Generics and Compile-Time in Rust

2020-06-15Brian AndersonEngineering

Rust Compile Time Adventures with TiKV

The Rust programming language compiles fast software slowly.

In this series we explore Rust's compile times within the context of TiKV, the key-value store behind the TiDB database.


Rust Compile-time Adventures with TiKV: Episode 2

In the previous post in the series we covered Rust's early development history, and how it led to a series of decisions that resulted in a high-performance language that compiles slowly. Over the next few we'll describe in more detail some of the designs in Rust that make compile time slow.

This time, we're talking about monomorphization.

Comments on the last episode

After the previous episode of this series, people made a lot of great comments on HackerNews, Reddit, and

Some common comments:

  • The compile times we see for TiKV aren't so terrible, and are comparable to C++.
  • What often matters is partial rebuilds since that is what developers experience most in their build-test cycle.

Some subjects I hadn't considered:

  • WalterBright pointed out that data flow analysis (DFA) is expensive (quadratic). Rust depends on data flow analysis. I don't know how this impacts Rust compile times, but it's good to be aware of.
  • kibwen reminded us that faster linkers have an impact on build times, and that LLD may be faster than the system linker eventually.

A brief aside about compile-time scenarios

It's tempting to talk about "compile-time" broadly, without any further clarification, but there are many types of "compile-time", some that matter more or less to different people. The four main compile-time scenarios in Rust are:

  • development profile / full rebuilds
  • development profile / partial rebuilds
  • release profile / full rebuilds
  • release profile / partial rebuilds

The "development profile" entails compiler settings designed for fast compile times, slow run times, and maximum debuggability. The "release profile" entails compiler settings designed for fast run times, slow compile times, and, usually, minimum debuggability. In Rust, these are invoked with cargo build and cargo build --release respectively, and are indicative of the compile-time/run-time tradeoff.

A full rebuild is building the entire project from scratch, and a partial rebuild happens after modifying code in a previously built project. Partial rebuilds can notably benefit from incremental compilation.

In addition to those there are also

  • test profile / full rebuilds
  • test profile / partial rebuilds
  • bench profile / full rebuilds
  • bench profile / partial rebuilds

These are mostly similar to development mode and release mode respectively, though the interactions in cargo between development / test and release / bench can be subtle and surprising. There may be other profiles (TiKV has more), but those are the obvious ones for Rust, as built-in to cargo. Beyond that there are other scenarios, like typechecking only (cargo check), building just a single project (cargo build -p), single-core vs. multi-core, local vs. distributed, local vs. CI.

Compile time is also affected by human perception — it's possible for compile time to feel bad when it's actually decent, and to feel decent when it's actually not so great. This is one of the premises behind the Rust Language Server (RLS) and rust-analyzer — if developers are getting constant, real-time feedback in their IDE then it doesn't matter as much how long a full compile takes.

So it's important to keep in mind through this series that there is a spectrum of tunable possibilities from "fast compile / slow run" to "fast run / slow compile", there are different scenarios that affect compile time in different ways, and in which compile time affects perception in different ways.

It happens that for TiKV we've identified that the scenario we care most about with respect to compile time is "release profile / partial rebuilds". More about that in future installments.

The rest of this post details some of the major designs in Rust that cause slow compile time. I describe them as "tradeoffs", as there are good reasons Rust is the way it is, and language design is full of awkward tradeoffs.

Monomorphized generics

Rust's approach to generics is the most obvious language feature to blame on bad compile times, and understanding how Rust translates generic functions to machine code is important to understanding the Rust compile-time/run-time tradeoff.

Generics generally are a complex topic, and Rust generics come in a number of forms. Rust has generic functions and generic types, and they can be expressed in multiple ways. Here I'm mostly going to talk about how Rust calls generic functions, but there are further compile-time considerations for generic type translations. I ignore other forms of generics (like impl Trait), as either they have similar compile-time impact, or I just don't know enough about them.

