Unstructured Thoughts

Why Rust is better than C++, a case study

For the past week I have been working on transferring LLVM’s wonderful Kaleidoscope tutorial to Rust as a way to gauge the possibility of finally introducing a proper REPL into the language. I am still working on getting the JIT compiler functioning, but I thought I may as well document some thoughts about where Rust is infinitely superior to C++ and where it still needs some improvement.

Globals are evil

C++ can be a horribly difficult language to read. Just look at the following example:

static PrototypeAST *ParsePrototype() {
if (CurTok != tok_identifier)
return ErrorP("Expected function name in prototype");

std::string FnName = IdentifierStr;
getNextToken();

if (CurTok != '(')
return ErrorP("Expected '(' in prototype");

This is a function which returns an optionally null pointer. The variables CurTok, tok_identifier, and IdentifierStr are all from other unknown location. It’s not even clear what type CurTok and tok_identifier could be. The only reason we know the type of IdentifierStr is that it was copied into the string FnName. The potential side effects of getNextToken are unknown and the results of ErrorP are unclear.

In constrast, this same example when translated to Rust becomes:

fn parsePrototype(&mut self) -> ParseResult<~PrototypeAst> {
let fnName: ~str = match self.currentToken {
Identifier(ref name) => name.clone(),
_ => return Err(~"Expected function name in prototype")
};

self.getNextToken();
if self.currentToken != Char('(') {
return Err(~"Expected '(' in prototype");
}

Pattern matches reduce the ambiguity of CurTok and tok_identifier, allowing the possible input tokens to be clearly demarcated without requiring global mutable state. In addition, the error handling now occurs through a Result class which will force callers of this method to employ error checking. This makes it impossible for a missing if(!result) to cause a program crash.

Tracking a moving target

If everything I had to say about Rust were positive, I would be lying. An occasional downside to Rust is its current “move fast break things” attitude. At one point in development I went from a perfect clean build to around 30 warnings because of the deprecation of owned vectors. While refactoring to the new Vec struct was not horrific, it was two minutes I could have spent documenting or refactoring.

Overall, working with Rust for this project was both fun and refreshing, and I highly recommend trying out the language. Programming with Rust is kind of like programming with Haskell: the semantics are tricky and the learning curve can be steep, but becoming proficient in it teaches a way of thought that will stay with you across all languages.

If you want to check out current work on Rusty Kaleidoscope, you can find it here.