The #[test] attribute

Many Rust programmers rely on a built-in attribute called #[test]. All you have to do is mark a function and include some asserts like so:

fn my_test() {
    assert!(2+2 == 4);

When this program is compiled using rustc --test or cargo test, it will produce an executable that can run this, and any other test function. This method of testing allows tests to live alongside code in an organic way. You can even put tests inside private modules:

mod my_priv_mod {
    fn my_priv_func() -> bool {}

    fn test_priv_func() {

Private items can thus be easily tested without worrying about how to expose them to any sort of external testing apparatus. This is key to the ergonomics of testing in Rust. Semantically, however, it's rather odd. How does any sort of main function invoke these tests if they're not visible? What exactly is rustc --test doing?

#[test] is implemented as a syntactic transformation inside the compiler's rustc_ast. Essentially, it's a fancy macro that rewrites the crate in 3 steps:

Step 1: Re-Exporting

As mentioned earlier, tests can exist inside private modules, so we need a way of exposing them to the main function, without breaking any existing code. To that end, rustc_ast will create local modules called __test_reexports that recursively reexport tests. This expansion translates the above example into:

mod my_priv_mod {
    fn my_priv_func() -> bool {}

    pub fn test_priv_func() {

    pub mod __test_reexports {
        pub use super::test_priv_func;

Now, our test can be accessed as my_priv_mod::__test_reexports::test_priv_func. For deeper module structures, __test_reexports will reexport modules that contain tests, so a test at a::b::my_test becomes a::__test_reexports::b::__test_reexports::my_test. While this process seems pretty safe, what happens if there is an existing __test_reexports module? The answer: nothing.

To explain, we need to understand how Rust's Abstract Syntax Tree represents identifiers. The name of every function, variable, module, etc. is not stored as a string, but rather as an opaque Symbol which is essentially an ID number for each identifier. The compiler keeps a separate hashtable that allows us to recover the human-readable name of a Symbol when necessary (such as when printing a syntax error). When the compiler generates the __test_reexports module, it generates a new Symbol for the identifier, so while the compiler-generated __test_reexports may share a name with your hand-written one, it will not share a Symbol. This technique prevents name collision during code generation and is the foundation of Rust's macro hygiene.

Step 2: Harness Generation

Now that our tests are accessible from the root of our crate, we need to do something with them using rustc_ast generates a module like so:

pub fn main() {
    extern crate test;
    test::test_main_static(&[&path::to::test1, /*...*/]);

Here path::to::test1 is a constant of type test::TestDescAndFn.

While this transformation is simple, it gives us a lot of insight into how tests are actually run. The tests are aggregated into an array and passed to a test runner called test_main_static. We'll come back to exactly what TestDescAndFn is, but for now, the key takeaway is that there is a crate called test that is part of Rust core, that implements all of the runtime for testing. test's interface is unstable, so the only stable way to interact with it is through the #[test] macro.

Step 3: Test Object Generation

If you've written tests in Rust before, you may be familiar with some of the optional attributes available on test functions. For example, a test can be annotated with #[should_panic] if we expect the test to cause a panic. It looks something like this:

fn foo() {

This means our tests are more than just simple functions, they have configuration information as well. test encodes this configuration data into a struct called TestDesc. For each test function in a crate, rustc_ast will parse its attributes and generate a TestDesc instance. It then combines the TestDesc and test function into the predictably named TestDescAndFn struct, that test_main_static operates on. For a given test, the generated TestDescAndFn instance looks like so:

  desc: self::test::TestDesc{
    name: self::test::StaticTestName("foo"),
    ignore: false,
    should_panic: self::test::ShouldPanic::Yes,
    allow_fail: false,
  testfn: self::test::StaticTestFn(||

Once we've constructed an array of these test objects, they're passed to the test runner via the harness generated in Step 2.

Inspecting the generated code

On nightly rustc, there's an unstable flag called unpretty that you can use to print out the module source after macro expansion:

$ rustc -Z unpretty=hir