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piccolo - An experimental stackless Lua VM implemented in pure Rust

(After four years, now UN-paused!)

Project Goals, in roughly descending priority:

  • Be an arguably working, useful Lua interpreter.
  • Be an easy way to confidently sandbox untrusted Lua scripts.
  • Be resilient against DoS from untrusted scripts (scripts should not be able to cause the interpreter to panic or use an unbounded amount of memory and should be guaranteed to return control to the caller in some bounded amount of time).
  • Be an easy way to bind Rust APIs to Lua safely, with a bindings system that is resilient against weirdness and edge cases, and with user types that can safely participate in runtime garbage collection.
  • Be pragmatically compatible with some version(s) of PUC-Rio Lua.
  • Don't be obnoxiously slow (for example, avoid abstractions that would make the interpreter fundamentally slower than PUC-Rio Lua).

API Instability

Expect frequent pre-1.0 API breakage, this crate is still very experimental. All API incompatible changes will be accompanied by minor version bumps, but these will be very common.


The goal with piccolo is to have the majority of it written in safe Rust. Currently, there are a few sources of unsafety, but crucially these sources of unsafety are isolated. piccolo will avoid at all costs relying on abstractions which leak unsafety, it should always be possible to interact with even low level details of piccolo without using unsafe.

The current primary sources of unsafety:

  • The particularly weird requirements of Lua tables require using hashbrown's low level RawTable API.
  • Userdata requires a very delicate unsafe lifetime dance to deal with downcasting non-'static userdata with a safe interface.
  • Unsafe code is required to avoid fat pointers in several Lua types, to keep Value as small as possible and allow potential future smaller Value representations.

(piccolo makes no attempt yet to guard against side channel attacks like spectre, so even if the VM is memory safe, running untrusted scripts may carry additional risk. With no JIT or callback API to accurately measure time, this might be practically impossible anwyay.)

A unique system for Rust <-> GC interaction

The garbage collector system for piccolo is now in its own repo, and also on crates.io. See the README in the linked repo for more detail about the GC design.

piccolo has a real, cycle detecting, incremental garbage collector with zero-cost Gc pointers (they are machine pointer sized and implement Copy) that are usable from safe Rust. It achieves this by combining two things:

  1. An unsafe Collect trait which allows tracing through garbage collected types that, despite being unsafe, can be implemented safely using procedural macros.
  2. Branding Gc pointers by unique, invariant "generative" lifetimes to ensure that such pointers are isolated to a single root object, and to guarantee that, outside an active call to mutate, all such pointers are either reachable from the root object or are safe to collect.

Stackless VM

The mutate based GC API means that long running calls to mutate can be problematic. No garbage collection can take place during a call to mutate, so we have to make sure to regularly return from the mutate call to allow garbage collection to take place.

The VM in piccolo is thus written in what is sometimes called "stackless" or "trampoline" style. It does not rely on the rust stack for Lua -> Rust and Rust -> Lua nesting, instead callbacks can either have some kind of immediate result (return values, yield values from a coroutine, resume a thread, error), or they can produce a Sequence. A Sequence is a bit like a Future in that it is a multi-step operation that the parent Executor will drive to completion. Executor will repeatedly call Sequence::poll until the sequence is complete, and the Sequence can yield values and call arbitrary Lua functions while it is being polled.

As an example, it is of course possible for Lua to call a Rust callback, which then in turn creates a new Lua coroutine and runs it. In order to do so, a callback would take a Lua function as a parameter, then create a new coroutine Thread from it and return SequencePoll:Resume to run it. The outer main Executor will run the created Thread, and when it is finished it will "return" via Sequence::poll (or Sequence::error). This is exactly how the coroutine.resume Lua stdlib function is implemented.

As another example, pcall is easy to implement here, a callback can call the provided function with a Sequence underneath it, and the sequence can catch the error and return the error status.

Yet another example, imagine Rust code calling a Lua coroutine thread which calls a Rust Sequence which calls yet more Lua code which then yields. Our stack will look something like this:

[Rust] -> [Lua Coroutine] -> [Rust Sequence] -> [Lua code that yields]

This is no problem with this VM style, the inner Rust callback is paused as a Sequence, and the inner yield will return the value all the way to the top level Rust code. When the coroutine thread is resumed and eventually returns, the Rust Sequence will be resumed.

With any number of nested Lua threads and Sequences, control will always continuously return outside the GC arena and to the outer Rust code driving everything. This is the "trampoline" here, when using this interpreter, somewhere there is a loop that is continuously calling Arena::mutate and Executor::step, and it can stop or pause or change tasks at any time, not requiring unwinding the Rust stack.

This "stackless" style has many benefits, it allows for concurrency patterns that are difficult in some other VMs (like tasklets), and makes the VM much more resilient against untrusted script DoS.

The downside of the "stackless" style is that sometimes writing things as a Sequence is much more difficult than writing in normal, straight control flow. It would be great if async Rust / generators could help here someday, to allow for painlessly implementing Sequence, but there are several current compiler limitations that make this currently infeasible or so unergonomic that it is no longer worth it.

