Overview of the Compiler

This chapter is about the overall process of compiling a program -- how everything fits together.

The rust compiler is special in two ways: it does things to your code that other compilers don't do (e.g. borrow checking) and it has a lot of unconventional implementation choices (e.g. queries). We will talk about these in turn in this chapter, and in the rest of the guide, we will look at all the individual pieces in more detail.

What the compiler does to your code

So first, let's look at what the compiler does to your code. For now, we will avoid mentioning how the compiler implements these steps except as needed; we'll talk about that later.

  • The compile process begins when a user writes a Rust source program in text and invokes the rustc compiler on it. The work that the compiler needs to perform is defined by command-line options. For example, it is possible to enable nightly features (-Z flags), perform check-only builds, or emit LLVM-IR rather than executable machine code. The rustc executable call may be indirect through the use of cargo.

  • Command line argument parsing occurs in the rustc_driver. This crate defines the compile configuration that is requested by the user and passes it to the rest of the compilation process as a rustc_interface::Config.

  • The raw Rust source text is analyzed by a low-level lexer located in rustc_lexer. At this stage, the source text is turned into a stream of atomic source code units known as tokens. The lexer supports the Unicode character encoding.

  • The token stream passes through a higher-level lexer located in rustc_parse to prepare for the next stage of the compile process. The StringReader struct is used at this stage to perform a set of validations and turn strings into interned symbols (interning is discussed later). String interning is a way of storing only one immutable copy of each distinct string value.

  • The lexer has a small interface and doesn't depend directly on the diagnostic infrastructure in rustc. Instead it provides diagnostics as plain data which are emitted in rustc_parse::lexer::mod as real diagnostics.

  • The lexer preserves full fidelity information for both IDEs and proc macros.

  • The parser translates the token stream from the lexer into an Abstract Syntax Tree (AST). It uses a recursive descent (top-down) approach to syntax analysis. The crate entry points for the parser are the Parser::parse_crate_mod() and Parser::parse_mod() methods found in rustc_parse::parser::item. The external module parsing entry point is rustc_expand::module::parse_external_mod. And the macro parser entry point is Parser::parse_nonterminal().

  • Parsing is performed with a set of Parser utility methods including fn bump, fn check, fn eat, fn expect, fn look_ahead.

  • Parsing is organized by the semantic construct that is being parsed. Separate parse_* methods can be found in rustc_parse parser directory. The source file name follows the construct name. For example, the following files are found in the parser:

    • expr.rs
    • pat.rs
    • ty.rs
    • stmt.rs
  • This naming scheme is used across many compiler stages. You will find either a file or directory with the same name across the parsing, lowering, type checking, THIR lowering, and MIR building sources.

  • Macro expansion, AST validation, name resolution, and early linting takes place during this stage of the compile process.

  • The parser uses the standard DiagnosticBuilder API for error handling, but we try to recover, parsing a superset of Rust's grammar, while also emitting an error.

  • rustc_ast::ast::{Crate, Mod, Expr, Pat, ...} AST nodes are returned from the parser.

  • We then take the AST and convert it to High-Level Intermediate Representation (HIR). This is a compiler-friendly representation of the AST. This involves a lot of desugaring of things like loops and async fn.

  • We use the HIR to do type inference. This is the process of automatic detection of the type of an expression.

  • TODO: Maybe some other things are done here? I think initial type checking happens here? And trait solving?

  • The HIR is then lowered to Mid-Level Intermediate Representation (MIR).

    • Along the way, we construct the THIR, which is an even more desugared HIR. THIR is used for pattern and exhaustiveness checking. It is also more convenient to convert into MIR than HIR is.
  • The MIR is used for borrow checking.

  • We (want to) do many optimizations on the MIR because it is still generic and that improves the code we generate later, improving compilation speed too.

    • MIR is a higher level (and generic) representation, so it is easier to do some optimizations at MIR level than at LLVM-IR level. For example LLVM doesn't seem to be able to optimize the pattern the simplify_try mir opt looks for.
  • Rust code is monomorphized, which means making copies of all the generic code with the type parameters replaced by concrete types. To do this, we need to collect a list of what concrete types to generate code for. This is called monomorphization collection.

  • We then begin what is vaguely called code generation or codegen.

