Llogiq on stuff

The System Programming Enclosure Movement

When Systems Programming was conceived, programmers either toggled switches to enter code or even manually wired the systems to get the desired effect. Programmers did not know good from evil, all they knew was they were forbidden to eat from the tree of abstraction.

Suffice to say, the toggling and wiring was not very ergonomic, so a few bites later we got assembly. A deluge of assemblers later, the survivors had primitive macros, so they could build structures on top of another.

People begin building a tower to the heavens out of assembly code, which angered some deity, so we get different programming languages. Lots of them. And people coding in language A could not understand people coding in language B and vice versa. The tower project was cancelled.

Still, the new languages had little in the way of managing memory, because when all you’ve got is a hundred bytes (yes, bytes, without any prefix), keeping track of what’s in there is not only vital, but also manageable.

When memory got more plentiful, we got RAII, reference counting and garbage collection. While that made some things slower – sometimes dramatically so – it allowed for other things that were previously impossible. Things in memory started to be owned, but most things belonged to no one in particular.

Fast forward to 2015. We now have systems with multiple gigabytes of memory. In fact, I personally ran a job that year that used a 90GB heap. And this was all in RAM – we had deactivated swap before to avoid trashing.

During that year, Rust reaches 1.0. This is kind of a big deal, because where people didn’t really mind their stuff in memory and left garbage collectors to deal with it, we now have a language where just about everything is owned. By a single owner.

Imagine that. Where other languages could have parishes, or clubs, or other associations (or just the whole town) that could own things collectively, in Rust they must use appoint an Rc (or Arc if they live on different threads) to own stuff, or declare one of them the canonical owner.

The argument in favor of this enclosure movement is that commonly owned memory tends to become a garbage heap. Since Rust as a systems language wants to avoid paying garbagepeople, they needed a single owner to take the responsibility. Rustaceans often also argue that it leads to better code. On the other hand, canonical ownership is restrictive, and some algorithms are even deemed infeasible without garbage collection.

Ownership does not imply exclusive usage – Rust has borrowing to let multiple entities work with stuff. The people who did not own stuff (because until now they could always access everything they needed) found themselves talking the owner of stuff into giving them a reference – many found out they only wanted to look at stuff, so they only needed an immutable reference; which optimized memory usage further, because many folks could look at the same thing at the same time.

Elsewhere, people wanting to change stuff needed to secure a mutable reference from the owner. For fear of interference, no one was allowed to look at stuff during the change (for those who balk at this rule, applying a similar rule to car crash sites would certainly reduce further fatalities). Since owners are fairly liberal about lending out stuff, this system works remarkably well.

Also there are some types designed to skirt the law, allowing to change things from an immutable borrow. They are all based on a type called UnsafeCell, which offers a vivid description of where those who misuse this particular device will end up.

Still, this “enclosure” is not without detractors. Some fear that the owners might turn into misers, only lending out scraps or even nothing. So far, those fears have been unfounded, but looking into the future is always a risky business.

Others decry the complexity that has been strewn across their code; with lifetime generics and additional blocks to appease the borrow checker. However, they essentially compare Rust to places where the garbagemen pick up all their litter every Thursday, and they don’t want to pay for the service either. This is the real tragedy of the commons.