Interface-relevant Traits

The library we're building is an alternative to two collections in Rust's standard library: BTreeSet1 and BTreeMap2. Our goal is to provide the same well-known, idiomatic APIs but with maximal safety (for any system) and bare metal portability (for firmware and/or tiny microcontrollers).

To get there, we need to understand a bit about the design of the standard library's APIs. Specifically the traits these APIs bind to their generic arguments. These design decisions shape an interplay of usability and resource management.

API design is a concern orthogonal to the algorithms of our particular data structure, so let's tackle it first. To achieve feature-parity with the standard library, we'll deepen our understanding of how Rust works "under-the-hood".

What are generics and traits, again?

We introduced the concepts and syntax in chapter 3. To jog your memory:

  • Generics (e.g. T standing in for concrete type u64 or u32) eliminate the need for code duplication. A single function's source code can be used, by the compiler, to generate one machine-code equivalent for each concrete type that function is called with (monomorphization).

  • Traits (e.g T: Ord for a type that can be sorted and compared) define behavior shared among different types. They're similar to interfaces and abstract bases classes of other languages.

We often combine the two by binding traits to generic arguments and/or return values. This allows us to write a single function that our users can leverage for any [generic] type implementing some behavior (one or more specific traits). Even custom types that haven't been invented yet!

The Map get API

A map (aka an associative array or symbol table) is a data structure that stores key-value pairs. Keys are unique and values can be quickly looked up by key.

Rust's BTreeMap2 is an ordered map, it supports any key type that has a notion of total order3. Colloquially, that means keys can be compared with logical operators (>, <=, ==, etc) and sorted. Because they implement the Ord trait. If keys can't be ordered but are hashable, you'd want to use a HashMap4 instead.

Say we want to perform to a lookup in an ordered map - to get the value associated with a given key, if any. A get method should take a reference to a key as input, and return an Option (containing a value reference for the Some case, when the key is found).

That's how the standard library works, here's the official example5:

use std::collections::BTreeMap;

let mut map = BTreeMap::new();
map.insert(1, "a");
assert_eq!(map.get(&1), Some(&"a"));
assert_eq!(map.get(&2), None);

Based on the above, you might expect the get method's signature to look like this for BTreeMap<K, V>:

/// Returns a reference to the value corresponding to the key.
pub fn get(&self, key: &K) -> Option<&V>
    K: Ord
    // ...function body here...

But it doesn't. The real get method has this signature6:

/// Returns a reference to the value corresponding to the key.
pub fn get<Q>(&self, key: &Q) -> Option<&V>
    K: Borrow<Q> + Ord,
    Q: Ord + ?Sized,
    // ...function body here...

Why are there two different generics types at play? And what are all those strange looking trait bounds?

Let's build our way up to answering those questions by explaining each trait individually. If you can understand this API, you're well on your way to understanding idiomatic use of traits in general.

The Ord Trait

Ord7 is the simplest of the three traits in get's signature, and one we've already discussed. When a type implements Ord, it can be ordered8. We can compare one value of this type to another and determine if the two are equal or if one is greater than the other. This enables us to sort values.

Back in Chapter 3, we implemented the Ord trait for a structure representing an OS process. This allowed sorting a list of processes by a specific definition of priority (the process's current state, in our case).

The Sized Trait

Sized9 is something known as a marker trait. Unlike Ord, there's no "interface" methods to implement because Sized has no behavior of its own. Marker traits mark a property instead of specifying behavior (plot twist!).

The trait bounds T: Sized tells the compiler that all values of type T have the same size in memory and that this size is known at compile time10. For example, a u32 is always 4 bytes long.

Here's where things get interesting: T: ?Sized, the binding used in the above signature (note the leading ?), means values of type T are optionally sized - they may or may not be Sized. Doesn't that seem weirdly ambiguous?

Turns out the ambiguity buys flexibility without introducing any UB. The standard library designers wanted to handle both the common case and the exception. The majority of types in Rust are sized, but a handful aren't. Examples of unsized types include:

  • Slices: An slice, [T], can contain zero or more contiguous Ts - thus different slice values could have different sizes.

    • Note that &[T], a reference to a slice, is always the size of a fat pointer (regular pointer plus slice length metadata).
  • Trait Objects: Rust has a mechanism for dynamic dispatch11. The dyn keyword indicates a trait object: a value that implements a given trait. That value can be any type and have any size, so long as it implements the trait.

    • Box<dyn Error>, for example, is a pointer to an instance of any type implementing Error trait.

Now values stored in a collection, like BTreeMap must be Sized. Otherwise we wouldn't know how to store them in memory.

But because get supports both sized and unsized types as a parameter (Q: ?Sized), searching BTreeMap is flexible. We can find values associated with sized keys using unsized keys of a corresponding type. We'll see a concrete example toward the end of this section.

The Borrow Trait

A type that implements Borrow<T>12 can borrow a reference, &T. Unlike the similar trait AsRef13, Borrow requires that the borrowed &T have the same comparison and hash semantics as T. Sounds relevant to BTreeMap (lookup via a sequence of comparisons) and HashMaps (lookup via a hash), right?