    • The code generation stage (codegen) is when higher level representations of source are turned into an executable binary. rustc uses LLVM for code generation. The first step is to convert the MIR to LLVM Intermediate Representation (LLVM IR). This is where the MIR is actually monomorphized, according to the list we created in the previous step.
    • The LLVM IR is passed to LLVM, which does a lot more optimizations on it. It then emits machine code. It is basically assembly code with additional low-level types and annotations added. (e.g. an ELF object or wasm).
    • The different libraries/binaries are linked together to produce the final binary.

How it does it

Ok, so now that we have a high-level view of what the compiler does to your code, let's take a high-level view of how it does all that stuff. There are a lot of constraints and conflicting goals that the compiler needs to satisfy/optimize for. For example,

  • Compilation speed: how fast is it to compile a program. More/better compile-time analyses often means compilation is slower.
    • Also, we want to support incremental compilation, so we need to take that into account. How can we keep track of what work needs to be redone and what can be reused if the user modifies their program?
      • Also we can't store too much stuff in the incremental cache because it would take a long time to load from disk and it could take a lot of space on the user's system...
  • Compiler memory usage: while compiling a program, we don't want to use more memory than we need.
  • Program speed: how fast is your compiled program. More/better compile-time analyses often means the compiler can do better optimizations.
  • Program size: how large is the compiled binary? Similar to the previous point.
  • Compiler compilation speed: how long does it take to compile the compiler? This impacts contributors and compiler maintenance.
  • Implementation complexity: building a compiler is one of the hardest things a person/group can do, and Rust is not a very simple language, so how do we make the compiler's code base manageable?
  • Compiler correctness: the binaries produced by the compiler should do what the input programs says they do, and should continue to do so despite the tremendous amount of change constantly going on.
  • Integration: a number of other tools need to use the compiler in various ways (e.g. cargo, clippy, miri, RLS) that must be supported.
  • Compiler stability: the compiler should not crash or fail ungracefully on the stable channel.
  • Rust stability: the compiler must respect Rust's stability guarantees by not breaking programs that previously compiled despite the many changes that are always going on to its implementation.
  • Limitations of other tools: rustc uses LLVM in its backend, and LLVM has some strengths we leverage and some limitations/weaknesses we need to work around.

So, as you read through the rest of the guide, keep these things in mind. They will often inform decisions that we make.

Intermediate representations

As with most compilers, rustc uses some intermediate representations (IRs) to facilitate computations. In general, working directly with the source code is extremely inconvenient and error-prone. Source code is designed to be human-friendly while at the same time being unambiguous, but it's less convenient for doing something like, say, type checking.

Instead most compilers, including rustc, build some sort of IR out of the source code which is easier to analyze. rustc has a few IRs, each optimized for different purposes:

  • Token stream: the lexer produces a stream of tokens directly from the source code. This stream of tokens is easier for the parser to deal with than raw text.
  • Abstract Syntax Tree (AST): the abstract syntax tree is built from the stream of tokens produced by the lexer. It represents pretty much exactly what the user wrote. It helps to do some syntactic sanity checking (e.g. checking that a type is expected where the user wrote one).
  • High-level IR (HIR): This is a sort of desugared AST. It's still close to what the user wrote syntactically, but it includes some implicit things such as some elided lifetimes, etc. This IR is amenable to type checking.
  • Typed HIR (THIR): This is an intermediate between HIR and MIR, and used to be called High-level Abstract IR (HAIR). It is like the HIR but it is fully typed and a bit more desugared (e.g. method calls and implicit dereferences are made fully explicit). Moreover, it is easier to lower to MIR from THIR than from HIR.
  • Middle-level IR (MIR): This IR is basically a Control-Flow Graph (CFG). A CFG is a type of diagram that shows the basic blocks of a program and how control flow can go between them. Likewise, MIR also has a bunch of basic blocks with simple typed statements inside them (e.g. assignment, simple computations, etc) and control flow edges to other basic blocks (e.g., calls, dropping values). MIR is used for borrow checking and other important dataflow-based checks, such as checking for uninitialized values. It is also used for a series of optimizations and for constant evaluation (via MIRI). Because MIR is still generic, we can do a lot of analyses here more efficiently than after monomorphization.
  • LLVM IR: This is the standard form of all input to the LLVM compiler. LLVM IR is a sort of typed assembly language with lots of annotations. It's a standard format that is used by all compilers that use LLVM (e.g. the clang C compiler also outputs LLVM IR). LLVM IR is designed to be easy for other compilers to emit and also rich enough for LLVM to run a bunch of optimizations on it.

