Memory Management in Rustc

Rustc tries to be pretty careful how it manages memory. The compiler allocates a lot of data structures throughout compilation, and if we are not careful, it will take a lot of time and space to do so.

One of the main way the compiler manages this is using arenas and interning.

Arenas and Interning

We create a LOT of data structures during compilation. For performance reasons, we allocate them from a global memory pool; they are each allocated once from a long-lived arena. This is called arena allocation. This system reduces allocations/deallocations of memory. It also allows for easy comparison of types for equality: for each interned type X, we implemented PartialEq for X, so we can just compare pointers. The CtxtInterners type contains a bunch of maps of interned types and the arena itself.

Example: ty::TyKind

Taking the example of ty::TyKind which represents a type in the compiler (you can read more here). Each time we want to construct a type, the compiler doesn’t naively allocate from the buffer. Instead, we check if that type was already constructed. If it was, we just get the same pointer we had before, otherwise we make a fresh pointer. With this schema if we want to know if two types are the same, all we need to do is compare the pointers which is efficient. TyKind should never be constructed on the stack, and it would be unusable if done so. You always allocate them from this arena and you always intern them so they are unique.

At the beginning of the compilation we make a buffer and each time we need to allocate a type we use some of this memory buffer. If we run out of space we get another one. The lifetime of that buffer is 'tcx. Our types are tied to that lifetime, so when compilation finishes all the memory related to that buffer is freed and our 'tcx references would be invalid.

In addition to types, there are a number of other arena-allocated data structures that you can allocate, and which are found in this module. Here are a few examples:

  • GenericArgs, allocated with mk_args – this will intern a slice of types, often used to specify the values to be substituted for generics args (e.g. HashMap<i32, u32> would be represented as a slice &'tcx [tcx.types.i32, tcx.types.u32]).
  • TraitRef, typically passed by value – a trait reference consists of a reference to a trait along with its various type parameters (including Self), like i32: Display (here, the def-id would reference the Display trait, and the args would contain i32). Note that def-id is defined and discussed in depth in the AdtDef and DefId section.
  • Predicate defines something the trait system has to prove (see traits module).

The tcx and how it uses lifetimes

The tcx ("typing context") is the central data structure in the compiler. It is the context that you use to perform all manner of queries. The struct TyCtxt defines a reference to this shared context:

tcx: TyCtxt<'tcx>
//          ----
//          |
//          arena lifetime

As you can see, the TyCtxt type takes a lifetime parameter. When you see a reference with a lifetime like 'tcx, you know that it refers to arena-allocated data (or data that lives as long as the arenas, anyhow).

A Note On Lifetimes

The Rust compiler is a fairly large program containing lots of big data structures (e.g. the AST, HIR, and the type system) and as such, arenas and references are heavily relied upon to minimize unnecessary memory use. This manifests itself in the way people can plug into the compiler (i.e. the driver), preferring a "push"-style API (callbacks) instead of the more Rust-ic "pull" style (think the Iterator trait).

Thread-local storage and interning are used a lot through the compiler to reduce duplication while also preventing a lot of the ergonomic issues due to many pervasive lifetimes. The rustc_middle::ty::tls module is used to access these thread-locals, although you should rarely need to touch it.