Introduction and overview

There are many guides and introductions to Rust.

This one is something different: it is intended for the experienced programmer who already knows many other programming languages.

I try to be comprehensive enough to be a starting point for any area of Rust, but to avoid going into too much detail except where things are not as you might expect.

Also this guide is not entirely free of opinion, including recommendations of libraries (crates), tooling, etc.

Alternatives or supplements to this guide


Rust is a compiled language.

Rust's execution model is imperative, with strict evaluation (except that there are types that embody lazy evaluation).

Rust is statically typed, with an algebraic type system. It supports generic types (parameterised types) and generic functions. Monomorphisation and dynamic despatch are both supported (chosen at the point where a generic type is referred to). Type inference is supported in some contexts, especially local variables.

Rust is memory-safe and thread-safe, but with a clearly-defined and well-used unsafe escape hatch.

Concurrency is supported by multithreading, and alternatively via a green-threads-based async system. Concurrent Rust programs are still memory-safe.

There is no garbage collector. Stack objects are explicitly defined and automatically deallocated. Heap objects are explicitly allocated, and automatically deallocated when their references go out of scope. Rust has a novel memory and object lifetime management approach with lifetime-based aliasing/mutability rules.

There are two macro systems for metaprogramming: a pattern matcher (macro_rules!) and a very powerful system of arbitrary code transformation (proc_macro).

There are fully-supported stripped-down profiles of the Rust standard library without OS functions (alloc), and without even a memory allocator (core), for use in embedded situations.

The concrete syntax has many influences. The basic function and expression syntax resembles "bracey" languages, but with some wrinkles. Notably: ( ) are not required around the control expression for if etc. but { } are required around the controlled statement block; and, presence vs absence of ; at the end of a block is highly significant.

There is little meaningful separate compilation. The usual aggregation of the Rust libraries making up a single Rust program involves obtaining all of the source code to all the libraries and building them into a single executable with static linking.

There is a good FFI system to talk to C (and libraries for convenient interfacing to C++, WASM, Python,...) Generally, dynamic linking is still used for FFI libraries.

The unit of compilation is large: the "crate", not file or module.

Implementation, docs, tooling, etc.

There is one principal implementation, rustc which is maintained by the Rust project itself, alongside the specifications and documentation.

Compilation is slow by comparison with many other modern languages, but the runtime speed of idiomatic Rust code is extremely good.

Code generation (to native code or WASM) is currently done via LLVM but projects to allow use of GCC and Cranelift are both at an advanced stage. There is also an IR interpreter used mostly for validation.

There is no formal language specification. The Rust Reference has most of the syntax but usually lacks important information about semantics and details.

The standard library documentation is excellent and comprehensive.

For unsafe code, which plays with raw pointers etc., the semantics are formally but unofficially described in Stacked Borrows and programs can be checked by Miri, the interpreter for the Rust Mid-Intermediate Representation.

Rust is available in "stable", "beta" and "nightly" flavours. Rust intends to avoid (and in practice, generally does avoid) breaking existing code which was using stable interfaces.

There is excellent support for cross-compilation.

The project provides an online playground for playing with and sharing small experiments. This is heavily used as a stable way to share snippets, repros, etc., including in bug reports.

Obtaining Rust is canonically done with rustup, a pre-packaged installer/updater tool. rustup's rather alarming curl|bash install rune is mitigated by the care taken by the rustup maintainers; however, you will also end up using cargo which is more of a problem.

Library ecosystem

Rust relies heavily on its ecosystem of libraries (aka "crates"), and its convenient but securitywise-troubling language-specific package manager cargo. It is not practical to write any but the smallest programs without using external libraries.

Conversely, the library ecosystem is rich and generally of high quality although slightly lacking in certain areas (especially "webby" areas when compared with more "webby" languages).

The Rust ecosystem contains some exceptional and unique libraries, which can conveniently provide advanced capabilities found elsewhere only in special-purpose or research languages (if at all).

The combination of static linking of Rust libraries, with heavy use of monomorphised generic code, can lead to very large binaries.

The Rust Project

The Rust Project has robust and mature governance and review processes. The compiler implementation quality is high and the project is exceptionally welcoming.

Notable ideological features of the Rust community are:

  • A strong desire to help the programmer write correct code, including a desire for the compiler to take responsibility for preventing programmer error.
  • Pride in helping users write performant code.
  • Effective collaboration between practising developers and academic programming language and formal methods experts. (Comprehensive survey.)

There is also a strong desire to help the programmer with accessible documentation and useful error messages, but generally ease of programming is traded off in favour of correctness, and sometimes performance.