# Placeholders and universes

From time to time we have to reason about regions that we can't concretely know. For example, consider this program:

```
// A function that needs a static reference
fn foo(x: &'static u32) { }
fn bar(f: for<'a> fn(&'a u32)) {
// ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ a function that can accept **any** reference
let x = 22;
f(&x);
}
fn main() {
bar(foo);
}
```

This program ought not to type-check: `foo`

needs a static reference
for its argument, and `bar`

wants to be given a function that that
accepts **any** reference (so it can call it with something on its
stack, for example). But *how* do we reject it and *why*?

## Subtyping and Placeholders

When we type-check `main`

, and in particular the call `bar(foo)`

, we
are going to wind up with a subtyping relationship like this one:

```
fn(&'static u32) <: for<'a> fn(&'a u32)
---------------- -------------------
the type of `foo` the type `bar` expects
```

We handle this sort of subtyping by taking the variables that are
bound in the supertype and replacing them with
universally quantified
representatives, denoted like `!1`

here. We call these regions "placeholder
regions" – they represent, basically, "some unknown region".

Once we've done that replacement, we have the following relation:

```
fn(&'static u32) <: fn(&'!1 u32)
```

The key idea here is that this unknown region `'!1`

is not related to
any other regions. So if we can prove that the subtyping relationship
is true for `'!1`

, then it ought to be true for any region, which is
what we wanted.

So let's work through what happens next. To check if two functions are subtypes, we check if their arguments have the desired relationship (fn arguments are contravariant, so we swap the left and right here):

```
&'!1 u32 <: &'static u32
```

According to the basic subtyping rules for a reference, this will be
true if `'!1: 'static`

. That is – if "some unknown region `!1`

" outlives `'static`

.
Now, this *might* be true – after all, `'!1`

could be `'static`

–
but we don't *know* that it's true. So this should yield up an error (eventually).

## What is a universe?

In the previous section, we introduced the idea of a placeholder
region, and we denoted it `!1`

. We call this number `1`

the **universe
index**. The idea of a "universe" is that it is a set of names that
are in scope within some type or at some point. Universes are formed
into a tree, where each child extends its parents with some new names.
So the **root universe** conceptually contains global names, such as
the the lifetime `'static`

or the type `i32`

. In the compiler, we also
put generic type parameters into this root universe (in this sense,
there is not just one root universe, but one per item). So consider
this function `bar`

:

```
struct Foo { }
fn bar<'a, T>(t: &'a T) {
...
}
```

Here, the root universe would consist of the lifetimes `'static`

and
`'a`

. In fact, although we're focused on lifetimes here, we can apply
the same concept to types, in which case the types `Foo`

and `T`

would
be in the root universe (along with other global types, like `i32`

).
Basically, the root universe contains all the names that
appear free in the body of `bar`

.

Now let's extend `bar`

a bit by adding a variable `x`

:

```
fn bar<'a, T>(t: &'a T) {
let x: for<'b> fn(&'b u32) = ...;
}
```

Here, the name `'b`

is not part of the root universe. Instead, when we
"enter" into this `for<'b>`

(e.g., by replacing it with a placeholder), we will create
a child universe of the root, let's call it U1:

```
U0 (root universe)
│
└─ U1 (child universe)
```

The idea is that this child universe U1 extends the root universe U0
with a new name, which we are identifying by its universe number:
`!1`

.

Now let's extend `bar`

a bit by adding one more variable, `y`

:

```
fn bar<'a, T>(t: &'a T) {
let x: for<'b> fn(&'b u32) = ...;
let y: for<'c> fn(&'b u32) = ...;
}
```

When we enter *this* type, we will again create a new universe, which
we'll call `U2`

. Its parent will be the root universe, and U1 will be
its sibling:

```
U0 (root universe)
│
├─ U1 (child universe)
│
└─ U2 (child universe)
```

This implies that, while in U2, we can name things from U0 or U2, but not U1.

**Giving existential variables a universe.** Now that we have this
notion of universes, we can use it to extend our type-checker and
things to prevent illegal names from leaking out. The idea is that we
give each inference (existential) variable – whether it be a type or
a lifetime – a universe. That variable's value can then only
reference names visible from that universe. So for example if a
lifetime variable is created in U0, then it cannot be assigned a value
of `!1`

or `!2`

, because those names are not visible from the universe
U0.

**Representing universes with just a counter.** You might be surprised
to see that the compiler doesn't keep track of a full tree of
universes. Instead, it just keeps a counter – and, to determine if
one universe can see another one, it just checks if the index is
greater. For example, U2 can see U0 because 2 >= 0. But U0 cannot see
U2, because 0 >= 2 is false.

