The proposed change to Cargo is to add the ability to specify user-defined profiles in addition to the five predefined profiles, dev, release, test, bench. It is also desired in this scope to reduce confusion regarding where final outputs reside, and increase the flexibility to specify the user-defined profile attributes.


Past proposal to increase flexibility of Cargo’s build flags for crates within a single cargo build invocation, has resulted in RFC 2282, which adds the flexibility of changing attributes of specific crates under one of the default profiles. However, it does not allow for a full custom profile name definition that can have its own additional final outputs.

The motivation is illustrated by a prominent example — the ability to easily throw everything under a custom compilation mode in addition to the existing compilation modes.

For example, suppose we are frequently comparing between both a release build and a super-optimized release+LTO build, we would like Cargo to having two separate target/ directories, e.g. target/release, and target/release-lto, for which the binaries and incremental compilation is managed separately. This is so that we can easily switch between the two modes without penalty.

Here's an example for a real-world user: tikv/issue/4189

Guide-level explanation

With this proposal implemented, a user can define custom profiles under new names, provided that an inherits key is used in order to receive attributes from other profiles.

For example:

inherits = "release"
lto = true

Valid profile names are: must not be empty, use only alphanumeric characters or - or _.

Passing --profile with the profile's name to various Cargo commands will resolve to the custom profile. Overrides specified in the profiles from which the custom profile inherits will be inherited too, and all final outputs may go to a different directory by default:

$ cargo build
$ cargo build --release
$ cargo build --profile release-lto
$ ls -l target
debug release release-lto

Cargo will emit errors in case inherits loops are detected. When considering inheritance hierarchy, all profiles directly or indirectly inherit from either from release or from dev.

This also affects other Cargo commands:

  • cargo test also receives --profile, but unless it is specified, uses the predefined test profile which is described below.
  • cargo bench also receives --profile, but unless it is specified, uses the predefined bench profile which is described below.

Effect over the use of profile in commands

The mixtures of profiles used for --all-targets is still in effect, as long as --profile is not specified.

Combined specification with --release

For now, --release is supported for backward-compatibility.

Using --profile and --release together in the same invocation emits an error unless --profile=release. Using --release on its own is equivalent to specifying --profile=release

New dir-name attribute

Some of the paths generated under target/ have resulted in a de-facto "build protocol", where cargo is invoked as a part of a larger project build. So, to preserve the existing behavior, there is also a new attribute dir-name, which when left unspecified, defaults to the name of the profile. For example:

inherits = "release"
dir-name = "lto"  # Emits to target/lto instead of target/release-lto
lto = true
  • The dir-name attribute is used mainly to direct the outputs of bench and test to their respective directories: target/release and target/debug. This preserves existing behavior.
  • The dir-name attribute is the only attribute not passed by inheritance.
  • Valid directory names are: must not be empty, use only alphanumeric characters or - or _.

Cross compilation

Under cross compilation with a profile, paths corresponding to target/<platform-triple>/<dir-name> will be created.

Treatment to the pre-defined profiles

  • The release profile remains as it is, with settings overridable as before.
  • The dev profile receives the dir-name = "debug" attribute, so that its final outputs are emitted to target/debug, as existing Rust developers will expect this behavior. This should be added in the official documentation for the Cargo manifest, to make this fact clearer for users.
  • A debug profile name is not allowed, with a warning saying to use the already established dev name.
  • The bench profile defaults to the following definition, to preserve current behavior:
inherits = "release"
dir-name = "release"
  • The test profile defaults to the following definition, to preserve current behavior:
inherits = "dev"
dir-name = "debug"
  • The (upcoming) build profile defaults to the following definition:
inherits = "dev"
dir-name = "build"
debug = false

(NOTE: the build profile is experimental and may be removed later)

Reference-level explanation

The 'final outputs' phrasing was used in this RFC, knowing that there are intermediate outputs that live under target/ that are usually not a concern for most Cargo users. The paths that constitute the final build outputs however, constitute as sort of a protocol for invokers of Cargo. This RFC extends on that protocol, allowing for outputs in more directories.