As a simple example for this section, consider the following ToString trait and the generic function print:

use std::string::ToString;

fn print<T: ToString>(v: T) {
     println!("{}", v.to_string());

print will print to the console anything that can be converted to a String type. We say that "print is generic over type T, where T implements Stringify". Thus I can call print with different types:

fn main() {
    print("hello, world");

The way a compiler translates these calls to print to machine code has a huge impact on both the compile-time and run-time characteristics of the language.

When a generic function is called with a particular set of type parameters it is said to be instantiated with those types.

In general, for programming languages, there are two ways to translate a generic function:

  1. translate the generic function for each set of instantiated type parameters, calling each trait method directly, but duplicating most of the generic function's machine instructions, or
  2. translate the generic function just once, calling each trait method through a function pointer (via a "vtable").

The first results in static method dispatch, the second in dynamic (or "virtual") method dispatch. The first is sometimes called "monomorphization", particularly in the context of C++ and Rust, a confusingly complex word for a simple idea.

An example in Rust

The previous example uses Rust's type parameters (<T: ToString>) to define a statically-dispatched print function. In this section we present two more Rust examples, the first with static dispatch, using references to impl trait instances, and the second with dynamic dispatch, with references to dyn trait instances.

Static (playground link):

use std::string::ToString;

fn print(v: &impl ToString) {
     println!("{}", v.to_string());

fn main() {
    print(&"hello, world");

Dynamic (playground link):

use std::string::ToString;

fn print(v: &dyn ToString) {
     println!("{}", v.to_string());

fn main() {
    print(&"hello, world");

Notice that the only difference between these two cases is that the first print's argument is type &impl ToString, and the second's is &dyn ToString. The first is using static dispatch, and the second dynamic.

In Rust &impl ToString is essentially shorthand for a type parameter argument that is only used once, like in the earlier example fn print<T: ToString>(v: T).

Note that in these examples we have to use inline(never) to defeat the optimizer. Without this it would turn these simple examples into the exact same machine code. I'll explore this phenomenon further in a future episode of this series.

Below is an extremely simplified and sanitized version of the assembly for these two examples. If you want to see the real thing, the playground links above can generate them by clicking the buttons labeled ... -> ASM.

    callq   *::core::fmt::write::h01edf6dd68a42c9c(%rip)

    callq   *::core::fmt::write::h01edf6dd68a42c9c(%rip)

    callq   print::hffa7359fe88f0de2
    callq   print::ha0649f845bb59b0c

And the dynamic case:

    callq   *::core::fmt::write::h01edf6dd68a42c9c(%rip)

    callq   print::h796a2cdf500a8987
    callq   print::h796a2cdf500a8987

The important thing to note here is the duplication of functions or lack thereof, depending on the strategy. In the static case there are two print functions, distinguished by a hash value in their names, and main calls both of them. In the dynamic case, there is a single print function that main calls twice. The details of how these two strategies actually handle their arguments at the machine level are too intricate to go into here.

More about the tradeoff

These two strategies represent a notoriously difficult tradeoff: the first creates lots of machine instruction duplication, forcing the compiler to spend time generating those instructions, and putting pressure on the instruction cache, but — crucially — dispatching all the trait method calls statically instead of through a function pointer. The second saves lots of machine instructions and takes less work for the compiler to translate to machine code, but every trait method call is an indirect call through a function pointer, which is generally slower because the CPU can't know what instruction it is going jump to until the pointer is loaded.

It is often thought that the static dispatch strategy results in faster machine code, though I have not seen any research into the matter (we'll do an experiment on this subject in a future edition of this series). Intuitively, it makes sense — if the CPU knows the address of all the functions it is calling it should be able to call them faster than if it has to first load the address of the function, then load the instruction code into the instruction cache. There are though factors that make this intuition suspect:

  • first, modern CPUs have invested a lot of silicon into branch prediction, so if a function pointer has been called recently it will likely be predicted correctly the next time and called quickly;
  • second, monomorphization results in huge quantities of machine instructions, a phenomenon commonly referred to as "code bloat", which could put great pressure on the CPU's instruction cache;
  • third, the LLVM optimizer is surprisingly smart, and with enough visibility into the code can sometimes turn virtual calls into static calls.

