/ RUST, BASICS, COLLECTIONS

Rust's Vector

I’ll be honest: I initially wanted to describe all collections available in Rust as well as their related concepts. Then, I started to dig a bit into it, and I decided it would have been (much) too long. For that reason, I’ll restrict the scope to the Vec type.

This is the 9th post in the Start Rust focus series.Other posts include:

  1. My first cup of Rust
  2. My second cup of Rust
  3. The Rustlings exercises - part 1
  4. The Rustlings exercises - part 2
  5. Rust on the front-end
  6. A Rust controller for Kubernetes
  7. Rust and the JVM
  8. diceroller, a sample Rust project
  9. Rust’s Vector (this post)

Here’s the diagram we will dive into:

Rust’s Vector "class" diagram

Basics of Vector

From the documentation:

A contiguous growable array type, written as Vec<T> and pronounced 'vector'.

Just as with Java’s ArrayList, Vec is backed by an array. When the array reaches full capacity, Vec reserves a new array with more capacity and copies elements from the original array to the newly-created one. Then, it frees the former. Note that the collection may allocate a larger array than necessary to avoid frequent reallocations.

To add values to a Vec, we need to use an additional step, e.g., the push() function:

let mut v = Vec::new();
v.push(1);
v.push(5);

Functions that create new Vec initialize them with no items. If we want to create a Vec and values simultaneously, Rust offers the vec! macro. We can replace the above code with the following one-liner:

let v = vec![1, 5];

At that point, if you’ve already dabbled a bit in Rust, you probably learned nothing new. Instead of describing every function on Vec - they are pretty similar to those found in other languages - let’s explore around a bit.

Vector and Iterator

Iterator is a design pattern described in the classic Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software book:

Intent: Provide an object which traverses some aggregate structure, abstracting away assumptions about the implementation of that structure.

Though the book describes Iterator, nothing limits the pattern to OOP languages. It’s a pretty widespread abstraction.

Rust provides the Iterator trait, and Vec implements it. Hence, we can traverse its values:

let v = vec![1, 5];
let mut iter = v.iter();                       (1)
loop {
    let value = iter.next();                   (2)
    if value.is_some() {
        println!("value: {}", value.unwrap());
    } else {
        break;
    }
}
1 Create the iterator. Because calling next() changes the state of iter, it must be mutable.
2 Get the next value

If I had received a dollar for each bug originating from a misplaced break statement, I’d surely be rich now. If you break too early, you lose values; too late, and all hell breaks loose (pun intended). For that reason, for along with iterator is a better fit. We can rewrite the above code as:

let v = vec![1, 5];
for value in v.iter() {                        (1)
    println!("value: {}", value);
}
1 Shorter, safer, hence better

Too many iterators to iterate from

Interestingly enough, we can slightly change the above code to remove the call to iter(). It still works!

let v = vec![1, 5];
for value in v {                               (1)
    println!("value: {}", value);
}
1 Magic!

That’s actually not magic but Rust' syntactic sugar in action. for loops accept iterators. Yet, some instances can be transformed into iterators "on the fly". The type must implement the IntoIterator trait and its into_iter() function to be eligible. As seen from the diagram above, that’s the case of Vec.

If you ask yourself the difference between iter() and into_inter(), take comfort in the fact that I wondered as well. After some research, I found this brilliant answer:

TL;DR:

  • The iterator returned by into_iter may yield any of T, &T or &mut T, depending on the context.
  • The iterator returned by iter will yield &T, by convention.
  • The iterator returned by iter_mut will yield &mut T, by convention.

Finally, you can create a Vec from an Iterator thanks to FromIterator.

struct Foo {
    count: u8
}

impl Iterator for Foo {                           (1)
    type Item = u8;
    fn next(&mut self) -> Option<Self::Item> {
        match self.count {
            0 => {
                self.count = self.count + 1;
                Option::Some(1)                   (2)
            }
            1 => {
                self.count = self.count + 1;
                Option::Some(5)                   (2)
            }
            _ => None                             (2)
        }
    }
}

let i = Foo { count: 0 };
let v = Vec::from_iter(i);                        (3)
for value in v {
    println!("value: {}", value);
}
1 Implement our own Iterator
2 First, return 1, then 5, then nothing
3 Create a Vec from our iterator

Memory allocation

We have overlooked one aspect of Vec so far: the definition is actually Vec<T, A: Allocator = Global>. While T is the type of items that the Vec contains, we didn’t look at A, which is what allocates memory. I won’t describe the subject in much detail because I currently lack the relevant knowledge. Yet, I believe it’s interesting to mention it, as no other language I know about provides this kind of hook.

An implementation of Allocator can allocate, grow, shrink, and deallocate arbitrary blocks of data described via Layout.

Rust’s Allocator "class" diagram

Rust uses the Global memory allocator by default. It delegates to another allocator: it’s System unless you register one with the #[global_allocator] attribute.

With Vec<T, A>, it’s thus possible to use a different allocator than the one defined centrally. One possible use-case would be to create an allocator that keeps track of allocated bytes only for a Vec instance.

Conclusion

This concludes my dabbling in Vec. In this post, I tried to avoid the usual handling of this kind of post and explore a bit around. While a dedicated memory allocator won’t be necessary in most cases, I think it’s one good trick to keep in mind just in case.

Nicolas Fränkel

Nicolas Fränkel

Developer Advocate with 15+ years experience consulting for many different customers, in a wide range of contexts (such as telecoms, banking, insurances, large retail and public sector). Usually working on Java/Java EE and Spring technologies, but with focused interests like Rich Internet Applications, Testing, CI/CD and DevOps. Currently working for Hazelcast. Also double as a trainer and triples as a book author.

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