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Defining an Enum

Let’s look at a situation we might want to express in code and see why enums are useful and more appropriate than structs in this case. Say we need to work with IP addresses. Currently, two major standards are used for IP addresses: version four and version six. These are the only possibilities for an IP address that our program will come across: we can enumerate all possible values, which is where enumeration gets its name.

Any IP address can be either a version four or a version six address but not both at the same time. That property of IP addresses makes the enum data structure appropriate for this case, because enum values can only be one of the variants. Both version four and version six addresses are still fundamentally IP addresses, so they should be treated as the same type when the code is handling situations that apply to any kind of IP address.

We can express this concept in code by defining an IpAddrKind enumeration and listing the possible kinds an IP address can be, V4 and V6. These are known as the variants of the enum:

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
enum IpAddrKind {
    V4,
    V6,
}

#}

IpAddrKind is now a custom data type that we can use elsewhere in our code.

Enum Values

We can create instances of each of the two variants of IpAddrKind like this:

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
# enum IpAddrKind {
#     V4,
#     V6,
# }
#
let four = IpAddrKind::V4;
let six = IpAddrKind::V6;

#}

Note that the variants of the enum are namespaced under its identifier, and we use a double colon to separate the two. The reason this is useful is that now both values IpAddrKind::V4 and IpAddrKind::V6 are of the same type: IpAddrKind. We can then, for instance, define a function that takes any IpAddrKind:

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
# enum IpAddrKind {
#     V4,
#     V6,
# }
#
fn route(ip_type: IpAddrKind) { }

#}

And we can call this function with either variant:

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
# enum IpAddrKind {
#     V4,
#     V6,
# }
#
# fn route(ip_type: IpAddrKind) { }
#
route(IpAddrKind::V4);
route(IpAddrKind::V6);

#}

Using enums has even more advantages. Thinking more about our IP address type, at the moment we don’t have a way to store the actual IP address data; we only know what kind it is. Given that you just learned about structs in Chapter 5, you might tackle this problem as shown in Listing 6-1:

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
enum IpAddrKind {
    V4,
    V6,
}

struct IpAddr {
    kind: IpAddrKind,
    address: String,
}

let home = IpAddr {
    kind: IpAddrKind::V4,
    address: String::from("127.0.0.1"),
};

let loopback = IpAddr {
    kind: IpAddrKind::V6,
    address: String::from("::1"),
};

#}

Listing 6-1: Storing the data and IpAddrKind variant of an IP address using a struct

Here, we’ve defined a struct IpAddr that has two fields: a kind field that is of type IpAddrKind (the enum we defined previously) and an address field of type String. We have two instances of this struct. The first, home, has the value IpAddrKind::V4 as its kind with associated address data of 127.0.0.1. The second instance, loopback, has the other variant of IpAddrKind as its kind value, V6, and has address ::1 associated with it. We’ve used a struct to bundle the kind and address values together, so now the variant is associated with the value.

We can represent the same concept in a more concise way using just an enum rather than an enum as part of a struct by putting data directly into each enum variant. This new definition of the IpAddr enum says that both V4 and V6 variants will have associated String values:

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
enum IpAddr {
    V4(String),
    V6(String),
}

let home = IpAddr::V4(String::from("127.0.0.1"));

let loopback = IpAddr::V6(String::from("::1"));

#}

We attach data to each variant of the enum directly, so there is no need for an extra struct.