C++ and Rust both strongly encourage monomorphization, both generate some of the fastest machine code of any programming language, and both have problems with code bloat. This seems to be evidence that the monomorphization strategy is indeed the faster of the two. There is though a curious counter-example: C. C has no generics at all, and C programs are often both the slimmest and fastest in their class. Reproducing the monomorphization strategy in C requires using ugly C macro preprocessor techniques, and modern object-orientation patterns in C are often vtable-based.

Takeaway: it is a broadly thought by compiler engineers that monomorphiation results in somewhat faster generic code while taking somewhat longer to compile.

Note that the monomorphization-compile-time problem is compounded in Rust because Rust translates generic functions in every crate (generally, "compilation unit") that instantiates them. That means that if, given our print example, crate a calls print("hello, world"), and crate b also calls print("hello, world, or whatever"), then both crate a and b will contain the monomorphized print_str function — the compiler does all the type-checking and translation work twice. This is partially mitigated today at lower optimization levels by shared generics, though there are still duplicated generics in sibling dependencies, and at higher optimization levels.

All that is only touching on the surface of the tradeoffs involved in monomorphization. I passed this draft by Niko, the primary type theorist behind Rust, and he had some words to say about it:

niko: so far, everything looks pretty accurate, except that I think the monomorphization area leaves out a lot of the complexity. It's definitely not just about virtual function calls.

niko: it's also things like where the offset of bar depends on the type of foo

niko: many languages sidestep this problem by using pointers everywhere (including generic C, if you don't use macros)

niko: not to mention the construction of complex types like iterators, that are basically mini-programs fully instantiated and then customizable -- though this can be reproduced by a sufficiently smart compiler

niko: (in particular, virtual calls can be inlined too, though you get less optimization; I remember some discussion about this at the time ... how virtual call inlining happens relatively late in the pipeline)

brson: does the field offset issue only come in to play with associated types?

niko: no

niko: struct Foo<T> { x: u32, y: T, z: f64 }

niko: fn bar<T>(f: Foo<T>) -> f64 { f.z }

niko: as I recall, before we moved to monomorphization, we had to have two paths for everything: the easy, static path, where all types were known to LLVM, and the horrible, dynamic path, where we had to generate the code to dynamically compute the offsets of fields and things

niko: unsurprisingly, the two were only rarely in sync

niko: which was a common source of bugs

niko: I think a lot of this could be better handled today -- we have e.g. a reasonably reliable bit of code that computes Layout, we have MIR which is a much simpler target -- so I am not as terrified of having to have those two paths

niko: but it'd still be a lot of work to make it all work

niko: there was also stuff like the need to synthesize type descriptors on the fly (though maybe we could always get by with stack allocation for that)

niko: e.g., fn foo<T>() { bar::<Vec<T>>(); } fn bar<U>() { .. }

niko: here, you have a type descriptor for T that was given to you dynamically, but you have to build the type descriptor for Vec

niko: and then we can make it even worse

niko: fn foo<T>() { bar::<Vec<T>>(); } fn bar<U: Debug>() { .. }

niko: now we have to reify all the IMPLS of Debug

niko: so that we can do trait matching at runtime

niko: because we have to be able to figure out Vec<T>: Debug, and all we know is T: Debug

niko: we might be able to handle that by bubbling up the Vec to our callers...

In the next episode of Rust Compile-time Adventures with TiKV

In the next episode of this series we'll discuss compilation units -- the bundles of code that a compiler processes at a single time -- and how selecting compilation units affects compile time.

Stay Rusty, friends.


A number of people helped with this blog series. Thanks especially to Niko Matsakis for the feedback, and Calvin Weng for proofreading and editing.


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