It very much is - the Borrow trait is designed to make collection lookups easier and more efficient. In fact, the standard library includes a "blanket implementation" (always pre-implemented trait) for all types T to be able to borrow themselves (meaning we get T: Borrow<T> for "free").

This enables key lookups without having to create a copy of the key in memory. So no need for additional heap allocations if searching a BTreeMap<String, T> by a key of type &str.

Putting it all together

To really grok how Ord, Sized, and Borrow impact API usage in combination, let's walk through an example.

Say we store 8-byte hexspeak14 words, e.g. values of type [u8; 8], in a set. We later get a list of user-provided hexspeak words of varying sizes, e.g. values of type Vec<u8>. Some may be 8 bytes long, others may not.

We want to be able to use the get method to check if any user-provided words are already in our set. Luckily, get lets us search for slices (unsized [u8]). We can use the arbitrarily-sized, user-provided words as search keys for our set of fixed-size (8-byte words)!

use std::collections::BTreeSet;

// Two hexspeak words
let bad_code: [u8; 8] = [0xB, 0xA, 0xA, 0xD, 0xC, 0x0, 0xD, 0xE];
let bad_food: [u8; 8] = [0xB, 0xA, 0xA, 0xD, 0xF, 0x0, 0x0, 0xD];

// Note we're about to store uniformly sized values in our set
assert_eq!(std::mem::size_of_val(&bad_code), 8);
assert_eq!(std::mem::size_of_val(&bad_food), 8);

// Store the two words in our set
let mut set = BTreeSet::new();

// Vec<u8> is sized, it's actually a fat pointer to a heap buffer.
// But slices of the vec are unsized! For example:
//     &my_vec[0..5] is the first 5 elements
//     &my_vec[1..] is all but the first element
//     &my_vec[..] is all elements
let bad_food_vec: Vec<u8> = vec![0xB, 0xA, 0xA, 0xD, 0xF, 0x0, 0x0, 0xD];
let bad_dude_vec: Vec<u8> = vec![0xB, 0xA, 0xA, 0xD, 0xD, 0x0, 0x0, 0xD];
let cafe_bad_food_vec: Vec<u8> = vec![
    0xC, 0xA, 0xF, 0xE, 0xB, 0xA, 0xA, 0xD, 0xF, 0x0, 0x0, 0xD

// Search for a [u8; 8] present
    set.get(&bad_food_vec[..]),         // 0xBAADFOOD
    Some(&[0xB, 0xA, 0xA, 0xD, 0xF, 0x0, 0x0, 0xD])

// Search for a [u8; 4] not present
    set.get(&bad_food_vec[..4]),        // 0xBAAD

// Search for an [u8; 8] not present
    set.get(&bad_dude_vec[..]),         // 0xBAADDUDE

// Search for a [u8; 8] present
    set.get(&cafe_bad_food_vec[4..]),   // 0xBAADF00D
    Some(&[0xB, 0xA, 0xA, 0xD, 0xF, 0x0, 0x0, 0xD]),

// Search for a [u8; 12] not present
    set.get(&cafe_bad_food_vec[..]),    // 0xCAFEBAADF00D

So what happened to enable searching fixed-length set elements ([u8; 8]) using arbitrary length ([u8]) keys? Consider what the compiler converted our generic get callsites into, through the magic of monomorphization:

pub fn get(&self, key: &[u8]) -> Option<&[u8; 8]>
    // ...function body of code in our compiled binary...
  • Ord and Sized - The trait bound Q: Ord + ?Sized means we're free to search using an arbitrarily sized slice, so long as the slice's contents can be sorted. [u8] meets that criteria. In the above, we converted user-provided vectors into slices.

  • Ord and Borrow - The trait bound K: Borrow<Q> + Ord enables that conversion. We can search using any key that can borrow the aforementioned arbitrarily-sized-and-sortable slice. A Vec can view its elements as a contiguous slice, regardless of how many are stored. Since Vec<T> implements Borrow<[T]>, Vec can also borrow that slice from itself (no data copied!). Thus &my_vec[..] (slicing notation shorthand for my_vec.as_slice()) lets us pass in an &[u8] key to search for.

In conclusion, BTreeMaps's get combines three traits (Ord, ?Sized, and Borrow) to enable flexible, efficient APIs.

Taking It a Step Further: The Default Trait

The library we build will bring a fourth trait into the mix: Default15. Like it sounds, this trait is for types that have a default value. For example:

  • The default for isize is 0.

  • The default for Option is None.

  • The default for any dynamic collection (Vec, BTreeSet, HashMap, etc) is an empty instance of that collection.

Our API will look like this:

/// Returns a reference to the value corresponding to the key.
pub fn get<Q>(&self, key: &Q) -> Option<&V>
    K: Borrow<Q> + Ord + Default,
    Q: Ord + Default + ?Sized,
    // ...function body here...

Don't worry, it's easier to use than to read. Yet the choice to require Default for keys and values is restrictive, users of our library have to ensure the trait is implemented for any custom type they want to store in one of our collections.

Why enforce that sort of limitation? Default is like a "no argument constructor", it ensures that values of a type are always safely initialized.

