Why Cargo Exists


In Rust, as you may know, a library or executable program is called a crate. Crates are compiled using the Rust compiler, rustc. When starting with Rust, the first source code most people encounter is that of the venerable “hello world” program, which they compile by invoking rustc directly:

$ rustc hello.rs
$ ./hello
Hello, world!

Note that the above command required that we specify the file name explicitly. If we were to directly use rustc to compile a different program, a different command line invocation would be required. If we needed to specify any specific compiler flags or include external dependencies, then the needed command would be even more specific (and elaborate).

Furthermore, most non-trivial programs will likely have dependencies on external libraries, and will therefore also depend transitively on their dependencies. Obtaining the correct versions of all the necessary dependencies and keeping them up to date would be laborious and error-prone if done by hand.

Rather than work only with crates and rustc, we can avoid the manual tedium involved with performing the above tasks by introducing a higher-level package abstraction and by using a package manager.

Enter: Cargo

Cargo is the Rust package manager. It is a tool that allows Rust packages to declare their various dependencies and ensure that you’ll always get a repeatable build.

To accomplish this goal, Cargo does four things:

  • Introduces two metadata files with various bits of package information.
  • Fetches and builds your package’s dependencies.
  • Invokes rustc or another build tool with the correct parameters to build your package.
  • Introduces conventions to make working with Rust packages easier.

To a large extent, Cargo normalizes the commands needed to build a given program or library; this is one aspect to the above mentioned conventions. As we show later, the same command can be used to build different artifacts, regardless of their names. Rather than invoke rustc directly, we can instead invoke something generic such as cargo build and let cargo worry about constructing the correct rustc invocation. Furthermore, Cargo will automatically fetch from a registry any dependencies we have defined for our artifact, and arrange for them to be incorporated into our build as needed.

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that once you know how to build one Cargo-based project, you know how to build all of them.