One other thing to note is that many values in the compiler are interned. This is a performance and memory optimization in which we allocate the values in a special allocator called an arena. Then, we pass around references to the values allocated in the arena. This allows us to make sure that identical values (e.g. types in your program) are only allocated once and can be compared cheaply by comparing pointers. Many of the intermediate representations are interned.


The first big implementation choice is the query system. The rust compiler uses a query system which is unlike most textbook compilers, which are organized as a series of passes over the code that execute sequentially. The compiler does this to make incremental compilation possible -- that is, if the user makes a change to their program and recompiles, we want to do as little redundant work as possible to produce the new binary.

In rustc, all the major steps above are organized as a bunch of queries that call each other. For example, there is a query to ask for the type of something and another to ask for the optimized MIR of a function. These queries can call each other and are all tracked through the query system. The results of the queries are cached on disk so that we can tell which queries' results changed from the last compilation and only redo those. This is how incremental compilation works.

In principle, for the query-fied steps, we do each of the above for each item individually. For example, we will take the HIR for a function and use queries to ask for the LLVM IR for that HIR. This drives the generation of optimized MIR, which drives the borrow checker, which drives the generation of MIR, and so on.

... except that this is very over-simplified. In fact, some queries are not cached on disk, and some parts of the compiler have to run for all code anyway for correctness even if the code is dead code (e.g. the borrow checker). For example, currently the mir_borrowck query is first executed on all functions of a crate. Then the codegen backend invokes the collect_and_partition_mono_items query, which first recursively requests the optimized_mir for all reachable functions, which in turn runs mir_borrowck for that function and then creates codegen units. This kind of split will need to remain to ensure that unreachable functions still have their errors emitted.

Moreover, the compiler wasn't originally built to use a query system; the query system has been retrofitted into the compiler, so parts of it are not query-fied yet. Also, LLVM isn't our code, so that isn't querified either. The plan is to eventually query-fy all of the steps listed in the previous section, but as of February 2021, only the steps between HIR and LLVM IR are query-fied. That is, lexing, parsing, name resolution, and macro expansion are done all at once for the whole program.

One other thing to mention here is the all-important "typing context", TyCtxt, which is a giant struct that is at the center of all things. (Note that the name is mostly historic. This is not a "typing context" in the sense of Γ or Δ from type theory. The name is retained because that's what the name of the struct is in the source code.) All queries are defined as methods on the TyCtxt type, and the in-memory query cache is stored there too. In the code, there is usually a variable called tcx which is a handle on the typing context. You will also see lifetimes with the name 'tcx, which means that something is tied to the lifetime of the TyCtxt (usually it is stored or interned there).


Types are really important in Rust, and they form the core of a lot of compiler analyses. The main type (in the compiler) that represents types (in the user's program) is rustc_middle::ty::Ty. This is so important that we have a whole chapter on ty::Ty, but for now, we just want to mention that it exists and is the way rustc represents types!

Also note that the rustc_middle::ty module defines the TyCtxt struct we mentioned before.


Compiler performance is a problem that we would like to improve on (and are always working on). One aspect of that is parallelizing rustc itself.

Currently, there is only one part of rustc that is already parallel: codegen. During monomorphization, the compiler will split up all the code to be generated into smaller chunks called codegen units. These are then generated by independent instances of LLVM. Since they are independent, we can run them in parallel. At the end, the linker is run to combine all the codegen units together into one binary.

However, the rest of the compiler is still not yet parallel. There have been lots of efforts spent on this, but it is generally a hard problem. The current approach is to turn RefCells into Mutexs -- that is, we switch to thread-safe internal mutability. However, there are ongoing challenges with lock contention, maintaining query-system invariants under concurrency, and the complexity of the code base. One can try out the current work by enabling parallel compilation in config.toml. It's still early days, but there are already some promising performance improvements.


rustc itself is written in Rust. So how do we compile the compiler? We use an older compiler to compile the newer compiler. This is called bootstrapping.

Bootstrapping has a lot of interesting implications. For example, it means that one of the major users of Rust is the Rust compiler, so we are constantly testing our own software ("eating our own dogfood").

For more details on bootstrapping, see the bootstrapping section of the guide.

Unresolved Questions

  • Does LLVM ever do optimizations in debug builds?
  • How do I explore phases of the compile process in my own sources (lexer, parser, HIR, etc)? - e.g., cargo rustc -- -Z unpretty=hir-tree allows you to view HIR representation
  • What is the main source entry point for X?
  • Where do phases diverge for cross-compilation to machine code across different platforms?