interdependencies. It operates independently of the requested Cargo workflow.

The next stage is build configuration, which conceptually is where things like profiles come into play: of the crates we're going to build, we need to decide, at a high level, "how" we're going to build them. This configuration is at the "Cargo level of abstraction", i.e. in terms of things like profiles rather than low-level rustc flags. There's strong desire to make this system more expressive, for example by allowing you to always optimize certain dependencies even when otherwise in the debug profile.

After configuration, we know at the Cargo level exactly what we want to build, but we need to lower the level of abstraction into concrete, individual steps. This is where, for example, profile information is transformed into specific rustc flags. Lowering is done independently for each crate, and results in a sequence of process invocations, interleaving calls to rustc with e.g. running the binary for a build script. You can think of these sequences as expanding what was previously a "compile this crate with this configuration" node in the dependency graph into a finer-grained set of nodes for running rustc etc.

Finally, there's the actual build execution, which is conceptually straightforward: we analyze the dependency graph and existing, cached artifacts, and then actually perform any un-cached build steps (in parallel when possible). Of course, this is the bread-and-butter of many external build systems, so we want to make it easy for them to tweak or entirely control this part of the process.

The first two steps -- dependency resolution and build configuration -- need to operate on an entire dependency graph at once. Build lowering, by contrast, can be performed for any crate in isolation.

Customizing Cargo

A key point is that, in principle, each of these steps is separable from the others. That is, we should be able to rearchitect Cargo so that each of these steps is managed by a distinct component, and the components have a stable -- and public! -- way of communicating with one another. That in turn will enable replacing any particular component while keeping the others. (To be clear, the breakdown above is just a high-level sketch; in reality, we'll need a more nuanced and layered picture of Cargo's activities).

This RFC proposes to provide some means of customizing Cargo's activities at various layers and stages. The details here are very much up for grabs, and are part of the experimentation we need to do.

Likely design constraints

Some likely constraints for a Cargo customization/plugin system are:

  • It should be possible for Rust tools (like rustfmt, IDEs, linters) to "call Cargo" to get information or artifacts in a standardized way, while remaining oblivious to any customizations. Ideally, Cargo workflows (including custom commands) would also work transparently.

  • It should be possible to customize or swap out a small part of Cargo's behavior without understanding or reimplementing other parts.

  • The interface for customization should be forward-compatible: existing plugins should continue to work with new versions of Cargo.

  • It should be difficult or impossible to introduce customizations that are "incoherent", for example that result in unexpected differences in the way that rustc is invoked in different workflows (because, say, the testing workflow was customized but the normal build workflow wasn't). In other words, customizations are subject to cross-cutting concerns, which need to be identified and factored out.

We will iterate on the constraints to form core design principles as we experiment.

A concrete example

Since the above is quite hand-wavy, it's helpful to see a very simple, concrete example of what a customization might look like. You could imagine something like the following for supplying manifest information from an external build system, rather than through Cargo.toml:

Cargo.toml

[plugins.bazel]
generate-manifest = true

$root/.cargo/meta.toml

[plugins]

# These dependencies cannot themselves use plugins.
# This file is "staged" earlier than Cargo.toml

bazel = "1.0" # a regular crates.io dependency

Semantics

If any plugins entry in Cargo.toml defines a generate-manifest key, whenever Cargo would be about to return the parsed results of Cargo.toml , instead:

  • look for the associated plugin in .cargo/meta.toml, and ask it to generate the manifest
  • return that instead

Specifics for the homogeneous build system case

For homogeneous build systems, there are two kinds of code that must be dealt with: code originally written using vanilla Cargo and a crate registry, and code written "natively" in the context of the external build system. Any integration has to handle the first case to have access to crates.io or a vendored mirror thereof.

Using crates vendored from or managed by a crate registry

Whether using a registry server or a vendored copy, if you're building Rust code that is written using vanilla Cargo, you will at some level need to use Cargo's dependency resolution and Cargo.toml files. In this case, the external build system should invoke Cargo for at least the dependency resolution and build configuration steps, and likely the build lowering step as well. In such a world, Cargo is responsible for planning the build (which involves largely Rust-specific concerns), but the external build system is responsible for executing it.

A typical pattern of usage is to have a whitelist of "root dependencies" from an external registry which will be permitted as dependencies within the organization, often pinning to a specific version and set of Cargo features. This whitelist can be described as a single Cargo.toml file, which can then drive Cargo's dependency resolution just once for the entire registry. The resulting lockfile can be used to guide vendoring and construction of a build plan for consumption by the external build system.

One important concern is: how do you depend on code from other languages, which is being managed by the external build system? That's a narrow version of a more general question around native dependencies, which will be addressed separately in a later section.

Workflow and interop story

On the external build system side, a rule or plugin will need to be written that knows how to invoke Cargo to produce a build plan corresponding to a whitelisted (and potentially vendored) registry, then translate that build plan back into appropriate rules for the build system. Thus, when doing normal builds, the external build system drives the entire process, but invokes Cargo for guidance during the planning stage.

