A Failed Experiment: Scoped Operations

Hi! Over the past couple weeks I tried an experiment to temporarily and reversibly modify data structures in Rust. I would say this experiment was a failure, but I wanted to write up what went wrong and what I learned. I'd love to hear your reactions! The repo is here.

The Concept

The idea is that it lets you hand a data structure off to another piece of code saying "okay, you can modify this data while you're using it, but you have to put it back to the way you found it." Here's a simple example of letting a user function change a Vec, and having the change automatically undone:

use scoped_ops::borrowed::{VecScoped, Noop};

let user_fn = |a: &mut Noop<Vec<i32>>| {
    // these operations modify the Vec in place
    let mut b = a.pushed(4);
    let c = b.assigned(1, -2);

    // the user can now view the changed version of the Vec
    assert_eq!([1, -2, 3, 4], *c);
};  // c and b drop, and undo their changes

let mut a = vec![1, 2, 3];
user_fn(&mut a.nooped());
assert_eq!([1, 2, 3], *a);

The Approach

The approach here gives each mutating operation a scope, reverting the operation when it goes out of scope. So once the operation goes out of scope, the state of the data structure will be returned to what it was before the scoped operation was applied (except for maybe like the
capacity of a Vec could be different, or something like that). Because each operation is reverted when it goes out of scope, operations can be nested without complication. Conceptually this is like a weaker version of a partially persistent data structure. Unlike in a partially persistent data structure, you can't actually "see" any past state; you have to apply undo operations until you get back to that state.

The Promise

I thought this would be a kind of promising idea:

  • Uses normal Rust data structures, so can be integrated into existing code
  • Hopefully zero-cost abstraction, although inspection would be needed to verify this
  • No dependencies, could work without std

The Reality

Unfortunately, this didn't end up being as cool as I envisioned. Why did it fail?

  • I can't find a real-world use case for this!
  • Using generics is "viral:" any code that uses this will also need to be generic. This makes something like looping or recursion a lot harder. You'll also end up with complex nested types like when using futures or iterators.
  • Using mutable references, users will need to create too many let bindings.
  • These reversions could in many cases just be coded by hand instead.

The Alternatives

Instead of using this approach, I can think of a few possible alternatives for temporarily and
reversibly modifying data:

  • Ask the user to undo their own changes to the data structure
  • Just clone the data, then the user can can modify the clone however they want
  • Apply adapters around the original data structure at read time. For example, you could have a VecPushed that has most of the same methods as Vec, but acts as if it has an element pushed onto the end. For example, if the underlying Vec has length 2, the VecPushed would
    say that its length is 3. Possible disadvantages:
    • A lot of code to implement
    • Applying a lot of modifications, or certain kinds of modifications, might hurt performance
    • You couldn't get a slice, because the data doesn't actually exist in memory

The Conclusions

What I've learned:

  • Using generics for zero-cost abstractions introduces a usability penalty, because any user code needs to use the generics. For example, this makes looping pretty annoying.
  • Using references can be annoying because it limits you to structuring your code so that the lifetimes work out. In the doctest, I need to create additional let bindings that I'd rather omit.
  • It's kind of hard to search for "where would this pattern be useful?" I don't know of a good way to search the entire Rust ecosystem for "unnecessarily cloning a Vec" for example.
  • It's harder to find a problem for a solution than to find a solution to a problem.
  • Even a failed experiment helped me learn a lot about structuring Rust code. For example, I learned about:
    • It's hard to have both Drop and a method that takes self
    • When to use associated types vs. generic types
    • How to emulate a sealed trait
    • &mut T is not UnwindSafe, meaning I can't test panics with this crate (without learning more about unwind safety).

The Future

A few possible interesting angles on future exploration:

  • Check whether this is actually, as I hoped, a zero-cost abstraction
  • Figure out if this would actually be useful for anything :joy:
  • Explore support for "commit vs. revert"
  • Add more operations to Vec
  • Add support for other data structures
  • Explore a reference-counted variant

Thanks to mjhoy for contributing the Assign operation, and thanks to everyone on the URLO thread who suggested great solutions for nesting mutable types!


Interesting concept and nice write up. The first thing that comes to my mind is to automatically manage something like a stack in a recursive algorithm, as in a depth-first search. This way in the code you only worry about pushing and the values are automatically popped out while backtracking.

1 Like

You may like the im crate, which provide immutable data structures that can be cloned and modified efficiently without altering the original. It is very similar to your experiment, except you don't need to revert anything — older clones still have the old value.

I once wrote a primitive game that stored the world using this kind of data structure, thus allowing going back in time by just keeping around an old version of the world. This was useful for networking based code that tried to predict what the server would send.


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