There’s another advantage to using an enum rather than a struct: each variant can have different types and amounts of associated data. Version four type IP addresses will always have four numeric components that will have values between 0 and 255. If we wanted to store V4 addresses as four u8 values but still express V6 addresses as one String value, we wouldn’t be able to with a struct. Enums handle this case with ease:

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
enum IpAddr {
    V4(u8, u8, u8, u8),
    V6(String),
}

let home = IpAddr::V4(127, 0, 0, 1);

let loopback = IpAddr::V6(String::from("::1"));

#}

We’ve shown several different possibilities that we could define in our code for storing IP addresses of the two different varieties using an enum. However, as it turns out, wanting to store IP addresses and encode which kind they are is so common that the standard library has a definition we can use! Let’s look at how the standard library defines IpAddr: it has the exact enum and variants that we’ve defined and used, but it embeds the address data inside the variants in the form of two different structs, which are defined differently for each variant:

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
struct Ipv4Addr {
    // details elided
}

struct Ipv6Addr {
    // details elided
}

enum IpAddr {
    V4(Ipv4Addr),
    V6(Ipv6Addr),
}

#}

This code illustrates that you can put any kind of data inside an enum variant: strings, numeric types, or structs, for example. You can even include another enum! Also, standard library types are often not much more complicated than what you might come up with.

Note that even though the standard library contains a definition for IpAddr, we can still create and use our own definition without conflict because we haven’t brought the standard library’s definition into our scope. We’ll talk more about importing types in Chapter 7.

Let’s look at another example of an enum in Listing 6-2: this one has a wide variety of types embedded in its variants:

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
enum Message {
    Quit,
    Move { x: i32, y: i32 },
    Write(String),
    ChangeColor(i32, i32, i32),
}

#}

Listing 6-2: A Message enum whose variants each store different amounts and types of values

This enum has four variants with different types:

  • Quit has no data associated with it at all.
  • Move includes an anonymous struct inside it.
  • Write includes a single String.
  • ChangeColor includes three i32s.

Defining an enum with variants like the ones in Listing 6-2 is similar to defining different kinds of struct definitions except the enum doesn’t use the struct keyword and all the variants are grouped together under the Message type. The following structs could hold the same data that the preceding enum variants hold:

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
struct QuitMessage; // unit struct
struct MoveMessage {
    x: i32,
    y: i32,
}
struct WriteMessage(String); // tuple struct
struct ChangeColorMessage(i32, i32, i32); // tuple struct

#}

But if we used the different structs, which each have their own type, we wouldn’t be able to as easily define a function that could take any of these kinds of messages as we could with the Message enum defined in Listing 6-2, which is a single type.

There is one more similarity between enums and structs: just as we’re able to define methods on structs using impl, we’re also able to define methods on enums. Here’s a method named call that we could define on our Message enum:

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
# enum Message {
#     Quit,
#     Move { x: i32, y: i32 },
#     Write(String),
#     ChangeColor(i32, i32, i32),
# }
#
impl Message {
    fn call(&self) {
        // method body would be defined here
    }
}

let m = Message::Write(String::from("hello"));
m.call();

#}

The body of the method would use self to get the value that we called the method on. In this example, we’ve created a variable m that has the value Message::Write("hello"), and that is what self will be in the body of the call method when m.call() runs.

Let’s look at another enum in the standard library that is very common and useful: Option.

The Option Enum and Its Advantages Over Null Values

In the previous section, we looked at how the IpAddr enum let us use Rust’s type system to encode more information than just the data into our program. This section explores a case study of Option, which is another enum defined by the standard library. The Option type is used in many places because it encodes the very common scenario in which a value could be something or it could be nothing. Expressing this concept in terms of the type system means the compiler can check that you’ve handled all the cases you should be handling, which can prevent bugs that are extremely common in other programming languages.

Programming language design is often thought of in terms of which features you include, but the features you exclude are important too. Rust doesn’t have the null feature that many other languages have. Null is a value that means there is no value there. In languages with null, variables can always be in one of two states: null or not-null.

In “Null References: The Billion Dollar Mistake,” Tony Hoare, the inventor of null, has this to say:

I call it my billion-dollar mistake. At that time, I was designing the first comprehensive type system for references in an object-oriented language. My goal was to ensure that all use of references should be absolutely safe, with checking performed automatically by the compiler. But I couldn't resist the temptation to put in a null reference, simply because it was so easy to implement. This has led to innumerable errors, vulnerabilities, and system crashes, which have probably caused a billion dollars of pain and damage in the last forty years.

