Unwinding

Rust has a tiered error-handling scheme:

  • If something might reasonably be absent, Option is used.
  • If something goes wrong and can reasonably be handled, Result is used.
  • If something goes wrong and cannot reasonably be handled, the thread panics.
  • If something catastrophic happens, the program aborts.

Option and Result are overwhelmingly preferred in most situations, especially since they can be promoted into a panic or abort at the API user's discretion. Panics cause the thread to halt normal execution and unwind its stack, calling destructors as if every function instantly returned.

As of 1.0, Rust is of two minds when it comes to panics. In the long-long-ago, Rust was much more like Erlang. Like Erlang, Rust had lightweight tasks, and tasks were intended to kill themselves with a panic when they reached an untenable state. Unlike an exception in Java or C++, a panic could not be caught at any time. Panics could only be caught by the owner of the task, at which point they had to be handled or that task would itself panic.

Unwinding was important to this story because if a task's destructors weren't called, it would cause memory and other system resources to leak. Since tasks were expected to die during normal execution, this would make Rust very poor for long-running systems!

As the Rust we know today came to be, this style of programming grew out of fashion in the push for less-and-less abstraction. Light-weight tasks were killed in the name of heavy-weight OS threads. Still, on stable Rust as of 1.0 panics can only be caught by the parent thread. This means catching a panic requires spinning up an entire OS thread! This unfortunately stands in conflict to Rust's philosophy of zero-cost abstractions.

There is an API called catch_panic that enables catching a panic without spawning a thread. Still, we would encourage you to only do this sparingly. In particular, Rust's current unwinding implementation is heavily optimized for the "doesn't unwind" case. If a program doesn't unwind, there should be no runtime cost for the program being ready to unwind. As a consequence, actually unwinding will be more expensive than in e.g. Java. Don't build your programs to unwind under normal circumstances. Ideally, you should only panic for programming errors or extreme problems.

Rust's unwinding strategy is not specified to be fundamentally compatible with any other language's unwinding. As such, unwinding into Rust from another language, or unwinding into another language from Rust is Undefined Behavior. You must absolutely catch any panics at the FFI boundary! What you do at that point is up to you, but something must be done. If you fail to do this, at best, your application will crash and burn. At worst, your application won't crash and burn, and will proceed with completely clobbered state.