How can we get away with this? Doesn't this mean that we would allow
U2 to also see U1? The answer is that, yes, we would, **if that
question ever arose**. But because of the structure of our type
checker etc, there is no way for that to happen. In order for
something happening in the universe U1 to "communicate" with something
happening in U2, they would have to have a shared inference variable X
in common. And because everything in U1 is scoped to just U1 and its
children, that inference variable X would have to be in U0. And since
X is in U0, it cannot name anything from U1 (or U2). This is perhaps easiest
to see by using a kind of generic "logic" example:

```
exists<X> {
forall<Y> { ... /* Y is in U1 ... */ }
forall<Z> { ... /* Z is in U2 ... */ }
}
```

Here, the only way for the two foralls to interact would be through X, but neither Y nor Z are in scope when X is declared, so its value cannot reference either of them.

## Universes and placeholder region elements

But where does that error come from? The way it happens is like this.
When we are constructing the region inference context, we can tell
from the type inference context how many placeholder variables exist
(the `InferCtxt`

has an internal counter). For each of those, we
create a corresponding universal region variable `!n`

and a "region
element" `placeholder(n)`

. This corresponds to "some unknown set of other
elements". The value of `!n`

is `{placeholder(n)}`

.

At the same time, we also give each existential variable a
**universe** (also taken from the `InferCtxt`

). This universe
determines which placeholder elements may appear in its value: For
example, a variable in universe U3 may name `placeholder(1)`

, `placeholder(2)`

, and
`placeholder(3)`

, but not `placeholder(4)`

. Note that the universe of an inference
variable controls what region elements **can** appear in its value; it
does not say region elements **will** appear.

## Placeholders and outlives constraints

In the region inference engine, outlives constraints have the form:

```
V1: V2 @ P
```

where `V1`

and `V2`

are region indices, and hence map to some region
variable (which may be universally or existentially quantified). The
`P`

here is a "point" in the control-flow graph; it's not important
for this section. This variable will have a universe, so let's call
those universes `U(V1)`

and `U(V2)`

respectively. (Actually, the only
one we are going to care about is `U(V1)`

.)

When we encounter this constraint, the ordinary procedure is to start
a DFS from `P`

. We keep walking so long as the nodes we are walking
are present in `value(V2)`

and we add those nodes to `value(V1)`

. If
we reach a return point, we add in any `end(X)`

elements. That part
remains unchanged.

But then *after that* we want to iterate over the placeholder `placeholder(x)`

elements in V2 (each of those must be visible to `U(V2)`

, but we
should be able to just assume that is true, we don't have to check
it). We have to ensure that `value(V1)`

outlives each of those
placeholder elements.

Now there are two ways that could happen. First, if `U(V1)`

can see
the universe `x`

(i.e., `x <= U(V1)`

), then we can just add `placeholder(x)`

to `value(V1)`

and be done. But if not, then we have to approximate:
we may not know what set of elements `placeholder(x)`

represents, but we
should be able to compute some sort of **upper bound** B for it –
some region B that outlives `placeholder(x)`

. For now, we'll just use
`'static`

for that (since it outlives everything) – in the future, we
can sometimes be smarter here (and in fact we have code for doing this
already in other contexts). Moreover, since `'static`

is in the root
universe U0, we know that all variables can see it – so basically if
we find that `value(V2)`

contains `placeholder(x)`

for some universe `x`

that `V1`

can't see, then we force `V1`

to `'static`

.

## Extending the "universal regions" check

After all constraints have been propagated, the NLL region inference
has one final check, where it goes over the values that wound up being
computed for each universal region and checks that they did not get
'too large'. In our case, we will go through each placeholder region
and check that it contains *only* the `placeholder(u)`

element it is known to
outlive. (Later, we might be able to know that there are relationships
between two placeholder regions and take those into account, as we do
for universal regions from the fn signature.)

Put another way, the "universal regions" check can be considered to be checking constraints like:

```
{placeholder(1)}: V1
```

where `{placeholder(1)}`

is like a constant set, and V1 is the variable we
made to represent the `!1`

region.

