Traits and trait objects

As I spend more time working with Rust, I find myself hitting more edge cases, and ultimately into learning more about how Rust is implemented.

This weekend I was working on path-tracer, refactoring it to make shapes generic instead of always spheres, and adding explicit light sampling. While doing so I hit some unusual error messages, of the form:

the trait `renderable::Renderable` is not implemented 
    for the type `renderable::Renderable`

A somewhat confusing error message, I’m sure you’ll agree. To understand what it means, one needs to understand the difference between traits, and trait objects.

A trait is the specification of an interface. That interface can contain functions (both member, and non-member), types and constants. A simple example:

pub trait Renderable {
    fn intersect(&self, ray: &Ray) -> Option<f64>;

Here we say something can be Renderable if it supports a member function called intersect taking a Ray and returning an optional double-precision floating point number.

Later we may implement this trait for a concrete object, for example a sphere:

struct Sphere { pos: Vec3d, radius: f64 }
impl Renderable for Sphere {
    fn intersect(&self, ray: &Ray) -> Option<f64> {

There are two ways the trait can be used. The first is to accept it as a generic parameter:

fn render<R: Renderable>(obj: &R) {

Here the render function works rather like a templated C++-function, and will be instantiated for each R type used. That is, it’s roughly equivalent to:

// R must implement functions in "Renderable"
template<typename R> void render(const R &obj) {

(ith concepts lite, C++ will be able to restrict the R to being renderable soon.)

Using traits generically is great – the performance is excellent – but of course there comes a time when you need to deal with a heterogenous collection of Renderables at runtime. For example, if one has a scene made up of different types of object, each render call needs to be dispatched based on its runtime type. Enter the second way of using traits – via trait objects:

fn render(obj: &Renderable) {

Looks pretty much the same as the generic usage, right? Behind the scenes though, a lot has changed. For a start, the compiler needs to have some kind of vtable around in order to dispatch calls to Renderable::intersect to the right implementation based on the concrete type of obj. So far this is similar to C++’s virtual method tables. However, where C++ embeds a pointer to the (one and only) vtable inside the object itself, Rust keeps it separately. This is to both to allow traits to be added to existing object and also to allow multiple independant implementations of a trait on an object.

So, when it comes to calling a function that needs one of these vtables, under the hood Rust makes a trait object comprised of two pointers: one to the obj, and the other to the vtable. That trait object is what is passed to the function.

So far so good: we get to choose between compile-time and runtime polymorphism with very similar syntax. Much nicer than C++ templates. But…there’s a catch! In order for Rust to make a trait object, the trait must be “Object Safe”. In its simplest form, it means that the interface itself must have no generic arguments to any functions. Thus:

pub trait Foo {
    fn bar<A>(o: &a);

…is a valid trait, but cannot be made into a trait object and thus cannot be used for runtime polymorphism.

But why?

The vtable for Foo must somehow capture a function for every type of A you could supply. As the list of objects types that could be passed to bar() is not known, the compiler would have to do something like instantiate bar() for every object type and then make a vtable entry for each type! This is probably not even possible (I don’t know how much stuff is baked into Rust crates during compilation).

To put it into C++ terms, this would be like trying to write:

struct Foo {
    virtual ~Foo() {}
    template<typename A> virtual void bar(const A&) = 0;

…which is ill-formed for basically the same reason!

So…back to my original issue about the trait Renderable not being implemented by the type Renderable. Well, as you may have guessed by now, this is the error you might see if you’ve tried to use an object passed in as a trait as a trait object when the trait itself is not object safe. In my case I wanted to be able to find a random point on a renderable object, using a user-supplied random number generator:

pub trait Renderable {
    fn random_pos<R: Rng>(&self, r: &mut R) -> Vec3d;

So far so good. My render method was generic on the Renderable, but somewhere in the body of the code I called another method that took a &Renderable. The compiler tries to construct a trait object to give to that method, and fails with the error described above. You can see the error in the Rust Playground.

So, if you see this somewhat paradoxical error, now you know what it means!

Filed under: Coding Rust
Posted at 14:30:00 BST on 8th June 2015.

About Matt Godbolt

Matt Godbolt is a C++ developer working in Chicago for Aquatic