#aliasable #pinned #unboxed #self-reference #self-referencing

no-std pinned-aliasable

Pin-based stopgap for unboxed aliasable values in self-referential data structures

2 releases

0.1.1 Jul 20, 2021
0.1.0 Jun 27, 2021

#286 in Rust patterns

MIT license

172 lines


Pin-based stopgap for unboxed aliasable values in self-referential data structures.


For the sake of optimization, the Rust compiler likes to assume that all mutable references (&mut) are completely unique. This uniqueness gives it some extremely important guarantees that can be easily exploited for faster code, such as:

  • All reads from an &mut location are guaranteed to be the same if the reference is not written to in between.
  • Writes to the location are guaranteed to stay there unless explicitly overwritten with the same mutable reference.
  • No one is able to see the data stored behind the mutable reference while it exists without using that mutable reference.

A simple example of where &mut uniqueness is useful is in this code:

fn foo(x: &mut i32) -> i32 {
    *x = 400;

The compiler will optimize this function to always return the constant 400, instead of having to actually load the value stored behind x every time. It was only able to do this because x is a unique pointer; if it wasn't, it could be possible that do_some_other_stuff would mutate it in between and always returning the constant would result in unexpected behaviour.

Self-referential types

However, this assumption starts to run into problems when using self-referential types. What if, instead of being a simple integer, x was a type that held a reference to itself? Although it isn't immediately obvious, the uniqueness guarantee is actually violated here: the self-reference held in x aliases with the &mut to x, meaning the mutable reference is no longer unique! And this issue isn't just theoretical, it causes miscompilations in the wild. For example this code, which was based off an actual soundness issue in the owning-ref crate:

use std::cell::Cell;

struct Helper {
    reference: &'static Cell<u8>,
    owner: Box<Cell<u8>>,
fn helper(x: Helper) -> u8 {

let owner = Box::new(Cell::new(0));
let reference = unsafe { &*(&*owner as *const Cell<u8>) };
let x = Helper { reference, owner };
println!("{}", helper(x));

When run in release mode, this program prints out 10 instead of the expected value of 20. This is because inside helper, the optimizer sees that we have unique access to the Cell<u8> (Boxes, like &muts, are seen as unique pointers), and so it assumes that any writes to that location will never be overwritten. But because we violated the optimizer's expectations, we ended up with a nonsensical result.

So what's the solution to this? Well, as it stands, there isn't one - at least not one that's both sound and doesn't sacrifice performance. It is possible to use a different kind of smart pointer than Box, one that doesn't allow the compiler to assume its pointer is unique, and that would work for the above case with almost no performance impact - but in cases where the self-referenced value is not boxed in the first place it's a much tougher choice to make.

It is very likely Rust eventually will have a solution to this, it's a well known bug that needs to be fixed. In terms of what this solution will look like, it will most likely take the shape of a Aliasable<T> wrapper type that exists in libcore and gives the guarantee that any &mut references to the value will not be considered to be unique, so that one &mut Aliasable<T> and either one &mut T or any number of &Ts can coexist (but not two &mut Ts or two &mut Aliasable<T>s; the regular borrowing rules still apply). Unfortunately, this type doesn't exist today and there aren't even any concrete proposals for it yet. So what can we do in the meantime?

A Solution

Although it isn't possible to create sound self-referential types, as it turns out it is possible to create unsound self-referential types that we know won't miscompile. This is because to ensure that async blocks (which generate self-referential types) do not miscompile in today's Rust, a temporary loophole was added to the &mut uniqueness rule: it only applies when the referenced type doesn't implement Unpin. Thus to create these self-referential types we simply have to make sure that they are !Unpin, and everything will work as expected.

However, doing this manually and upholding all the invariants that come with it is a pain, not to mention the migration effort that will be required in future once Rust does support true self-referential types. So that's where this crate comes in. It provides a type Aliasable<T> which both abstracts the work of making the container type !Unpin and should be forward compatible with the hypothetical libcore equivalent. As soon as Aliasable<T> does get added to the language itself, I will be able to publish a new version of this crate internally based on it and yank all previous versions, which would then be unsound and obsolete.

