Enforcing drop order in Rust
Dec 10, 2016
4 minutes read

Some days ago I stumbled upon an old issue on Rust’s GitHub repository. While the title of the issue is “should struct fields and array elements be dropped in reverse declaration order (a la C++)”, the discussion also extends to whether the current drop order should be stabilized.

Surprising as it may seem, drop order in Rust is unspecified and could theoretically be changed in the future. However, there are use cases that require enforcing a given drop order (see, for instance, this SO question).

In the current version of Rust (1.13), as well as in the nightlies, there is no mechanism to statically control the drop order of the fields of a struct. This leaves a programmer with two options:

  • Wrapping fields in an Option-like enum.
  • Relying on the current (unspecified) drop order.

This post will explore how both alternatives can be used. By experimenting with a simple problem, we will try to explain the advantages and disadvantages of both approaches. At the end, we will also share some final thoughts on stabilizing drop order.

Formulating the problem

Before defining the problem, we need a way to monitor the drop order of struct fields. Here, we define a struct that prints a string. It will be used in the code examples that are to follow.

// A struct that prints the contained `str` upon being dropped
struct PrintDrop(&'static str);

impl Drop for PrintDrop {
    fn drop(&mut self) {
        println!("Dropping {}", self.0)
    }
}

With that out of the way, here is a minimal problem to consider. Suppose you have the following struct, and would like baz to be dropped before bar. If you fail to do so, Something Bad will happen.

struct Foo {
    bar: PrintDrop,
    baz: PrintDrop,
}

Alternative one: wrapping fields in an Option-like enum

Wrapping your fields is pretty straightforward if you have seen the pattern before. For the sake of simplicity, we just use an Option, though it would be possible to write your own enum to make things a bit more ergonomic.

After introducing an Option, the struct looks like this:

struct Foo {
    bar: PrintDrop,
    baz: Option<PrintDrop>,
}

With this new struct, you can write a Drop implementation that takes the value out of the Option and drops it:

impl Drop for Foo {
    fn drop(&mut self) {
        // Drop baz by replacing it
        self.baz = None;
    }
}

You can test the code by running it in a program with the following main function:

fn main() {
    let foo = Foo {
        bar: PrintDrop("bar"),
        baz: Some(PrintDrop("baz")),
    };
}

The output below shows that baz is dropped first and bar second, which was exactly our intention!

Dropping baz
Dropping bar

Alternative two: relying on the current (unspecified) drop order

Of course, it is also possible to find out in which order the fields are dropped in the current version of Rust! It turns out that the fields are dropped in the same order as they are declared.

In the case of Foo, this means that flipping the declaration of baz and bar is exactly what we need:

struct Foo {
    baz: PrintDrop,
    bar: PrintDrop,
}

After this change, we can verify that everything works correctly by running the code with a main function similar to our previous one. In fact, we get the following output:

Dropping baz
Dropping bar

Which one should you use?

In my opinion, the wrapper type is the Right Way To Go ™, just because you are not supposed to rely on unspecified behavior. The disadvantage of the latter approach seems clear: a future version of the compiler implementing a different drop order would break your program. This becomes even worse if you are authoring a library, since a program that relies on it could potentially break just by using a new version of the compiler. Even if you published a fix, it would require everyone to update their dependencies.

On the other hand, it is undeniable that the wrapper approach has disadvantages as well:

  • It is clearly less ergonomic, because you can no longer use a normal type.
  • Each time you access the field you need to unwrap it, which means an extra branch in your code unless the optimizer is smart enough.

Final thoughts

Given the drawbacks of having to use a runtime construct to enforce a certain drop order, it would make sense to stabilize it. While there is clearly consensus about the need for stabilization, it is not at all clear whether the currently implemented drop order should be changed before it is stabilized. The discussion is still open, as summarized by nrc in a comment on Rust’s issue tracker.


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