For the Love of Macros

I’ve been re-reading Ted Kaminski blog about software design. I highly recommend all the posts, especially the earlier ones (here’s the first). He manages to offer design advice which is both non-trivial and sound (a subjective judgment of course), a rare specimen!

Anyway, one of the insights of the series is that, when designing an abstraction, we always face the inherent tradeoff between power and properties. The more we can express using a particular abstraction, the less we can say about the code using it. Our human bias for more expressive power is not inherent however. This is evident in programming language communities, where users unceasingly ask for new features and language designers say no.

Macros are a language feature which is very far in the “more power” side of the chart. Macros give you an ability to abstract over the source code. In exchange, you give up the ability to (automatically) reason about the surface syntax. As a specific example, rename refactoring doesn’t work 100% reliably in languages with powerful macro systems.

I do think that, in the ideal world, this is a wrong trade for a language which wants to scale to gigantic projects. The ability to automatically reason about and transform source code gains in importance when you add more programmers, more years, and more millions of lines of code. But take this with a huuuge grain of salt — I am obviously biased, having spent several years developing Rust IDEs.

That said, macros have a tremendous appeal — they are a language designer’s duct tape. Macros are rarely the best tool for the job, but they can do almost any job. The language design is incremental. A macro system relieves the design pressure by providing a ready poor man’s substitute for many features.

In this post, I want to explore what macros are used for in Rust. The intention is to find solutions which do not give up the “reasoning about source code” property.

String Interpolation

By far, the most common use-case is the format! family of macros. The macro-less solution here is straightforward — a string interpolation syntax:

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let key = "number";
let value = || 92;
let t = f"$key: ${values()}";
assert_eq!(t.to_string(), "number: 92");

In Rust, interpolation probably shouldn’t construct a string directly. Instead, it can produce a value implementing Display (just like format_args!), which can avoid allocations. An interesting extension would be to allow iterating over format string pieces. That way, the interpolation syntax could be used for things like SQL statements or command line arguments, without the fear of introducing injection vulnerabilities:

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let arg = "my dir";
let cmd = f"ls $arg".to_cmd();
assert_eq!(cmd.to_string(), "ls 'my dir'");

This post about Julia programming language explains the issue. xshell crate implements this idea for Rust.

Derives

I think the second most common, and probably the most important use of macros in Rust are derives. Rust is one of the few languages which gets equality right (and forbids comparing apples and oranges), but this crucially depends on the ability to derive(Eq). Common solutions in this space are special casing in the compiler (Haskell’s deriving) or runtime reflection.

But the solution I am most excited about are C# source generators. Which are nothing new — this is just the old (source) code generation, just with a nice quality of implementation. You can supply custom code which gets run during the build and which can read existing sources and generate additional files, which are then added back to the compilation.

The beauty of this solution is that it moves all the complexity out of the language and into the build system. This means that you get baseline tooling support for free. Goto definition for generated code? Just works. Want to step into some serialization code while debugging? There’s actual source code on disk, so feel free to! You are more of a printf person? Well, you’d need to convince the build system to not stomp over your changes, but, otherwise, why not?

Additionally, source generators turn out to be significantly more expressive. They can call into the Roslyn compiler to analyzer the source code, so they are capable of type-directed code generation.

To be useful, source generators require some language level support for splitting a single entity across several files. In C#, partial classes play this role.

Domain Specific Languages

The raison d’ĂȘtre of macros is implementation of embedded DSLs. We want to introduce custom syntax within the language for succinctly modeling the program’s domain. For example, a macro can be used to embed HTML fragments in Rust code.

To me personally, eDSL is not problem to be solved, but just a problem. Introducing a new sublanguage (even if small) spends a lot of cognitive complexity budget. If you need it once in a while, better stick to just chaining together somewhat verbose function calls. If you need it a lot, it makes sense to introduce external DSL, with a compiler, a language server, and all the tooling that makes programming productive. To me, macro-based DSLs just don’t fell like an interesting point on the cost-benefit curve.

That being said, the Kotlin programming language solves the problem of strongly-typed, tooling-friendly DSL nicely (example). Infuriatingly, it’s hard to point what specifically is the solution. It’s …​ just the concrete syntax mostly. Here are some ingredients:

  • The syntax for closures is { arg -> body }, or just { body }, so closures syntactically resemble blocks.

  • Extension methods (which are just sugar for static methods).

  • Java style implicit this, which introduces names into scope without an explicit declaration.

  • TCP-preserving inline closures (this the single non-syntactical feature)

Nonetheless, this was not enough to implement Jetpack Compose UI DSL, it also needs a compiler plugin.

sqlx

An interesting case of a DSL I want to call out is sqlx::query. It allows one to write code like this:

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let account =
  sqlx::query!("select (1) as id, 'Herp Derpinson' as name")
    .fetch_one(&mut conn)
    .await?;

// anonymous struct has `#[derive(Debug)]` for convenience
println!("{:?}", account);
println!("{}: {}", account.id, account.name);

This I think is one of the few cases where eDSL does really pull its weight. I don’t know how to do this without macros. Using string interpolation (the advanced version to protect from injection), it is possible to specify the query. Using a source generator, it is possible to check the syntax of the query and verity the types, to, eg, raise a type error in this case:

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let (id, name): (i32, f32) =
  query("select (1) as id, 'Herp Derpinson' as name")
    .fetch_one(&mut conn)
    .await?;

But this won’t be enough to generate an anonymous struct, or to get rid of dynamic casts.

Conditional Compilation

Rust also uses macros for conditional compilation. This use case convincingly demonstrates “lack of properties” aspect of power. Dealing with feature combinations is a perpetual headache for Cargo. Users have to repeatedly recompile large chunks of the crate graph when feature flags change. Catching a type error on CI with cargo test --no-default-features is pretty annoying, especially if you did run cargo test before submitting a PR. “Additive Features” is an uncheckable wishful thinking.

In this case, I don’t know a good macro-less alternative. But, in principle, this seems doable, if conditional compilation is pushed further down the compiler pipeline, to the code generation and linking stage. Rather than discarding some code early during parsing, the compiler can select the platform-specific version just before producing machine code for a function. Before that, it checks that all conditionally-compiled versions of the function have the same interface. That way, platform-specific type errors are impossible.

Placeholder Syntax

The final use-case I want to cover is that of a placeholder syntax. Rust’s macro_call!(…​) syntax carves a well-isolated region where anything goes, syntax wise, as long as the parenthesis are balanced. In theory, this allow language designers to experiment with provisional syntax before setting something in stone. In practice, it looks like this is not at all that beneficial? There was some opposition to stabilizing postfix .await without going via intermediate period with await! macro. And, after stabilization, all syntax discussions were immediately forgotten? On the other hand, we did have try! -> ? transition, and I don’t think it helped to uncover any design pitfalls? At least, we managed to stabilize the unnecessary restrictive desugaring on that one.


For conclusion, I want to circle back to source generators. What exactly makes them easier for tooling than macros? I think the following three properties do. First, both input and output is, fundamentally, text. There’s no intermediate representation (like token trees), which is used by this meta-programming facility. This means that it doesn’t need to be integrated deeply with the compiler. Of course, internally the tool is free to parse, typecheck and transform the code however it likes. Second, there is a phase distinction. Source generators are executed once, in unordered fashion. There’s no back and forth between meta programming and name resolution, which, again, allows to keep “meta” part outside. Third, source generators can only add code, they can not change the meaning of the existing code. This means that semantically sound source code transformations remains so in the presence of a code generator.

That’s all! Discussion on /r/rust.