Serialization in Rustc

Rustc has to serialize and deserialize various data during compilation. Specifically:

  • "Crate metadata", mainly query outputs, are serialized in a binary format into rlib and rmeta files that are output when compiling a library crate, these are then deserialized by crates that depend on that library.
  • Certain query outputs are serialized in a binary format to persist incremental compilation results.
  • The -Z ast-json and -Z ast-json-noexpand flags serialize the AST to json and output the result to stdout.
  • CrateInfo is serialized to json when the -Z no-link flag is used, and deserialized from json when the -Z link-only flag is used.

The Encodable and Decodable traits

The rustc_serialize crate defines two traits for types which can be serialized:

pub trait Encodable<S: Encoder> {
    fn encode(&self, s: &mut S) -> Result<(), S::Error>;

pub trait Decodable<D: Decoder>: Sized {
    fn decode(d: &mut D) -> Result<Self, D::Error>;

It also defines implementations of these for integer types, floating point types, bool, char, str and various common standard library types.

For types that are constructed from those types, Encodable and Decodable are usually implemented by derives. These generate implementations that forward deserialization to the fields of the struct or enum. For a struct those impls look something like this:

extern crate rustc_serialize;
use rustc_serialize::{Decodable, Decoder, Encodable, Encoder};

struct MyStruct {
    int: u32,
    float: f32,

impl<E: Encoder> Encodable<E> for MyStruct {
    fn encode(&self, s: &mut E) -> Result<(), E::Error> {
        s.emit_struct("MyStruct", 2, |s| {
            s.emit_struct_field("int", 0, |s|;
            s.emit_struct_field("float", 1, |s| self.float.encode(s))
impl<D: Decoder> Decodable<D> for MyStruct {
    fn decode(s: &mut D) -> Result<MyStruct, D::Error> {
        s.read_struct("MyStruct", 2, |d| {
            let int = d.read_struct_field("int", 0, Decodable::decode)?;
            let float = d.read_struct_field("float", 1, Decodable::decode)?;

            Ok(MyStruct { int, float })

Encoding and Decoding arena allocated types

Rustc has a lot of arena allocated types. Deserializing these types isn't possible without access to the arena that they need to be allocated on. The TyDecoder and TyEncoder traits are supertraits of Decoder and Encoder that allow access to a TyCtxt.

Types which contain arena allocated types can then bound the type parameter of their Encodable and Decodable implementations with these traits. For example

impl<'tcx, D: TyDecoder<'tcx>> Decodable<D> for MyStruct<'tcx> {
    /* ... */

The TyEncodable and TyDecodable derive macros will expand to such an implementation.

Decoding the actual arena allocated type is harder, because some of the implementations can't be written due to the orphan rules. To work around this, the RefDecodable trait is defined in rustc_middle. This can then be implemented for any type. The TyDecodable macro will call RefDecodable to decode references, but various generic code needs types to actually be Decodable with a specific decoder.

For interned types instead of manually implementing RefDecodable, using a new type wrapper, like ty::Predicate and manually implementing Encodable and Decodable may be simpler.

Derive macros

The rustc_macros crate defines various derives to help implement Decodable and Encodable.

  • The Encodable and Decodable macros generate implementations that apply to all Encoders and Decoders. These should be used in crates that don't depend on rustc_middle, or that have to be serialized by a type that does not implement TyEncoder.
  • MetadataEncodable and MetadataDecodable generate implementations that only allow decoding by rustc_metadata::rmeta::encoder::EncodeContext and rustc_metadata::rmeta::decoder::DecodeContext. These are used for types that contain rustc_metadata::rmeta::Lazy.
  • TyEncodable and TyDecoder generate implementation that apply to any TyEncoder or TyDecoder. These should be used for types that are only serialized in crate metadata and/or the incremental cache, which is most serializable types in rustc_middle.


Ty can be deeply recursive, if each Ty was encoded naively then crate metadata would be very large. To handle this, each TyEncoder has a cache of locations in its output where it has serialized types. If a type being encoded is in the cache, then instead of serializing the type as usual, the byte offset within the file being written is encoded instead. A similar scheme is used for ty::Predicate.


Crate metadata is initially loaded before the TyCtxt<'tcx> is created, so some deserialization needs to be deferred from the initial loading of metadata. The Lazy<T> type wraps the (relative) offset in the crate metadata where a T has been serialized.

The Lazy<[T]> and Lazy<Table<I, T>> type provide some functionality over Lazy<Vec<T>> and Lazy<HashMap<I, T>>:

  • It's possible to encode a Lazy<[T]> directly from an iterator, without first collecting into a Vec<T>.
  • Indexing into a Lazy<Table<I, T>> does not require decoding entries other than the one being read.

note: Lazy<T> does not cache its value after being deserialized the first time. Instead the query system is the main way of caching these results.


A few types, most notably DefId, need to have different implementations for different Encoders. This is currently handled by ad-hoc specializations: DefId has a default implementation of Encodable<E> and a specialized one for Encodable<CacheEncoder>.