The borrow checker is arguably one of the biggest sources of frustration when learning Rust. Once the Rust compiler is satisfied with the syntax, it gets down to the real stuff: proving that your program is free from data races caused by aliasing of memory.

However hard it might seem, the borrow checker is really right, and once you internalize its ways, data-race prone code written in any language will jump out at you, even without actually running the code.

For me, one of the most irritating borrow checker complaints was its refusal to admit code like this:

let mut x = 5;
let _alias = &x;

x = 6;

which produces the following output:

error[E0506]: cannot assign to x because it is borrowed
--> ./test.rs:4:5
|
3 |     let _alias = &x;
|                   - borrow of x occurs here
4 |     x = 6;
|     ^^^^^ assignment to borrowed x occurs here

error: aborting due to previous error

For more information about this error, try rustc --explain E0506.

That is perfectly ok in C++. The assignment would be visible via any alias (either a reference or a raw pointer). Why is Rust complaining about creating read/write aliases to the same memory location in the same thread? Consider the following snippet:

fn main() {
let mut vec = vec!["foo", "bar", "baz"];
println!("{:?}", &vec);

// A reference to the first item in the vector
let _alias = vec.get(0).unwrap();
println!("{:?}", &vec);

vec.push("another");
println!("{:?}", &vec);
}

As expected, that code doesn’t compile – it is essentially the same as the first snippet. Can you spot the issue now? If not, consider this code:

fn main() {
let mut vec = vec!["foo", "bar", "baz"];
println!("{:?}", &vec);

// A reference to the first item in the vector
let _alias = vec.get(0).unwrap();
println!("{:?}", &vec);

for _ in 0..1_000_000_000 {
vec.push("item");
}

println!("{:?}", &vec);
}

Spot it now?

So a Vec is a resizable collection of items, sequentially stored in memory. The implementation starts out with an array for the storage. When the application tries to insert more items than the storage can currently hold, the implementation will reallocate memory, copy all items from the old memory range to the new (larger) one, and release the old memory range. Any aliases into the old range of memory are invalid after such reallocation. In the above program, there will almost certainly be a reallocation, which would make the _alias reference invalid. Fortunately, Rust’s simple borrowing rules are enough to flag this program as invalid.

Let’s see what happens in C++ though:

#include <iostream>
#include <vector>

template<class T>
void printvec(const std::vector<T>& vec)
{
std::cout << "[";
bool first = true;
for (auto& el : vec)
{
if (first)
first = false;
else
std::cout << ",";
std::cout << el;
}
std::cout << "]" << std::endl;
}

int main()
{
std::vector<std::string> vec { "foo", "bar", "baz" };
printvec(vec);

auto& alias = vec[0];
std::cout << "&vec[0] = " << &alias << std::endl;
std::cout << "vec[0] = " << alias << std::endl;

for (int i = 0; i < 1000000; i++)
{
vec.push_back("lama");
}

auto& yet_another_alias = vec[0];
std::cout << "&vec[0] = " << &yet_another_alias << std::endl;
std::cout << "vec[0] = " << yet_another_alias << std::endl;

std::cout << "Old alias points to address " << &alias
<< ", and  has contents " << alias << std::endl;

return 0;
}

Output:

[foo,bar,baz]
&vec[0] = 0xabfc20
vec[0] = foo
&vec[0] = 0x7f16861de010
vec[0] = foo
Old alias points to address 0xabfc20, and  has contents ȋBȋB������B��B [...more garbage...]

Note that Rust’s borrow checking rules do not talk explicitly about dangling references caused by such reallocation. By requiring you to prove that a mutable borrow to a piece of memory is the only such borrow active at any given time in your program, Rust automatically makes this class of errors impossible. Indeed, the borrow checker eliminates a bunch of other such logic errors caused by aliasing of memory.

Of course a well known side effect is that occasionally, certain patterns just cannot be expressed in Rust, and might require some rethinking of how you model your data. One example that particularly annoys me is the following:

use std::sync::{Arc, Mutex};

struct Foo {
x: i32,
history: Vec<i32>,
mutex: Arc<Mutex<()>>,
}

impl Foo {
fn new(x: i32) -> Foo {
Foo { x, history: vec![], mutex: Arc::new(Mutex::new(())) }
}

fn update(&mut self, x: i32) {
let _lock = self.mutex.lock().unwrap();
self.step_history();
self.x = x;
}

fn step_history(&mut self) {
self.history.push(self.x);
}
}

fn main() {
let mut foo = Foo::new(0);
foo.update(1);
}

That is a contrived example of course – we don’t really need step_history here. But this the essence a real, more complicated requirement that came up in a project of mine. This is the output we get from rustc:

error[E0502]: cannot borrow *self as mutable because self.mutex is also borrowed as immutable
--> test.rs:16:9
|
15 |         let _lock = self.mutex.lock().unwrap();
|                     ---------- immutable borrow occurs here
16 |         self.step_history();
|         ^^^^ mutable borrow occurs here
17 |         self.x = x;
18 |     }
|     - immutable borrow ends here

error: aborting due to previous error

The error is self-explanatory – the value _lock internally holds on to an immutable borrow of self and we are trying to call a method that requires a coexisting mutable borrow of self, which is a no go.

The only solution I’ve found to this one is to realize that in step_history, we only really need a mutable borrow to self.history, not to the entirety of self. So, we could do this:

use std::sync::{Arc, Mutex};

struct Foo {
x: i32,
history: Vec<i32>,
mutex: Arc<Mutex<()>>,
}

fn update_history(new_val: i32, history: &mut Vec<i32>) {
history.push(new_val);
}

impl Foo {
fn new(x: i32) -> Foo {
Foo { x, history: vec![], mutex: Arc::new(Mutex::new(())) }
}

fn update(&mut self, x: i32) {
let _lock = self.mutex.lock().unwrap();
let history = &mut self.history;
update_history(x, history);
self.x = x;
}
}

fn main() {
let mut foo = Foo::new(0);
foo.update(1);
}

Note how we now directly borrow the required field, and use it like a normal mutable borrow.

Another example where the borrow checker can become a pain is self-referential or cyclic data structure representations, like the straightforward pointer linked implementation of graphs. There are always alternative rerpresentations, like using a vector of nodes, and representing the graph adjacency in terms of indices into this vector.

All this does mean that there are programs that you know are correct, but rustc refuses to accept them because of borrowck failures. Embrace the borrowck here: most of the time, your program was likely incorrect. Even if it wasn’t, you might get to learn an alternative representation for the data you are modeling!