The problem with null values is that if you try to actually use a value that’s null as if it is a not-null value, you’ll get an error of some kind. Because this null or not-null property is pervasive, it’s extremely easy to make this kind of error.

However, the concept that null is trying to express is still a useful one: a null is a value that is currently invalid or absent for some reason.

The problem isn’t with the actual concept but with the particular implementation. As such, Rust does not have nulls, but it does have an enum that can encode the concept of a value being present or absent. This enum is Option<T>, and it is defined by the standard library as follows:

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
enum Option<T> {
    Some(T),
    None,
}

#}

The Option<T> enum is so useful that it’s even included in the prelude; you don’t need to import it explicitly. In addition, so are its variants: you can use Some and None directly without prefixing them with Option::. Option<T> is still just a regular enum, and Some(T) and None are still variants of type Option<T>.

The <T> syntax is a feature of Rust we haven’t talked about yet. It’s a generic type parameter, and we’ll cover generics in more detail in Chapter 10. For now, all you need to know is that <T> means the Some variant of the Option enum can hold one piece of data of any type. Here are some examples of using Option values to hold number types and string types:

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
let some_number = Some(5);
let some_string = Some("a string");

let absent_number: Option<i32> = None;

#}

If we use None rather than Some, we need to tell Rust what type of Option<T> we have, because the compiler can't infer the type that the Some variant will hold by looking only at a None value.

When we have a Some value, we know that a value is present, and the value is held within the Some. When we have a None value, in some sense, it means the same thing as null: we don’t have a valid value. So why is having Option<T> any better than having null?

In short, because Option<T> and T (where T can be any type) are different types, the compiler won’t let us use an Option<T> value as if it was definitely a valid value. For example, this code won’t compile because it’s trying to add an i8 to an Option<i8>:

let x: i8 = 5;
let y: Option<i8> = Some(5);

let sum = x + y;

If we run this code, we get an error message like this:

error[E0277]: the trait bound `i8: std::ops::Add<std::option::Option<i8>>` is
not satisfied
 -->
  |
7 | let sum = x + y;
  |           ^^^^^
  |

Intense! In effect, this error message means that Rust doesn’t understand how to add an Option<i8> and an i8, because they’re different types. When we have a value of a type like i8 in Rust, the compiler will ensure that we always have a valid value. We can proceed confidently without having to check for null before using that value. Only when we have an Option<i8> (or whatever type of value we’re working with) do we have to worry about possibly not having a value, and the compiler will make sure we handle that case before using the value.

In other words, you have to convert an Option<T> to a T before you can perform T operations with it. Generally, this helps catch one of the most common issues with null: assuming that something isn’t null when it actually is.

Not having to worry about missing an assumption of having a not-null value helps you to be more confident in your code. In order to have a value that can possibly be null, you must explicitly opt in by making the type of that value Option<T>. Then, when you use that value, you are required to explicitly handle the case when the value is null. Everywhere that a value has a type that isn’t an Option<T>, you can safely assume that the value isn’t null. This was a deliberate design decision for Rust to limit null’s pervasiveness and increase the safety of Rust code.

So, how do you get the T value out of a Some variant when you have a value of type Option<T> so you can use that value? The Option<T> enum has a large number of methods that are useful in a variety of situations; you can check them out in its documentation. Becoming familiar with the methods on Option<T> will be extremely useful in your journey with Rust.

In general, in order to use an Option<T> value, we want to have code that will handle each variant. We want some code that will run only when we have a Some(T) value, and this code is allowed to use the inner T. We want some other code to run if we have a None value, and that code doesn’t have a T value available. The match expression is a control flow construct that does just this when used with enums: it will run different code depending on which variant of the enum it has, and that code can use the data inside the matching value.