Data types

In this post I'll discuss Rust's data types. These are roughly equivalent to classes, structs, and enums in C++. One difference with Rust is that data and behaviour are much more strictly separated in Rust than C++ (or Java, or other OO languages). Behaviour is defined by functions and those can be defined in traits and impls (implementations), but traits cannot contain data, they are similar to Java's interfaces in that respect. I'll cover traits and impls in a later post, this one is all about data.


A rust struct is similar to a C struct or a C++ struct without methods. Simply a list of named fields. The syntax is best seen with an example:

struct S {
    field1: int,
    field2: SomeOtherStruct

Here we define a struct called S with two fields. The fields are comma separated; if you like, you can comma-terminate the last field too.

Structs introduce a type. In the example, we could use S as a type. SomeOtherStruct is assumed to be another struct (used as a type in the example), and (like C++) it is included by value, that is, there is no pointer to another struct object in memory.

Fields in structs are accessed using the . operator and their name. An example of struct use:

fn foo(s1: S, s2: &S) {
    let f = s1.field1;
    if f == s2.field1 {
        println!("field1 matches!");

Here s1 is struct object passed by value and s2 is a struct object passed by reference. As with method call, we use the same . to access fields in both, no need for ->.

Structs are initialised using struct literals. These are the name of the struct and values for each field. For example,

fn foo(sos: SomeOtherStruct) {
    let x = S { field1: 45, field2: sos };  // initialise x with a struct literal
    println!("x.field1 = {}", x.field1);

Structs cannot be recursive, that is you can't have cycles of struct names involving definitions and field types. This is because of the value semantics of structs. So for example, struct R { r: Option<R> } is illegal and will cause a compiler error (see below for more about Option). If you need such a structure then you should use some kind of pointer; cycles with pointers are allowed:

struct R {
    r: Option<Box<R>>

If we didn't have the Option in the above struct, there would be no way to instantiate the struct and Rust would signal an error.

Structs with no fields do not use braces in either their definition or literal use. Definitions do need a terminating semi-colon though, presumably just to facilitate parsing.

struct Empty;

fn foo() {
    let e = Empty;


Tuples are anonymous, heterogeneous sequences of data. As a type, they are declared as a sequence of types in parentheses. Since there is no name, they are identified by structure. For example, the type (int, int) is a pair of integers and (i32, f32, S) is a triple. Tuple values are initialised in the same way as tuple types are declared, but with values instead of types for the components, e.g., (4, 5). An example:

// foo takes a struct and returns a tuple
fn foo(x: SomeOtherStruct) -> (i32, f32, S) {
    (23, 45.82, S { field1: 54, field2: x })

Tuples can be used by destructuring using a let expression, e.g.,

fn bar(x: (int, int)) {
    let (a, b) = x;
    println!("x was ({}, {})", a, b);

We'll talk more about destructuring next time.

Tuple structs

Tuple structs are named tuples, or alternatively, structs with unnamed fields. They are declared using the struct keyword, a list of types in parentheses, and a semicolon. Such a declaration introduces their name as a type. Their fields must be accessed by destructuring (like a tuple), rather than by name. Tuple structs are not very common.

struct IntPoint (int, int);

fn foo(x: IntPoint) {
    let IntPoint(a, b) = x;  // Note that we need the name of the tuple
                             // struct to destructure.
    println!("x was ({}, {})", a, b);


Enums are types like C++ enums or unions, in that they are types which can take multiple values. The simplest kind of enum is just like a C++ enum:

enum E1 {

fn foo() {
    let x: E1 = Var2;
    match x {
        Var2 => println!("var2"),
        _ => {}

However, Rust enums are much more powerful than that. Each variant can contain data. Like tuples, these are defined by a list of types. In this case they are more like unions than enums in C++. Rust enums are tagged unions rather untagged (as in C++), that means you can't mistake one variant of an enum for another at runtime. An example:

enum Expr {
    Add(int, int),
    Or(bool, bool),

fn foo() {
    let x = Or(true, false);   // x has type Expr

Many simple cases of object-oriented polymorphism are better handled in Rust using enums.

To use enums we usually use a match expression. Remember that these are similar to C++ switch statements. I'll go into more depth on these and other ways to destructure data next time. Here's an example:

fn bar(e: Expr) {
    match e {
        Add(x, y) => println!("An `Add` variant: {} + {}", x, y),
        Or(..) => println!("An `Or` variant"),
        _ => println!("Something else (in this case, a `Lit`)"),

Each arm of the match expression matches a variant of Expr. All variants must be covered. The last case (_) covers all remaining variants, although in the example there is only Lit. Any data in a variant can be bound to a variable. In the Add arm we are binding the two ints in an Add to x and y. If we don't care about the data, we can use .. to match any data, as we do for Or.


