#recursive #data-structures #smart-pointer #reference

no-std recursive_reference

This crate provides a way to walk on recursive structures easily and safely

4 releases (2 breaking)

0.3.0 Jun 23, 2021
0.2.0 Jun 18, 2021
0.1.1 Jun 12, 2021
0.1.0 Jun 12, 2021

#200 in Data structures

Used in grove


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Recursive reference   Latest Version Docs version

This crate provides a way to traverse recursive structures easily and safely. Rust's lifetime rules will usually force you to either only walk forward through the structure, or use recursion, calling your method recursively every time you go down a node, and returning every time you want to go back up, which leads to terrible code.

Instead, you can use the RecRef type, to safely and dynamically walk up and down your recursive structure.

documentation crates.io repository


Say we have a recursive linked list structure

enum List<T> {
struct Node<T> {
    value: T,
    next: List<T>,

We can use a RecRef directly

use recursive_reference::*;

fn main() -> Result<(), ()> {
    // crate a list to test
    let node1 = Node {
        value: 5,
        next: List::Empty,
    let mut node2 = Node {
        value: 2,
        next: List::Root(Box::new(node1)),

    // create a `RecRef`
    let mut rec_ref = RecRef::new(&mut node2);
    // rec_ref is a smart pointer to the current node
    assert_eq!(rec_ref.value, 2);

    // move forward through the list
    RecRef::extend_result(&mut rec_ref, |node| match &mut node.next {
        List::Root(next_node) => Ok(next_node),
        List::Empty => Err(()),
    assert_eq!(rec_ref.value, 5); // now we're at the second node

    // pop the `RecRef`, moving it back to the head
    RecRef::pop(&mut rec_ref).ok_or(())?;
    assert_eq!(rec_ref.value, 2);

We can also wrap a RecRef in a walker struct

use recursive_reference::*;
struct Walker<'a, T> {
    rec_ref: RecRef<'a, Node<T>>,
impl<'a, T> Walker<'a, T> {
    /// Crates a new Walker
    pub fn new(node: &'a mut Node<T>) -> Self {
        Walker {
            rec_ref: RecRef::new(node),

    /// Returns `None` when at the tail end of the list.
    /// Moves to the next node.
    pub fn next(&mut self) -> Option<()> {
        RecRef::extend_result(&mut self.rec_ref, |current| match &mut current.next {
            List::Empty => Err(()),
            List::Root(node) => Ok(node),

    /// Returns `None` when at the head of the list.
    /// Goes back to the previous node.
    pub fn prev(&mut self) -> Option<()> {
        RecRef::pop(&mut self.rec_ref)?;

    /// Returns `None` when at the tail end of the list.
    /// Returns `Some(reference)` where `reference` is a mutqable reference to the current value.
    pub fn value_mut(&mut self) -> &mut T {
        &mut self.rec_ref.value

fn main() -> Result<(), ()> {
    // crate a list to test
    let node1 = Node {
        value: 5,
        next: List::Empty,
    let mut node2 = Node {
        value: 2,
        next: List::Root(Box::new(node1)),

    // create a walker for the list
    let mut walker = Walker::new(&mut node2);
    // walker has mutable access to the node value
    assert_eq!(*walker.value_mut(), 2);
    // move to the next node
    assert_eq!(*walker.value_mut(), 5);
    assert_eq!(walker.next(), None); // currently at the end of the list
                                     // move back
    assert_eq!(*walker.value_mut(), 2);

With a RecRef you can

  • Use the current reference (i.e, the top reference). the RecRef is a smart pointer to it.
  • Freeze the current reference and extend the RecRef with a new reference derived from it, using extend and similar functions. for example, push to the stack a reference to the child of the current node.
  • Pop the stack to get back to the previous reference, unfreezing it.

Alternative Comparison

There are many alternatives to using RecRef. They all have their upsides and downsides. We only compare them to RecRef, so we only list the downsides that RecRef solves. Many of these alternatives can be better, depending on the usecase. Here are they, roughly from the basic to the sophisticated:

  • Plain recursive data structures. They require writing recursive functions where the recursion matches exactly with your access pattern. Anything but the most basic functions are very hard to write this way.
  • Pointer-based data structures can be efficient and convenient, but unsafe.
  • Rc and RefCell based data structures can be convenient, but require overhead to store metadata and check it. They also make ownership bugs surface at runtime rather than compile time. (You might want to look at static-rc, which is a crate that can improve this).
  • Slab-based. That is, store all of your nodes in some kind of collection, and have the links be indices into the collection.
    • Requires your pointers to go through an extra indirection.
    • Your structure will be tied to the slab (you can't split parts of it and send them to another owner)
    • If you give a borrow to the structure, the whole structure could be changed.
  • Arena-based recursive data structures. That is, an arena is like a slab, that can't delete its elements, and can therefore give long-lasting references to its elements.
    • The nodes can't be freed until the whole structure is freed.
    • Your structure will be tied to the arena (you can't split parts of it and send them to another owner)
  • There are also alternative cells in the qcell crate and the ghost-cell crate, and maybe even more Interesting options.

RecRef Pros

  • RecRef can be used with any existing data structure, including any data structure that is not written by you. RecRef can work with plain structures, Rc/RefCell based structures, arena based structures, and so on. Although, working with plain structures is recommended.
  • RecRef incurs no space overhead to the structure.
  • RecRef is safe and doesn't panic.
  • RecRef does not tie it down, i.e, prevent you from splitting the structure's ownership.

RecRef Cons

  • RecRef only allows you to modify your structure at a single point at a time.
  • The RecRef itself requires a space overhead the size of your path in the recursive structure when traversing it. It also takes some time to pop and push elements to the vector. This is the same overhead that is needed in every structure that doesn't have parent pointers.
  • The RecRef is overall efficient, but internally pushes elements to a vector.

Minor details

  • All code is tested with a real-world library under miri.
  • Since version "0.3.0", the library requires rust version 1.53 to compile correctly. If it is not present, use version "0.2.0".
  • Internally, RecRef pushes and pops elements from a vector. That means that the library requires an allocator to be present. In addition, it means that you might have latency problems if you're using a very large RecRef. This can be theoretically solved by switching the RecRef to a low-latency stack.


The RecRef type is implemented using unsafe rust, but provides a safe interface. The RecRef's methods' types guarantee that the references will always have a legal lifetime and will respect rust's borrow rules, even if that lifetime is not known in advance.

The RecRef obeys rust's borrowing rules, by simulating freezing. Whenever you extend a RecRef with a reference child_ref that is derived from the current reference parent_ref, the RecRef freezes parent_ref, and no longer allows parent_ref to be used. When child_ref will be popped from the RecRef, parent_ref will be allowed to be used again.

This is essentially the same as what would have happened if you wrote your functions recursively, but it's decoupled from the actual call stack.

Another important point to consider is the safety of the actual call to extend: see its documentation.


dual licensed with MIT and APACHE 2.0