It's a requirement for elements stored in tinyvec16, the 3rd party #![forbid(unsafe_code)] library we used for our arena allocator in the previous chapter. So the Default restriction is inherited from a dependency.

Imposing it is an assurance tradeoff. We ask a little more of our users in exchange for a 100% safe binary, the guarantee that all our code and all dependencies of our code (e.g. the full library supply chain) maximizes memory safety.

If you are morally opposed to requiring Default and want to remain exactly API-compatible with the standard library, feel free to swap tinyvec for smallvec17 in your allocator now and adjust all non-test code for the remainder of this book. smallvec is another stack-based Vec alternative. It's used in Mozilla's Servo browser engine.

Unfortunately, smallvec contains unsafe code. Security researchers have discovered multiple memory safety vulnerabilities in smallvec, for which CVEs have been assigned (e.g. CVE-2021-25900, CVE-2019-15554, CVE-2018-20991, etc).

While smallvec is popular and well-vetted, we can make no guarantee about the number of undiscovered memory safety vulnerabilities still present. tinyvec, by contrast, will never fall victim to any memory corruption attacks - it's #![forbid(unsafe_code)].

Any other traits should I know about?

There isn't an official list of traits every Rust programmer should know. But you'll almost certainly run into three traits related to memory allocation and deallocation: Clone, Copy, and Drop. We've touched on some of these before, but they're worth revisiting.

  • Clone18 defines deep copy logic. Clone types must be Sized. Cloning could be expensive if the original needs to be recursively traversed - we have to allocate a counterpart to everything it owns.

    • For example, copying Vec<String> means copying each String. String is a Vec<u8> internally, so copying each String means copying each u8. That was only 2 levels of recursion, but Clone could require arbitrarily many.

    • If your code is littered with my_structure.clone() calls, removing them might be a "low-hanging fruit" performance optimization. If you can refactor flows of ownership to process primarily references (e.g. replace String with &str), you might save a precious time and memory. "Might" stems from the fact that performance optimizations need to be data driven, not premature. We'll cover micro-benchmarking in Chapter 12.

  • Copy19 is a marker trait for types that can be fully cloned with only a shallow byte-by-byte copy. That means there's no pointers to follow or external resources to duplicate a handle to.

    • Consider isize, the platform-specific signed integer type. If we duplicate the small chunk of fixed-sized, consecutive bytes that encodes the integer's value then we get a complete replica of the original.

    • Copy should be implemented sparingly. It means the assignment operator, =, will copy bytes (implicit "copy semantics") instead of just transferring ownership ("move semantics").

  • Drop20 defines a "destructor". User-definable deallocation logic, called when a variable of the implementing type goes out of scope. All memory and shared resources must be freed. Types that implement Copy are not allowed to implement Drop (these should be mutually exclusive - bitwise copyable memory can be bitwise erased).

    • Note that if the scope of a variable's binding depends on conditional statements, move semantics will be tracked at runtime. The value can be moved here and there, based on which branch is taken, as the program runs. But in the end Rust will only drop it once - when the last-moved location goes out of scope.


As mere users of the standard library's BTreeSet/BTreeMap, the nuances of Ord, ?Sized, and Borrow would likely be lost on us. We could have long and prosperous careers without ever having to think about why a map get signature looks like it does.

But as designers and implementers of an API-compatible alternative, we want to empower our users with the same flexible abstractions the standard library provides. That entails understanding these traits and how they interact.

The hexspeak example above wouldn't even have compiled if the standard library used the more intuitive signature we started this section with (pub fn get<K: Ord>(&self, key: &K) -> Option<&V>). So the complexity we've covered has a major payoff: the same code seamlessly supports a broader range of use cases.

With all that trait binding background behind us, we know how and why specific interfaces are designed a certain way. Now let's tackle the logic backing them: the core operations of our self-balancing scapegoat tree.


Struct std::collections::BTreeSet. The Rust Team (Accessed 2022).


Struct std::collections::BTreeMap. The Rust Team (Accessed 2022).


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Struct std::collections::HashMap. The Rust Team (Accessed 2022).


BTreeMap get API example. The Rust Team (Accessed 2022).


BTreeMap get API. The Rust Team (Accessed 2022).


Trait std::cmp::Ord. The Rust Team (Accessed 2022).


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Dynamic dispatch. Wikipedia (Accessed 2022). One use case for dynamic dispatch is enabling heterogeneous collections. Vec<Box<dyn Error>>, for example, allows us to store a vector of Error objects, potentially of varying types.


Trait std::borrow::Borrow. The Rust Team (Accessed 2022).


Trait std::convert::AsRef. The Rust Team (Accessed 2022).


Hexspeak. Wikipedia (Accessed 2022).


Trait std::default::Default. The Rust Team (Accessed 2022).


tinyvec. Lokathor (Accessed 2022).


smallvec. Simon Sapin, Ms2ger, Servo project (Accessed 2022).


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Trait std::marker::Copy. The Rust Team (Accessed 2022).


Trait std::ops::Drop. The Rust Team (Accessed 2022).