Executor "fuel" and VM memory tracking

The stackless VM style "periodically" returns control to the outer Rust code driving everything, and how often this happens can be controlled using the "fuel" system.

Lua and Lua driven callback code always happens within some call to Executor::step. This method takes a fuel parameter which controls how long the VM should run before pausing, with fuel measured (roughly) in units of VM instructions.

Different amounts of fuel provided to Executor::step bound the amount of Lua execution that can occur, bounding both the CPU time used and also the amount of memory allocation that can occur within a single Executor::step call (assuming certain rules are followed w.r.t. provided callbacks).

The VM also now accurately tracks all memory allocated within its inner gc-arena::Arena using gc-arena memory tracking features. This can extend to userdata and userdata APIs, and assuming the correct rules are follwed in exposed userdata and callbacks, allows for accurate memory reporting and memory limits.

Assuming that both of these mechanisms work correctly, and assuming that all callback / userdata APIs also follow the same rules, this allows for completely sandboxing untrusted scripts not only in memory safety and API access but also in CPU and RAM usage. These are big assumptions though, and piccolo is still very much WIP, so ensuring this is done correctly is an ongoing effort.

What currently works

  • An actual cycle detecting, incremental GC similar to the incremental collector in PUC-Rio Lua 5.3 / 5.4
  • Lua source code is compiled to a VM bytecode similar to PUC-Rio Lua's, and there are a complete set of VM instructions implemented
  • Almost all of the core Lua language works. Some tricky Lua features that currently actually work:
    • Real closures with proper upvalue handling
    • Proper tail calls
    • Variable arguments and returns and generally proper vararg (...) handling
    • Coroutines, including yielding that is transparent to Rust callbacks
    • Gotos with label handling that matches Lua 5.3 / 5.4
    • Proper _ENV handling
    • Metatables and metamethods, including fully recursive metamethods that trigger other metamethods (Not all metamethods implemented yet, particularly __gc finalizers).
  • A robust Rust callback system with sequencing callbacks that don't block the interpreter and allow calling into and returning from Lua without using the Rust stack.
  • Garbage collected "userdata" with safe downcasting.
  • Some of the stdlib (most of the more core, fundamental parts of the stdlib are implemented, e.g. things like the coroutine library, pcall, error, most everything that exposes some fundamental runtime feature is implemented).
  • A simple REPL (try it with cargo run --example interpreter)

What currently doesn't work

  • A large amount of the stdlib is not implemented yet. Most "peripheral" parts of the stdlib are this way, the io, file, os, package, string, table, and utf8 libs are either missing or very sparsely implemented.
  • There is no support yet for finalization. gc-arena supports finalization in such a way now that it should be possible to implement __gc metamethods with resurrection and tables with weak keys / values and ephemeron tables fully, but it has not been done yet. Currently, the __gc metamethod has no effect.
  • The compiled VM code is in a couple of ways worse than what PUC-Rio Lua will generate. Notably, there is a JMP chaining optimization that is not yet implemented that makes most loops much slower than in PUC-Rio Lua.
  • Error messages that don't make you want to cry
  • Stack traces
  • Debugger
  • Aggressive optimization and real effort towards ensuring that it matches PUC-Rio Lua's performance in all cases.
  • Probably much more I've forgotten about

What will probably never be implemented

This is not an exhaustive list, but these are some things which I currently consider almost definite non-goals.

  • An API compatible with the PUC-Rio Lua C API. It would be amazingly difficult to implement and would be very slow, and some of it would be basically impossible (longjmp error handling and adjacent behavior).
  • Perfect compatibility with certain classes of behavior in PUC-Rio Lua:
    • PUC-Rio Lua behaves differently on systems depending on the OS, environment, compilation settings, system locale, etc. (In certain versions of PUC-Rio Lua, even the behavior of the lexer changes depending on the system locale!) piccolo is more or less aiming to emulate PUC-Rio Lua behavior with the "C" locale set with the default settings in luaconf.h on 64-bit Linux.
    • The specific format of error messages.
    • The specific iteration order of tables, and the specific behavior of the length operator (the length operator currently functions correctly and will always return a table "border", but for tables that are not sequences, the choice of border that is returned may differ).
  • The debug library is unimplemented and much of it will probably never be implemented due to fundamental VM differences.
  • Compatibility with PUC-Rio Lua bytecode
  • os.setlocale and other weirdness inherited from C
  • package.loadlib and all functionality which allows loading C libraries.
  • Perfectly matching all of the (sometimes quite exotic) garbage collector corner case behavior in PUC-Rio Lua.

Why is it called 'piccolo'?

It's a cute little "pico" Lua, get it?

It's not really all that "pico", but it's still a cute little instrument you can safely carry with you anywhere!

Wasn't this project called something else? Luster? Deimos?

There was an embarassing naming kerfluffle where I somehow ended up with other people's project names twice. They're all the same project. I promise I'm done renaming it.


piccolo is licensed under either of:

at your option.


~51K SLoC