Using crates managed by the build system

Many organization want to employ their own strategy for maintaining and versioning code and for resolving dependencies, in addition to build execution.

In this case, the big question is: how can we arrange things such that the Rust tooling ecosystem can understand what the external build system is doing, to gather the information needed for the tools to operate.

The possibility we'll examine here is using Cargo purely as a conduit for information from the external build system to Rust tools (see Alternatives for more discussion). That is, tools will be able to call into Cargo in a uniform way, with Cargo subsequently just forwarding those calls along to custom user code hooking into an external build system. In this approach, Cargo.toml will generally consist of a single entry forwarding to a plugin (as in the example plugin above). The description of dependencies is then written in the external build system's rule format. Thus, Cargo acts primarily as a workflow and tool orchestrator, since it is not involved in either planning or executing the build. Let's dig into it.

Workflow and interop story

Even though the external build system is entirely handling both dependency resolution and build execution for the crates under its management, it may still use Cargo for lowering, i.e. to produce the actual rustc invocations from a higher-level configuration. Cargo will provide a way to do this.

When developing a crate, it should be possible to invoke Cargo commands as usual. We do this via a plugin. When invoking, for example, cargo build, the plugin will translate that to a request to the external build system, which will then execute the build (possibly re-invoking Cargo for lowering). For cargo run, the same steps are followed by putting the resulting build artifact in an appropriate location, and then following Cargo's usual logic. And so on.

A similar story plays out when using, for example, the RLS or rustfmt. Ideally, these tools will have no idea that a Cargo plugin is in play; the information and artifacts they need can be obtained by using Cargo's in a standard way, transparently -- but the underlying information will be coming from the external build system, via the plugin. Thus the plugin for the external build system must be able to translate its dependencies back into something equivalent to a lockfile, at least.

The complete picture

In general, any integration with a homogeneous build system needs to be able to handle (vendored) crate registries, because access to crates.io is a hard constraint.

Usually, you'll want to combine the handling of these external registries with crates managed purely by the external build system, meaning that there are effectively two modes of building crates at play overall. All that's needed to do this is a distinction within the external build system between these two kinds of dependencies, which then drives the plugin interactions accordingly.

Cross-cutting concern: native dependencies

One important point left out of the above explanation is the story for dependencies on non-Rust code. These dependencies should be built and managed by the external build system. But there's a catch: existing "sys" crates on crates.io that provide core native dependencies use custom build scripts to build or discover those dependencies. We want to reroute those crates to instead use the dependencies provided by the build system.

Here, there's a short-term story and a long-term story.

Short term: white lists with build script overrides

Cargo today offers the ability to override the build script for any crate using the links key (which is generally how you signal what native dependency you're providing), and instead provide the library location directly. This feature can be used to instead point at the output provided by the external build system. Together with whitelisting crates that use build scripts, it's possible to use the existing crates.io ecosystem while managing native dependencies via the external build system.

There are some downsides, though. If the sys crates change in any way -- for example, altering the way they build the native dependency, or the version they use -- there's no clear heads-up that something may need to be adjusted within the external build system. It might be possible, however, to use version-specific whitelisting to side-step this issue.

Even so, whitelisting itself is a laborious process, and in the long run there are advantages to offering a higher-level way of specifying native dependencies in the first place.

Long term: declarative native dependencies

Reliably building native dependencies in a cross-platform way is... challenging. Today, Rust offers some help with this through crates like gcc and pkgconfig, which provide building blocks for writing build scripts that discover or build native dependencies. But still, today, each build script is a bespoke affair, customizing the use of these crates in arbitrary ways. It's difficult, error-prone work.

This RFC proposes to start a long term effort to provide a more first-class way of specifying native dependencies. The hope is that we can get coverage of, say, 80% of native dependencies using a simple, high-level specification, and only in the remaining 20% have to write arbitrary code. And, in any case, such a system can provide richer information about dependencies to help avoid the downsides of the whitelisting approach.

The likely approach here is to provide some mechanism for using a dependency as a build script, so that you could specify high-level native dependency information directly in Cargo.toml attributes, and have a general tool translate that into the appropriate build script.

Needless to say, this approach will need significant experimentation. But if successful, it would have benefits not just for build system integration, but for using external dependencies anywhere.

The story for externally-managed native dependencies

Finally, in the case where the external build system is the one specifying and providing a native dependency, all we need is for that to result in the appropriate flags to the lowered rustc invocations. If the external build system is producing those lowered calls itself, it can completely manage this concern. Otherwise, we will need for the plugin interface to provide a way to plumb this information through to Cargo.

Specifics for the mixed build system case

Switching gears, let's look at mixed build systems. Here, we may address the need for customization with a mixture of plugins and new core Cargo features. The primary ones on the radar right now are as follows.