There is one final snag: Miri. Miri is a tool for running your Rust code and dynamically checking whether it is sound or not. If we used the main implementation of this crate under Miri, it would report all kinds of errors, because what we are doing is fundamentally unsound after all. So instead, when this crate detects that Miri is enabled it switches to a different backend that boxes the value in a way that is totally sound, but isn't used normally for efficiency reasons.

And that's it! Although this crate is tiny, it is really useful for defining any kind of self-referential type because you no longer have to worry so much about whether you can cause miscompilations, and you can run your tests under Miri.

However, there is one important detail to be aware of. Remember how above I said that Boxes are also treated as always-unique pointers? This is true, and unfortunately they don't get the same loophole that &mut does. This means you have to be very careful when working with boxed Aliasable<T>s - make sure that any functions that take them by value always delegate to a second function that takes them by unique or shared reference, so Rust doesn't assume your pointer to it is unique.


A boxed slice that also stores a subslice of itself:

use core::pin::Pin;
use core::ptr::NonNull;
use core::slice::SliceIndex;
use core::cell::UnsafeCell;

use pin_project::pin_project;
use pin_utils::pin_mut;
use pinned_aliasable::Aliasable;

pub struct OwningSlice<T: 'static> {
    // In a real implementation you would avoid the `T: 'static` bound by using some kind of
    // raw pointer here.
    slice: Option<&'static mut [T]>,
    data: Aliasable<UnsafeCell<Box<[T]>>>,
impl<T: 'static> From<Box<[T]>> for OwningSlice<T> {
    fn from(data: Box<[T]>) -> Self {
        Self {
            slice: None,
            data: Aliasable::new(UnsafeCell::new(data)),
impl<T> OwningSlice<T> {
    pub fn slice(self: Pin<&mut Self>, range: impl SliceIndex<[T], Output = [T]>) {
        let mut this = self.project();
        let current_slice = this.slice.take().unwrap_or_else(|| {
            unsafe { &mut **this.data.as_ref().get_extended().get() }
        *this.slice = Some(&mut current_slice[range]);
    pub fn get(self: Pin<&Self>) -> &[T] {
        let this = self.project_ref();
        this.slice.as_deref().unwrap_or_else(|| unsafe { &**this.data.get().get() })
    pub fn get_mut(self: Pin<&mut Self>) -> &mut [T] {
        let this = self.project();
        let data = this.data.as_ref();
        this.slice.as_deref_mut().unwrap_or_else(|| unsafe { &mut **data.get().get() })

let slice = OwningSlice::from(vec![1, 2, 3, 4, 5].into_boxed_slice());
assert_eq!(slice.as_ref().get(), &[1, 2, 3, 4, 5]);

assert_eq!(slice.as_ref().get(), &[2, 3, 4, 5]);

assert_eq!(slice.as_ref().get(), &[4, 5]);

assert_eq!(slice.as_ref().get(), &[]);

A pair type:

use core::pin::Pin;
use core::cell::Cell;

use pin_project::{pin_project, pinned_drop};
use pin_utils::pin_mut;
use pinned_aliasable::Aliasable;

pub struct Pair(#[pin] Aliasable<PairInner>);

struct PairInner {
    value: u64,
    other: Cell<Option<&'static PairInner>>,

impl PinnedDrop for Pair {
    fn drop(self: Pin<&mut Self>) {
        if let Some(other) = self.project().0.as_ref().get().other.get() {

impl Pair {
    pub fn new(value: u64) -> Self {
        Self(Aliasable::new(PairInner {
            other: Cell::new(None),
    pub fn get(self: Pin<&Self>) -> u64 {

pub fn link_up(left: Pin<&Pair>, right: Pin<&Pair>) {
    let left = unsafe { left.project_ref().0.get_extended() };
    let right = unsafe { right.project_ref().0.get_extended() };

fn main() {
    let pair_1 = Pair::new(10);
    let pair_2 = Pair::new(20);

    link_up(pair_1.as_ref(), pair_2.as_ref());

    assert_eq!(pair_1.as_ref().get(), 20);
    assert_eq!(pair_2.as_ref().get(), 10);

License: MIT