Safe Cell field projection in Rust

January 5, 2020

I’ve just published the dioptre crate, the newest addition to Driveyard. Dioptre is a lightweight proc-macro for struct field reflection. The subject of this post is a trick built on top of this functionality—Cell field projection, going from Cell<Struct> to Cell<Field>.

Interior mutability

One reason people wind up “fighting the borrow checker” in Rust is its strict rules around pointer aliasing. The two built-in reference types, &T and &mut T, allow either a single mutable &mut T, or multiple immutable &Ts. Rust uses these rules to preserve memory safety without requiring a garbage collector. Other languages typically also allow mutation of shared (or aliased) objects instead. (See The Problem With Single-threaded Shared Mutability or Rust: A unique perspective for a more detailed look at these rules.)

Sometimes this design is more strict than it is useful, so Rust also provides interior mutability, which relaxes the immutability of &T references in various ways, while still preserving memory safety. (If this feels like a Rust-specific complication just to reach other languages’ baseline, C++ has a similar feature!)

The most recognizable example of interior mutability is Mutex, which lets multiple threads communicate with each other by sharing access to a mutable object. OnceCell provides one-time initialization of otherwise-immutable data. Rust beginners frustrated with the &T/&mut T rules are commonly directed to RefCell (or worse, the soup that is Rc<RefCell<T>>), a single-threaded variation on Mutex that lets them continue to use Rust’s built-in &mut T with shared data.

Cell and its upgrades

When all you want are a few references to a mutable object, there is a simpler alternative. The Cell type started its life providing a very simple form of interior mutability. You could wrap it around a small Copy type to give it &T-based get and set methods, in exchange for giving up direct access to the object itself. For example, Rc’s internal reference count field must be mutable so it can be updated when references are created or dropped, but it is also inherently shared, so that field is represented as a Cell<usize>.

Over time Cell has grown a few new abilities. RFC 1651 extended it to work with non-Copy types—the only things relying on Copy were Cell::get and traits like Eq, but Cell can still provide methods like set, replace, take, and into_inner.

Even more interesting, RFC 1789 extended Cell to support references to the interior of the wrapped object. This was originally forbidden because writing to the outer Cell would overwrite the target of the reference… but if the target object is also wrapped in a Cell, that’s just fine! Specifically, RFC 1789 provides a conversion from &Cell<[E]> to &[Cell<E>], by guaranteeing that T and Cell<T> have the same memory layout.

Field projection

RFC 1789’s Cell indexing operations are a form of projection, extracting a piece of an object from the whole. The most familiar form of projection operates on struct types, using the syntax. Can we extend this to Cell-wrapped objects? This would let us write our type definitions in an idiomatic style, and only bring in Cell in parts of the program that need it.

Here is an example of what we might want to do, based on an example from the RFC:

// Just a normal Rust type, no interior mutability in sight.
#[derive(Copy, Clone)]
struct Point {
    x: f32,
    y: f32,

// Update some points in-place.
fn process(data: &mut [Point]) {
    for i in data {
        for j in data {
            // Set some fields of i and j:
            j.x = foo(i, j);
            i.y = bar(i, j);

Without interior mutability, this will not compile:

error[E0382]: use of moved value: `data`
  --> src/
9  | fn process(data: &mut [Point]) {
   |            ---- move occurs because `data` has type `&mut [Point]`, which does not implement the `Copy` trait
10 |     for i in data {
   |              ---- value moved here
11 |         for j in data {
   |                  ^^^^ value moved here, in previous iteration of loop

We could work around this by switching from iterators to explicit indexing:

for i in {
    for j in {
        data[j].x = foo(&data[i], &data[j]);
        data[i].y = bar(&data[i], &data[j]);

However, this is not ideal. It may (for a given program) make it harder to ensure array indices stay in-bounds, or it may make it harder for the compiler to optimize out bounds checks.

Cell fields

RFC 1789 enables this approach:

// Switch from a `&mut [Point]` to a `&Cell<[Point]>`,
// so we can have multiple references:
let data = Cell::from_mut(data);

for i in &data[..] {
    for j in &data[..] {
        // ...

The type of i and j is now &Cell<Point>, for which the usual field projection syntax does not work. But with a little help from dioptre, we can write this instead:

use dioptre::{Fields, ext::CellExt};

// Derive `dioptre::Fields`:
#[derive(Copy, Clone, Fields)]
struct Point {
    x: f32,
    y: f32,

// Step into `i` and `j` to get at their fields as `Cell<f32>`s:

Split borrows

As an extra note, because we’re allowed to have multiple shared references into a struct, we don’t need any special support for obtaining references to disjoint fields, the way we would for &mut T references:

fn split(point: &Cell<Point>) -> (&Cell<f32>, &Cell<f32>) {
    (point.project(Point::x), point.project(Point::y))