  • Multiple/custom registries. There is a longstanding desire to support registries other than crates.io, e.g. for private code, and to allow them to be used in conjunction with crates.io. In particular, this is a key pain point for customers who are otherwise happy to use Cargo as-is, but want a crates.io-like experience for their own code. There's an RFC on this topic, and more work here is planned soon. Note: here, we address the needs via a straightforward enhancement to Cargo's features, rather than via a plugin system.

  • Network and source control. We've already put significant work into providing control over where sources live (though vendoring) and tools for preventing network access. However, we could do more to make the experience here first class, and to give people a greater sense of control and assurance when using Cargo on their build farm. Here again, this is probably more about flags and configuration than plugins per se.

  • Caching and artifact control. Many organizations would like to provide a shared build cache for the entire organization, across all of its projects. Here we'd likely need some kind of plugin.

These bullets are quite vague, and that's because, while we know there are needs here, the precise problem -- let alone the solution -- it not yet clear. The point, though, is that these are the most important problems we want to get our head around in the foreseeable future.

Additional areas where revisions are expected

Beyond all of the above, it seems very likely that some existing features of Cargo will need to be revisited to fit with the build system integration work. For example:

  • Profiles. Putting the idea of the "build configuration" step on firmer footing will require clarifying the precise role of profiles, which today blur the line somewhat between workflows (e.g. test vs bench) and flags (e.g. --release). Moreover, integration with a homogeneous build system effectively requires that we can translate profiles on the Cargo side back and forth to something meaningful to the external build system, so that for example we can make cargo test invoke the external build system in a sensible way. Additional clarity here might help pave the way for custom profiles and other enhancements. On a very different note, it's not currently possible to control enough about the rustc invocation for at least some integration cases, and the answer may in part lie in improvements to profiles.

  • Build scripts. Especially for homogeneous build systems, build scripts can pose some serious pain, because in general they may depend on numerous environmental factors invisibly. It may be useful to grow some ways of telling Cargo the precise inputs and outputs of the build script, declaratively.

  • Vendoring. While we have support for vendoring dependencies today, it is not treated uniformly as a mirror. We may want to tighten up Cargo's understanding, possibly by treating vendoring in a more first-class way.

There are undoubtedly other aspects of Cargo that will need to be touched to achieve better build system integration; the plan as a whole is predicated on making Cargo much more modular, which is bound to reveal concerns that should be separated. As with everything else in this RFC, user-facing changes will require a full RFC prior to stabilization.

Reference-level explanation

This is an experimental RFC. Reference-level details will be presented in follow-up RFCs after experimentation has concluded.

Drawbacks

It's somewhat difficult to state drawbacks for such a high-level plan; they're more likely to arise through the particulars.

That said, it's plausible that following the plan in this RFC will result in greater overall complexity for Cargo. The key to managing this complexity will be ensuring that it's surfaced only on an as-needed basis. That is, uses of Cargo in the pure crates.io ecosystem should not become more complex -- if anything, they should become more streamlined, through improvements to features like profiles, build scripts, and the handling of native dependencies.

Rationale and Alternatives

Numerous organizations we've talked to who are considering, or already are, running Rust in production complain about difficulties with build system integration. There's often a sense that Cargo "does too much" or is "too opinionated", in a way that works fine for the crates.io ecosystem but is "not realistic" when integrating into larger build systems.

It's thus critical to take steps to smooth integration, both to remove obstacles to Rust adoption, but also to establish that Cargo has an important role to play even within opinionated external build systems: coordinating with Rust tooling and workflows.

This RFC is essentially a strategic vision, and so the alternatives are different strategies for tackling the problem of integration. Some options include:

  • Focusing entirely on one of the use-cases mentioned. For example:

    • We could decide that it's not worthwhile to have Cargo play a role within a build system like Bazel, and instead focus on users who just need to customize a particular aspect of Cargo. However, this would be giving up on the hope of providing strong integration with Rust tooling and workflows.
    • We could decide to focus solely on the Bazel-style use-cases. But that would likely push people who would otherwise be happy to use Cargo to manage most of their build (but need to customize some aspect) to instead try to manage more of the concerns themselves.
  • Attempting to impose more control when integrating with hommogenous build systems. In the most extreme case presented above, for internal crates Cargo is little more than a middleman between Rust tooling and the external build system. We could instead support only using custom registries to manage crates, and hence always use Cargo's dependency resolution and so on. This would, however, be a non-starter for many organizations who want a single-version, mono-repo world internally, and it's not clear what the gains would be.

One key open question is: what, exactly, do Rust tools need to do their work? Tool interop is a major goal for this effort, but ideally we'd support it with a minimum of fuss. It may be that the needs are simple enough that we can get away with a separate interchange format, which both Cargo and other build tools can create. As part of the "experimental" part of this RFC, the Cargo team will work with the Dev Tools team to fully enumerate their needs.

Unresolved questions

Since this is an experimental RFC, there are more questions here than answers. However, one question that would be good to tackle prior to acceptance is: how should we prioritize various aspects of this work? Should we have any specific customers in mind that we're trying to target (or who, better yet, are working directly with us and plan to test and use the results)?