Cargo code changes

In implementation details, there are various hand-coded references to pre-defined profiles, that we would like to remove.

The BuildConfig structure currently has a release boolean. The implementation will replace it with a value of type enum Profile {Dev, Release, Custom(String)).

  • The Profiles struct in cargo/core/ currently has hardcoded dev, release, test, bench. This should be changed into a BTreeMap based on profile names. The pre-defined profiles can be loaded into it, before TomlProfile overrides are applied to them.
  • Similarly, TomlProfiles will be changed to hold profiles in a BTreeMap.
  • We would need to compute the actual build_override for a profile based on resolution through the inherits key.
  • Custom build scripts: For compatibility, the PROFILE environment currently being passed to the script is set to either release or debug, based on inherits relationship of the specified profile, in case it is not release or dev directly.

Profile name and directory name exclusion

To prevent collisions under the target directory, predefined set of string excludes both the custom profile names and the dir-name. For example, package, build, debug, doc, and strings that start with ..


The main drawback is that future ideas regarding Cargo workflows, if implemented, may supersede the benefits gained from implementing this RFC, making the added complexity unjustified in retrospect.

Rationale and alternatives

Considering the example provided above, there could be other ways to accomplish the same result.

Direct cargo build flags alternative

If comparing between final build outputs is the main concern to address, there could be an alternative, in the form of providing those overrides from the command line. For example, a --enable-lto flag to cargo build. Used together with CARGO_TARGET_DIR we would be able to do the following:

$ cargo build --release
$ CARGO_TARGET_DIR=target/lto cargo build --release --enable-lto

$ ls -1 target/release/exe target/lto/release/exe
target/release/exe target/lto/release/exe

The main drawback for this alternative is invocation complexity, and not being able to utilize a future implementation of a binary cache under the target directory (see 'future possibilities').

Workspace Cargo.toml auto-generation

By generating the workspace's Cargo.toml from a script, per build, we can control the parameters of the release profile without editing source-controlled files. Beside build-time complexity, this has another drawback, for example — it would trip the timestamp comparison with Cargo.lock and cause unnecessary updates to it.

Cargo workflows

It is unclear when the ideas concerning Cargo workflows will manifest in changes that would allow similar functionality.

Unresolved questions

  • Bikeshedding the inherits keyword name.
  • Should we keep user profiles under a Toml namespace of their own?

For example:

inherits = "release"
lto = true
  • If so, should the inherits keyword be able to refer to custom and pre-defined profiles differently?
  • Profile names would collide with rustc target names under target/. Should the output directory be also under a different namespace, e.g. target/custom/release-lto?
  • Do we really need pre-defined profiles for test, bench, or can we make them obsolete?
  • Is it worthwhile keeping test and bench outputs in target/debug and target/release? Doing so would save compilation time and space.
  • If so, is the dir-name keyword necessary? Alternatively, we can hand-code the output directory of bench and test to be release and debug to keep the current behavior. This may be sufficient until a "global binary cache" feature is implemented, or a per-workspace target/.cache (related discussion).

Existing --profile parameters in Cargo

The check, fix and rustc commands receive a profile name via --profile. However these only control how rustc is invoked and is not related directly to the actual Cargo profile whether pre-defined or custom. For example, cargo rustc can receive --profile bench and --release together or separately, with rather confusing results. If we move forward with this change, it's maybe worthwhile to remove this parameter to avoid further confusion, and provide a similar functionality in a different way.

Future possibilities

This RFC mentions a global binary cache. A global binary cache can reside under target/.cache or in the user home directory under .cargo, to be shared by multiple workspaces. This may further assist in reducing compilation times when switching between compilation flags.

Treatment to Cargo's 'Finished' print

Currently, the Finished line being emitted when Cargo is done building, is confusing, and sometimes does not bear a relation to the specified profile. We may take this opportunity to revise the output of this line to include the name of the profile.

Some targets use more than one profile in their compilation process, so we may want to pick a different scheme than simply printing out the name of the main profile being used. One option is to print a line for each one of the built targets with concise description of profiles that used to build it, but there may be better options worth considering following the implementation of this RFC.