## Back to our example

OK, so far so good. Now let's walk through what would happen with our first example:

```
fn(&'static u32) <: fn(&'!1 u32) @ P // this point P is not imp't here
```

The region inference engine will create a region element domain like this:

```
{ CFG; end('static); placeholder(1) }
--- ------------ ------- from the universe `!1`
| 'static is always in scope
all points in the CFG; not especially relevant here
```

It will always create two universal variables, one representing
`'static`

and one representing `'!1`

. Let's call them Vs and V1. They
will have initial values like so:

```
Vs = { CFG; end('static) } // it is in U0, so can't name anything else
V1 = { placeholder(1) }
```

From the subtyping constraint above, we would have an outlives constraint like

```
'!1: 'static @ P
```

To process this, we would grow the value of V1 to include all of Vs:

```
Vs = { CFG; end('static) }
V1 = { CFG; end('static), placeholder(1) }
```

At that point, constraint propagation is complete, because all the outlives relationships are satisfied. Then we would go to the "check universal regions" portion of the code, which would test that no universal region grew too large.

In this case, `V1`

*did* grow too large – it is not known to outlive
`end('static)`

, nor any of the CFG – so we would report an error.

## Another example

What about this subtyping relationship?

```
for<'a> fn(&'a u32, &'a u32)
<:
for<'b, 'c> fn(&'b u32, &'c u32)
```

Here we would replace the bound region in the supertype with a placeholder, as before, yielding:

```
for<'a> fn(&'a u32, &'a u32)
<:
fn(&'!1 u32, &'!2 u32)
```

then we instantiate the variable on the left-hand side with an
existential in universe U2, yielding the following (`?n`

is a notation
for an existential variable):

```
fn(&'?3 u32, &'?3 u32)
<:
fn(&'!1 u32, &'!2 u32)
```

Then we break this down further:

```
&'!1 u32 <: &'?3 u32
&'!2 u32 <: &'?3 u32
```

and even further, yield up our region constraints:

```
'!1: '?3
'!2: '?3
```

Note that, in this case, both `'!1`

and `'!2`

have to outlive the
variable `'?3`

, but the variable `'?3`

is not forced to outlive
anything else. Therefore, it simply starts and ends as the empty set
of elements, and hence the type-check succeeds here.

(This should surprise you a little. It surprised me when I first realized it.
We are saying that if we are a fn that **needs both of its arguments to have
the same region**, we can accept being called with **arguments with two
distinct regions**. That seems intuitively unsound. But in fact, it's fine, as
I tried to explain in this issue on the Rust issue
tracker long ago. The reason is that even if we get called with arguments of
two distinct lifetimes, those two lifetimes have some intersection (the call
itself), and that intersection can be our value of `'a`

that we use as the
common lifetime of our arguments. -nmatsakis)

## Final example

Let's look at one last example. We'll extend the previous one to have a return type:

```
for<'a> fn(&'a u32, &'a u32) -> &'a u32
<:
for<'b, 'c> fn(&'b u32, &'c u32) -> &'b u32
```

Despite seeming very similar to the previous example, this case is going to get an error. That's good: the problem is that we've gone from a fn that promises to return one of its two arguments, to a fn that is promising to return the first one. That is unsound. Let's see how it plays out.

First, we replace the bound region in the supertype with a placeholder:

```
for<'a> fn(&'a u32, &'a u32) -> &'a u32
<:
fn(&'!1 u32, &'!2 u32) -> &'!1 u32
```

Then we instantiate the subtype with existentials (in U2):

```
fn(&'?3 u32, &'?3 u32) -> &'?3 u32
<:
fn(&'!1 u32, &'!2 u32) -> &'!1 u32
```

And now we create the subtyping relationships:

```
&'!1 u32 <: &'?3 u32 // arg 1
&'!2 u32 <: &'?3 u32 // arg 2
&'?3 u32 <: &'!1 u32 // return type
```

And finally the outlives relationships. Here, let V1, V2, and V3 be the
variables we assign to `!1`

, `!2`

, and `?3`

respectively:

```
V1: V3
V2: V3
V3: V1
```

Those variables will have these initial values:

```
V1 in U1 = {placeholder(1)}
V2 in U2 = {placeholder(2)}
V3 in U2 = {}
```

Now because of the `V3: V1`

constraint, we have to add `placeholder(1)`

into `V3`

(and
indeed it is visible from `V3`

), so we get:

```
V3 in U2 = {placeholder(1)}
```

then we have this constraint `V2: V3`

, so we wind up having to enlarge
`V2`

to include `placeholder(1)`

(which it can also see):

```
V2 in U2 = {placeholder(1), placeholder(2)}
```

Now constraint propagation is done, but when we check the outlives
relationships, we find that `V2`

includes this new element `placeholder(1)`

,
so we report an error.