Meet Safe and Unsafe

safe and unsafe

It would be great to not have to worry about low-level implementation details. Who could possibly care how much space the empty tuple occupies? Sadly, it sometimes matters and we need to worry about it. The most common reason developers start to care about implementation details is performance, but more importantly, these details can become a matter of correctness when interfacing directly with hardware, operating systems, or other languages.

When implementation details start to matter in a safe programming language, programmers usually have three options:

  • fiddle with the code to encourage the compiler/runtime to perform an optimization
  • adopt a more unidiomatic or cumbersome design to get the desired implementation
  • rewrite the implementation in a language that lets you deal with those details

For that last option, the language programmers tend to use is C. This is often necessary to interface with systems that only declare a C interface.

Unfortunately, C is incredibly unsafe to use (sometimes for good reason), and this unsafety is magnified when trying to interoperate with another language. Care must be taken to ensure C and the other language agree on what's happening, and that they don't step on each other's toes.

So what does this have to do with Rust?

Well, unlike C, Rust is a safe programming language.

But, like C, Rust is an unsafe programming language.

More accurately, Rust contains both a safe and unsafe programming language.

Rust can be thought of as a combination of two programming languages: Safe Rust and Unsafe Rust. Conveniently, these names mean exactly what they say: Safe Rust is Safe. Unsafe Rust is, well, not. In fact, Unsafe Rust lets us do some really unsafe things. Things the Rust authors will implore you not to do, but we'll do anyway.

Safe Rust is the true Rust programming language. If all you do is write Safe Rust, you will never have to worry about type-safety or memory-safety. You will never endure a dangling pointer, a use-after-free, or any other kind of Undefined Behavior (a.k.a. UB).

The standard library also gives you enough utilities out of the box that you'll be able to write high-performance applications and libraries in pure idiomatic Safe Rust.

But maybe you want to talk to another language. Maybe you're writing a low-level abstraction not exposed by the standard library. Maybe you're writing the standard library (which is written entirely in Rust). Maybe you need to do something the type-system doesn't understand and just frob some dang bits. Maybe you need Unsafe Rust.

Unsafe Rust is exactly like Safe Rust with all the same rules and semantics. It just lets you do some extra things that are Definitely Not Safe (which we will define in the next section).

The value of this separation is that we gain the benefits of using an unsafe language like C — low level control over implementation details — without most of the problems that come with trying to integrate it with a completely different safe language.

There are still some problems — most notably, we must become aware of properties that the type system assumes and audit them in any code that interacts with Unsafe Rust. That's the purpose of this book: to teach you about these assumptions and how to manage them.