One particularly common enum in Rust is Option. This has two variants - Some and None. None has no data and Some has a single field with type T (Option is a generic enum, which we will cover later, but hopefully the general idea is clear from C++). Options are used to indicate a value might be there or might not. Any place you use a null pointer in C++ to indicate a value which is in some way undefined, uninitialised, or false, you should probably use an Option in Rust. Using Option is safer because you must always check it before use; there is no way to do the equivalent of dereferencing a null pointer. They are also more general, you can use them with values as well as pointers. An example:

use std::rc::Rc;

struct Node {
    parent: Option<Rc<Node>>,
    value: int

fn is_root(node: Node) -> bool {
    match node.parent {
        Some(_) => false,
        None => true

Here, the parent field could be either a None or a Some containing an Rc<Node>. In the example, we never actually use that payload, but in real life you usually would.

There are also convenience methods on Option, so you could write the body of is_root as node.is_none() or !node.is_some().

Inherited mutabilty and Cell/RefCell

Local variables in Rust are immutable by default and can be marked mutable using mut. We don't mark fields in structs or enums as mutable, their mutability is inherited. This means that a field in a struct object is mutable or immutable depending on whether the object itself is mutable or immutable. Example:

struct S1 {
    field1: int,
    field2: S2
struct S2 {
    field: int

fn main() {
    let s = S1 { field1: 45, field2: S2 { field: 23 } };
    // s is deeply immutable, the following mutations are forbidden
    // s.field1 = 46;
    // s.field2.field = 24;

    let mut s = S1 { field1: 45, field2: S2 { field: 23 } };
    // s is mutable, these are OK
    s.field1 = 46;
    s.field2.field = 24;

Inherited mutability in Rust stops at references. This is similar to C++ where you can modify a non-const object via a pointer from a const object. If you want a reference field to be mutable, you have to use &mut on the field type:

struct S1 {
    f: int
struct S2<'a> {
    f: &'a mut S1   // mutable reference field
struct S3<'a> {
    f: &'a S1       // immutable reference field

fn main() {
    let mut s1 = S1{f:56};
    let s2 = S2 { f: &mut s1};
    s2.f.f = 45;   // legal even though s2 is immutable
    // s2.f = &mut s1; // illegal - s2 is not mutable
    let s1 = S1{f:56};
    let mut s3 = S3 { f: &s1};
    s3.f = &s1;     // legal - s3 is mutable
    // s3.f.f = 45; // illegal - s3.f is immutable

(The 'a parameter on S2 and S3 is a lifetime parameter, we'll cover those soon).

Sometimes whilst an object is logically immutable, it has parts which need to be internally mutable. Think of various kinds of caching or a reference count (which would not give true logical immutability since the effect of changing the ref count can be observed via destructors). In C++, you would use the mutable keyword to allow such mutation even when the object is const. In Rust we have the Cell and RefCell structs. These allow parts of immutable objects to be mutated. Whilst that is useful, it means you need to be aware that when you see an immutable object in Rust, it is possible that some parts may actually be mutable.

RefCell and Cell let you get around Rust's strict rules on mutation and aliasability. They are safe to use because they ensure that Rust's invariants are respected dynamically, even though the compiler cannot ensure that those invariants hold statically. Cell and RefCell are both single threaded objects.

Use Cell for types which have copy semantics (pretty much just primitive types). Cell has get and set methods for changing the stored value, and a new method to initialise the cell with a value. Cell is a very simple object - it doesn't need to do anything smart since objects with copy semantics can't keep references elsewhere (in Rust) and they can't be shared across threads, so there is not much to go wrong.

Use RefCell for types which have move semantics, that means nearly everything in Rust, struct objects are a common example. RefCell is also created using new and has a set method. To get the value in a RefCell, you must borrow it using the borrow methods (borrow, borrow_mut, try_borrow, try_borrow_mut) these will give you a borrowed reference to the object in the RefCell. These methods follow the same rules as static borrowing - you can only have one mutable borrow, and can't borrow mutably and immutably at the same time. However, rather than a compile error you get a runtime failure. The try_ variants return an Option - you get Some(val) if the value can be borrowed and None if it can't. If a value is borrowed, calling set will fail too.

Here's an example using a ref-counted pointer to a RefCell (a common use-case):

use std::rc::Rc;
use std::cell::RefCell;

Struct S {
    field: int

fn foo(x: Rc<RefCell<S>>) {
        let s = x.borrow();
        println!("the field, twice {} {}", s.f, x.borrow().field);
        // let s = x.borrow_mut(); // Error - we've already borrowed the contents of x

    let s = x.borrow_mut(); // O, the earlier borrows are out of scope
    s.f = 45;
    // println!("The field {}", x.borrow().field); // Error - can't mut and immut borrow
    println!("The field {}", s.f);

If you're using Cell/RefCell, you should try to put them on the smallest object you can. That is, prefer to put them on a few fields of a struct, rather than the whole struct. Think of them like single threaded locks, finer grained locking is better since you are more likely to avoid colliding on a lock.