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Rust: Ownership and References

This is a series of quick notes about the fundamentals of the Rust programming language. It would cover parts of basic concepts and patterns in Rust. As a Rust begineer and a non-native English speaker, I may make some silly mistakes in my notes. Please contact me if there are some misleading words.

(written on 2018-09-30)

Ownership and References

While a program runs, it need a way to manage memory . Here are three common approaches of memory management:

  • Garbage collection. (Go, Python, Ruby, Swift)
  • Explicit allocation and free memory. (C, C++)
  • Ownership/move semantic. (Rust, C++11 move constructor)

This note is about core concepts of Rust ownership and how ownership interacts with other features such as references and lifetime.


Rust Ownership Rules

  1. Each value in Rust has a variable that’s called its owner.
  2. There can only be one owner at a time.
  3. When the owner goes out of scope, the value will be dropped.

Actually, you only need to remember one thing: Rust guarantees its memory safety by restricting variables from aliasing.

Stack v.s. Heap

To determine where to store a variable, Rust categorizes varaibles into two groups - stack and heap allocations. Here are some properties held by each procedure.

Store in stack

  • Need to know the size of value at compile time.
  • Since the size is known, when the variable get out of scope, the compiler can free the variable automatically.

Store in heap

  • To store a value in heap, you need to request a region of memory from the operating system.
  • When cleaning up unused data, you need to explicit free the memory.

As same as C++ RAII pattern, Rust has a special method on object called drop that would be called automatically when a variable goes out of scope. For example:

{                      // s is not valid here, it’s not yet declared
    let s = "hello";   // s is valid from this point forward

    // do stuff with s
}                      // the scope is over. 
                       // `drop` is called, and s is no longer valid.

The question is, if a variable is allocated on heap with multiple aliases, we may not be able to track down where all aliases are in used. Explicitly call drop can lead some aliases to become dangling pointers or cause a double free error. And ownership to the rescue!

Move, Clone and Copy

Move: To stop from double free errors, Rust utilize move semantics. If a variable is aliased to the other. You cannot access underlying value from the former variables.

let s1 = String::from("hello");
let s2 = s1;

println!("{}, world!", s1); // Error. Value is moved.

All the data on heap will move its ownership to s2. Now, s1 is no longer available.

Clone: When you do want to keep the ownership of the variable, explicitly call clone may perform a shallow copy.

let s1 = String::from("hello");
let s2 = s1.clone();

println!("s1 = {}, s2 = {}", s1, s2);

Copy: Sometimes if a type implements Copy trait, it instead has copy semantics. That means clone would be performed automatically when aliasing variables.

let s1 = 1234_u8;
let s2 = s1;

println!("s1 = {}, s2 = {}", s1, s2);
// s2 is an copy of s1.

Function and Ownership

Function parameters: passing value to function as parameters is semantically same as assignment. For example,

fn takes_ownership(some_string: String) { // some_string comes into scope
    println!("{}", some_string);
} // Here, some_string goes out of scope and `drop` is called. The backing
  // memory is freed.

Return values: the ownership can also be transferred out to the caller.

// takes_and_gives_back will take a String and return one
fn takes_and_gives_back(a_string: String) -> String { // a_string comes into
                                                      // scope
    a_string  // a_string is returned and moves out to the calling function


Ownership is about a variable owns the value. What about sharing value among multiple variables? Here comes the concepts of references.

The properties of Rust references are described as below:

  • Similar behavior comparing to C pointer.
  • Use & to annotate reference type.
  • Use * to dereference.
  • Use . (dot) to access method/field under a reference to a struct/enum type.
  • No null pointer. Use [Option]( instead.
  • Mostly the word “*reference*” is interchangeable with “*borrow*” in Rust.
let a: &str = "string"; 

fn calculate_length(s: &String) -> usize { // s is a reference to a String
} // Here, s goes out of scope. But because it does not have ownership of what
  // it refers to, nothing happens.


All references in Rust must follow at lease two rules:

  • Having several immutable references (&T) or exact one mutable reference (&mut T).
  • A reference must always be valid even it references to null. (use Option:None to represent null)


A reference may be invalid and become a dangling pointer if the owner is dropped. Accessing that reference would cause a undefined behavior. To solve this kind of error, Rust introduces lifetime validation for all reference types.

Here are some characteristics of references’ lifetime:

  • A lifetime of a reference is the scope for which the reference is valid.
  • Every reference in Rust has its own lifetime.
  • Lifetimes is a part of Rust type system. Different lifetimes are seem as different types.
  • In most cases, lifetimes are implicit inferred as same as how type being inferred.

Rust compiler use a mechanism called borrow checker to determine all lifetimes of variables are valid. The following example is invalid due to x cannot “outlive” the outer scope which is longer than its lifetime.

// would fail to compile
fn main() {
    let r;                // ---------+-- 'a
                          //          |
    {                     //          |
        let x = 5;        // -+-- 'b  |
        r = &x;           //  |       |
    }                     // -+       |
                          //          |
    println!("r: {}", r); //          |
}                         // ---------+

To annotate lifetime of a type, Rust use quirk syntax as followings:

&i32        // a reference
&'a i32     // a reference with an explicit lifetime
&'a mut i32 // a mutable reference with an explicit lifetime

A lifetime annotation seldom appears alone. It serves as a annotations to generics to imply how references relate to each other. We will cover this part at Generics.

No More Null Pointers

In languages with null, variables can always be in one of two states: null or not null. To ensure that accessing your references is safe, you must check whether a reference is null every time you use it.

Rust does not have null.

Sounds crazy, huh? Actually, Rust wraps null value into Option<T> type to make sure no one would access invalid reference or value. Option<T> is defined as an enum:

    enum Option<T> {

To access value under an Option type, one needs to unwrap it instead of direct manipulation. This extra step throw out the infamous null pointer exception in many languages. For example,

let x: i8 = 5;
let y: Option<i8> = Some(5);

let sum = x + y; // cannot compile, you need to unwrap it.
let sum = x + y.unwrap() // Valid!

With the power of pattern matching in Rust, you can even handle Option type more gracefully without explicit wrapping. Read more about [enum]( and [Option]( type.

Raw Pointers

In unsafe Rust world, we have raw pointers, * const T and *mut T, to do more unsafe stuff at your will. That means raw pointers can ignore borrowing rules and is able to be null. We devote the whole Unsafe Rust post to introduce the unsafe concept.

Further Resources