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The Deref Trait Allows Access to the Data Through a Reference

The first important smart pointer-related trait is Deref, which allows us to override *, the dereference operator (as opposed to the multiplication operator or the glob operator). Overriding * for smart pointers makes accessing the data behind the smart pointer convenient, and we'll talk about what we mean by convenient when we get to deref coercions later in this section.

We briefly mentioned the dereference operator in Chapter 8, in the hash map section titled "Update a Value Based on the Old Value". We had a mutable reference, and we wanted to change the value that the reference was pointing to. In order to do that, first we had to dereference the reference. Here's another example using references to i32 values:

# #![allow(unused_variables)]
#fn main() {
let mut x = 5;
{
    let y = &mut x;

    *y += 1
}

assert_eq!(6, x);

#}

We use *y to access the data that the mutable reference in y refers to, rather than the mutable reference itself. We can then modify that data, in this case by adding 1.

With references that aren't smart pointers, there's only one value that the reference is pointing to, so the dereference operation is straightforward. Smart pointers can also store metadata about the pointer or the data. When dereferencing a smart pointer, we only want the data, not the metadata, since dereferencing a regular reference only gives us data and not metadata. We want to be able to use smart pointers in the same places that we can use regular references. To enable that, we can override the behavior of the * operator by implementing the Deref trait.

Listing 15-7 has an example of overriding * using Deref on a struct we've defined to hold mp3 data and metadata. Mp3 is, in a sense, a smart pointer: it owns the Vec<u8> data containing the audio. In addition, it holds some optional metadata, in this case the artist and title of the song in the audio data. We want to be able to conveniently access the audio data, not the metadata, so we implement the Deref trait to return the audio data. Implementing the Deref trait requires implementing one method named deref that borrows self and returns the inner data:

Filename: src/main.rs

use std::ops::Deref;

struct Mp3 {
    audio: Vec<u8>,
    artist: Option<String>,
    title: Option<String>,
}

impl Deref for Mp3 {
    type Target = Vec<u8>;

    fn deref(&self) -> &Vec<u8> {
        &self.audio
    }
}

fn main() {
    let my_favorite_song = Mp3 {
        // we would read the actual audio data from an mp3 file
        audio: vec![1, 2, 3],
        artist: Some(String::from("Nirvana")),
        title: Some(String::from("Smells Like Teen Spirit")),
    };

    assert_eq!(vec![1, 2, 3], *my_favorite_song);
}

Listing 15-7: An implementation of the Deref trait on a struct that holds mp3 file data and metadata

Most of this should look familiar: a struct, a trait implementation, and a main function that creates an instance of the struct. There is one part we haven't explained thoroughly yet: similarly to Chapter 13 when we looked at the Iterator trait with the type Item, the type Target = T; syntax is defining an associated type, which is covered in more detail in Chapter 19. Don't worry about that part of the example too much; it is a slightly different way of declaring a generic parameter.

In the assert_eq!, we're verifying that vec![1, 2, 3] is the result we get when dereferencing the Mp3 instance with *my_favorite_song, which is what happens since we implemented the deref method to return the audio data. If we hadn't implemented the Deref trait for Mp3, Rust wouldn't compile the code *my_favorite_song: we'd get an error saying type Mp3 cannot be dereferenced.

Without the Deref trait, the compiler can only dereference & references, which my_favorite_song is not (it is an Mp3 struct). With the Deref trait, the compiler knows that types implementing the Deref trait have a deref method that returns a reference (in this case, &self.audio because of our definition of deref in Listing 15-7). So in order to get a & reference that * can dereference, the compiler expands *my_favorite_song to this:

*(my_favorite_song.deref())

The result is the value in self.audio. The reason deref returns a reference that we then have to dereference, rather than just returning a value directly, is because of ownership: if the deref method directly returned the value instead of a reference to it, the value would be moved out of self. We don't want to take ownership of my_favorite_song.audio in this case and most cases where we use the dereference operator.

Note that replacing * with a call to the deref method and then a call to * happens once, each time the * is used. The substitution of * does not recurse infinitely. That's how we end up with data of type Vec<u8>, which matches the vec![1, 2, 3] in the assert_eq! in Listing 15-7.

Implicit Deref Coercions with Functions and Methods

Rust tends to favor explicitness over implicitness, but one case where this does not hold true is deref coercions of arguments to functions and methods. A deref coercion will automatically convert a reference to any pointer into a reference to that pointer's contents. A deref coercion happens when the reference type of the argument passed into the function differs from the reference type of the parameter defined in that function's signature. Deref coercion was added to Rust to make calling functions and methods not need as many explicit references and dereferences with & and *.

Using our Mp3 struct from Listing 15-7, here's the signature of a function to compress mp3 audio data that takes a slice of u8:

fn compress_mp3(audio: &[u8]) -> Vec<u8> {
    // the actual implementation would go here
}

If Rust didn't have deref coercion, in order to call this function with the audio data in my_favorite_song, we'd have to write:

compress_mp3(my_favorite_song.audio.as_slice())

That is, we'd have to explicitly say that we want the data in the audio field of my_favorite_song and that we want a slice referring to the whole Vec<u8>. If there were a lot of places where we'd want to process the audio data in a similar manner, .audio.as_slice() would be wordy and repetitive.

However, because of deref coercion and our implementation of the Deref trait on Mp3, we can call this function with the data in my_favorite_song by using this code:

let result = compress_mp3(&my_favorite_song);

Just an & and the instance, nice! We can treat our smart pointer as if it was a regular reference. Deref coercion means that Rust can use its knowledge of our Deref implementation, namely: Rust knows that Mp3 implements the Deref trait and returns &Vec<u8> from the deref method. Rust also knows the standard library implements the Deref trait on Vec<T> to return &[T] from the deref method (and we can find that out too by looking at the API documentation for Vec<T>). So, at compile time, Rust will see that it can use Deref::deref twice to turn &Mp3 into &Vec<u8> and then into &[T] to match the signature of compress_mp3. That means we get to do less typing! Rust will analyze types through Deref::deref as many times as it needs to in order to get a reference to match the parameter's type, when the Deref trait is defined for the types involved. This indirection is resolved at compile time, so there is no run-time penalty for taking advantage of deref coercion!

Similar to how we use the Deref trait to override * on &Ts, there is also a DerefMut trait for overriding * on &mut T.

Rust does deref coercion when it finds types and trait implementations in three cases:

  • From &T to &U when T: Deref<Target=U>.
  • From &mut T to &mut U when T: DerefMut<Target=U>.
  • From &mut T to &U when T: Deref<Target=U>.

The first two are the same, except for mutability: if you have a &T, and T implements Deref to some type U, you can get a &U transparently. Same for mutable references. The last one is more tricky: if you have a mutable reference, it will also coerce to an immutable one. The other case is not possible though: immutable references will never coerce to mutable ones.

The reason that the Deref trait is important to the smart pointer pattern is that smart pointers can then be treated like regular references and used in places that expect regular references. We don't have to redefine methods and functions to take smart pointers explicitly, for example.