Rustaceans at the border

Rustaceans at the border

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By Jonathan Corbet
April 14, 2022

Support for developing in the Rust
language is headed toward the kernel, though just when it
will land in the mainline is yet to be determined. The Rust patches are
progressing, though, and beginning to attract attention from beyond the
kernel community. When two languages — and two different development
communities — come together, the result can be a sort of cultural clash.
Some early signs of that are appearing with regard to Rust in the kernel;
if the resulting impedance mismatches can be worked out, the result could
be a better development environment for everybody involved.

The latest round of Rust patches was posted by
Miguel Ojeda on March 17. This time around, Rust support has
moved forward to version
1.59.0 of the Rust language, which has stabilized a
couple of important (for the kernel) features. The patches add a new module
abstracting access to hardware random-number generators. A
CString type has been added for C strings. The spinlock
implementation has been improved. All told, the patch series, which can be
found in the linux-next repository, adds over 35,000 lines of code and
documentation; it is a considerable body of work.

There has been no public discussion on just when these patches might be
deemed ready to go into the mainline kernel. Rust support is still
considered “experimental” even by its developers; that is likely to
remain the case for some time (even after this work is merged into the
mainline) until the language proves itself for kernel

Clearly, though, some developers are beginning to play with it — and they
are not all traditional kernel developers. Recently, Nándor Krácser asked
on the Rust-for-Linux mailing list
about the possibility of including Rust modules from the repository into the kernel build.
This request, seemingly, is
not just for small stuff:

Currently I’m experimenting with different crates which I would
like to use in my module, serialization libraries, math
libraries. etc, even complex ones, are really hard to pull in as a
direct source library (copy the code to the module), and if they
have a transitive dependency that complicates things even more.

Shortly thereafter, Chris Suter showed
up with a similar request. Rust developers working with kernel
modules, it seems, want more functionality than the current kernel
crate provides to them.

This should not be entirely surprising. Like many newer languages, Rust is
closely tied to a language-specific package-management system and
associated central repository; in this case, the Cargo package manager and Developers in such languages quickly become accustomed to
pulling in new modules (and any dependencies they may have) with a simple
command, and to having the build system make dependencies magically appear
when building a new program. For these developers, the idea of working in an environment where
complex libraries are not obtainable with a few keystrokes starts to have a
distinct lack of appeal after a while.

The kernel does not work in this way, though. To those of us who didn’t
grow up with that kind of development environment, it looks like a recipe
for bloat, bugs, and security problems. Depending on central repositories
opens up a project to problems like the famous leftpad incident or, worse, the deliberate
insertion of malicious software. A lack of attention to API compatibility
leads to a thicket of version requirements and dependency-resolution
problems so complex that machine-learning systems are
emerging to deal with them. Plus it all just looks so undisciplined and

At least some of the criticisms of this mode of development are valid, but
it’s also not
hard to detect a bit of Stockholm syndrome as well. For many of us, for
much of our careers, building a new program from source was likely to
involve a lengthy cycle of “try to build, figure out which dependency it
wants now, install the dependency” iterations — and recursive iterations at
that when the dependencies turn out to have missing dependencies of their
own. This exercise helped us to understand our systems better and must
somehow have helped us to build better moral character, so we can’t understand
why Kids These Days just don’t want to live that way.

The kernel community seems more than usually likely to have developers who
are resistant to newer methods of development. The kernel has to stand
alone, and its developers keep a firm grip on its dependencies. The kernel
repository contains all of the code needed to build a working kernel;
developers can be expected to install a limited set of tools to do the
build, but the idea of installing external libraries to build into the
kernel would not go over well.

So when developers see a shopping list like the one posted
by Suter:

Like I said, I’m interested in futures. Why it’s useful: async Rust
is arguably more common and easier to use than other forms of
multi-threaded processing. Other crates that I’d like: anyhow,
bincode, byteorder, log, once_cell, pin-project, rand, serde, slab,
static_assertions, uuid plus some more esoteric ones.

The first temptation will be to either run and hide or to respond in a way
that may not be compliant with anybody’s code of conduct.

There are some good reasons for this. As Greg Kroah-Hartman pointed out, code
that has been written to be useful in user space almost certainly does not
work within the constraints imposed on kernel code. “Async Rust” knows
nothing about kernel threads or how context switching is done in the
kernel, for example. Kernel code must be extremely
careful in how it allocates memory, must not use floating-point arithmetic,
cannot store large data structures on the stack, and cannot use unbounded
recursion, among many other rules. Most user-space code, which was not
written with these rules in mind, will fare poorly in this environment.
For this reason, Kroah-Hartman said that any functionality desired by Rust
programs must be specially written and provided in the dedicated
kernel crate.

The Rust-for-Linux developers understand this situation and are
not envisioning adding the ability to pull in modules with a tool like
Cargo. So it is interesting that a long-time kernel developer, Kent
Overstreet, was the one to argue
for a different approach. “The world is changing”, he said,
and perhaps it is time for the kernel community to change with it as well.
There are numerous situations where it can be beneficial to run code in
both user and kernel space, he said, and the fact that doing so is currently painful
is a problem for developers on both sides:

The solution to problems like these are to stop thinking that
kernelspace and userspace _have_ to be completely different beasts
– they really don’t have to be! and start encouraging different
thinking and tooling improvements that will make our lives easier.

It is true that the boundary between kernel and user space has become more
porous over the years. Various subsystems provide hooks that allow
formerly kernel-specific tasks to be carried out in user space instead,
while user space can use BPF to run code inside the kernel. But the two
environments are still quite different, and code meant to run on one side
generally cannot run on the other.

There has not been a lot of effort put into thinking about how to reduce
that divide; perhaps it really is time for that to change. The Rust
language might just be the environment in which this transformation could
happen. As Overstreet put it:

Rust’s conditional compilation & generics story is _much_ better
than what we’ve had in the past in C and C++, meaning writing Rust
code that works in both userspace and kernelspace is much saner
than in the past.

If an initiative like this were to work, it could greatly reduce the
barrier to entry for future kernel developers while making a lot of useful
code available to the kernel community. It would be a different kernel
project than the one we know now, but it might be a more fun and more
productive one.

Interesting things tend to happen when immigrants show up in a new land.
They can often create a backlash among those who are already there — the
new people dress funny and their cooking smells weird, after all, and some
of them even have a crab as their mascot. But they
can also bring energy and ideas that shake up their new home and make
it richer for everybody involved. It may just be that we will see
something like that happen if and when a crowd of Rust developers descends
upon the kernel community. The end result could be difficult to recognize
— and perhaps better than anything we had before.

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