I've been very much into Rust recently. I try to write some Rust every day, and I've released two crates to crates.io (an implementation of the CCSDS Primary Header, and Rustic bindings to the C library jsmn).

When asked why I like Rust, I have only been able to give partial answers. I hope this post can give a more complete answer. The take-aways are that Rust fulfills a set of required criteria for use in my work, it provides nice things built in to the language and ecosystem, ways of thinkings that make software development fun, and it provides a set of tradeoffs that fit the needs that I personally have in the programs that I write.


In aerospace software work, there are some fairly strict criteria on what languages are even potential candidates for us to use. Rust manages to fulfill the criteria that I personally have, which is so rare that the only other languages I can think of that do this are C, C++, and perhaps Ada (although I've never used Ada). I'm not saying there are no other options, just none that I'm familiar with.

No Garbage Collection

One example is that a garbage collected language is a complete non-starter for us- the complexity and lack of control over latency is a real issue. As I've noted in other posts, we don't release memory, much less allow it to be collected- you ask for as much as you need and you stay within those bounds. We also are usually more concerned about latency then about throughput- we often have fast enough processors to do the work, but we need to get certain things done in tight time constraints.

Memory Layout

Another criteria is control over memory layout- we often deal with packets and other structures where every bit and every byte must be placed correctly in memory. C provides this control, although for bit layout it is either messy or non-portable, but you can do it. If a language does not provide this control, or requires marshalling and unmarshalling into its internal structures, it is not a non-starter, but its a big impediance mismatch that effects a great deal of code.


Immature languages can be a non-starter. Rust fall into this to a certain extent, but the difference is that it looks like it is going to be around for a long time, while many other languages that have promised to be safer systems language seem to have faded out or never made it beyond the original group developing them.

Integration with C/C++

Integration with C, and ideally C++, is a must-have. There is just too much code written in C/C++ out there that we depend on to ignore this. Rust's FFI is the best that I've personally used, and I've found that bindgen allows very easy binding generation. I would imagine that Rust could get into aerospace in small pieces, replacing a module here and there, and interoperation with C/C++ is what would allow that to happen.


Ideally, any language we used would be very simple- the more concepts that you introduce into your programs the more interactions between those concepts are possible, and the more ways you can make mistakes. With C++ we deal with that the way I think everyone does- we use a certain subset of the language. I could see something like this with Rust- restrict how we use abstraction, probably forbid macros, perhaps limit use of Traits, things like that. This would have to be developed out of experience developing high-assurance Rust, which I certainly don't have.

Safety and Restrictions

The last criteria that I can see would be restrictions- I want a language that is more restrictive in what it allows me to do. There are a lot of ways to make mistakes in programming, and I am more concerned about preventing mistakes then about moving quickly. I want as large a class of mistakes as possible to be caught automatically and every time I compile so I can focus on the more complex issues and system level problems rather then the low level memory use problems. In this area, I may actually want Rust to be more restrictive then it is, but I don't have enough experience to say.


Not only does Rust seem to deliver on all of my requirements, it just feel productive, and it provides so many nice things that make software development a better experience. I was used to an integrated build tool and easy dependancies from Haskell, and a mess of different tools and difficult dependancies from C/C++. With Rust, cargo has been easier for me to learn and less error prone then stack (in my own experience), and I have had remarkably few issues with building and dependancies.

Rust feels to me like a mixture of Haskell and C, with good parts of both and very few compromises on each. I like thinking and modeling problems in terms of algebraic data types, and I like knowing how my memory is arranged, and knowing when my code is doing what. As much as I like Haskell, it was hard for me to give up that kind of control, even though I understand the composability advantages of lazyness and the advantages of immutability, I wanted more control, and perhaps I also just wanted more of what I was used to in other languages.

In C I feel like I can never go beyond a certain level of abstraction- the language is just too primitive to think very abstract thoughts. Very often I don't want abstraction, but when I do it is not available. On the other hand, Haskell is very abstract and we can think thoughts that I would find almost unimaginable in C. Rust is a middle ground- there is enough abstraction that I haven't felt confined, but not so much that I don't have control over what is happening. This did cause me some trouble in Haskell, where the barrier between Haskell and system was always hard for me to cross and feel like I understand exactly what was happening.

I like the fact that data is immutable by default in Rust, and I am so very, very glad that Rust uses a type-class-like mechanism instead of being Object Oriented. I don't think I would have ever started writing Rust if it supported, or even just encouraged, object oriented programming. The Trait system has worked out well for me so far, although the syntax can be a bit complex when handling type variables. However, I am willing to put up with small things like that for a safer system's language. The automatic deriving mechanism is similar to Haskell, where you tie your data types into the language and ecosystem in a very lightweight way. I haven't tried to do my own automatic deriving, but at least it is possible.

There is not as much advanced type theory as Haskell, but since I don't program in Haskell enough to effectively use much of its abstractions, they were always more of a distraction. In Rust, I just do what works using tools that are more familiar, and it doesn't both me if there is duplication or things aren't perfect the way it would in Haskell. This is mostly my own fault, but Haskell programming never felt as productive as I feel in Rust.

Speaking of productivity, I like that Rust is fast. I write a lot of C, and I kind of expect performance, so its nice to know that I can generally expect high performance on normal tasks in Rust. I know that for many tasks, performance isn't really that critical, but its nice to know you can get it when you need it, and its just nicer when things are fast.

The memory safety of Rust is another huge advantage for me. Its not exactly that we have a lot of memory corruption issues at work, but when they do happen they are hard to track down, and can cause very bad things to happen. I don't like knowing that there could be hidden issues buried somewhere in our code base that could cause a crash some time in the future- there is just no way to be completely sure we did everything right everywhere even with static analysis, reviews, and multiple levels of testing. If we could use a more restricted language, even if only for certain modules, it would reduce the error surface of the code and give me more confidence in its correctness, which is a big deal. Its especially a big deal because it is not a separate tool, or a proof in a formal methods system, it is built in and run every time you compile- its likely not as complete as a more expensive formal methods approach, say, but it is fast and automatic.

Rust also just has nice features, like integrated tests in code modules that reduce the barrier to testing. I can just put in a couple quick sanity checks and run them at a moments notice, or every time I save, with no extra infrastructure or work on my part. I haven't used the built in benchmarked, but I hope it is as easy as testing. That is not to say that I'm doing testing the best way in Rust, but the lower barrier to entry just makes it so easy to get started.

One features that makes a big difference to me is error handling. The Option/Maybe type and Result/Either type are not new to me, but being able to use them in embedded code is a big deal. My C code spends much more time checking for errors then actually doing work, and propagating errors within a code base takes a great deal of effort. I've seen places where C's error handling leads to very inconsistent mechanisms even within related code, and it is a lot of work to try to ensure all errors are checked, handled correctly, and propagated throughout the code correctly. I like the idea of the '?' operator, and I could imagine it replacing my current strategy of surrounding all code blocks in a check for whether any errors have occurred. In VxWorks this looks like

STATUS result = OK;

result = XX_SomeFunction();

if (result == OK)
  result = XX_NextFunction();

if (result == OK)
  result = XX_AnotherFunction();

which would become


I've also just found that when I wanted something, Rust has had an answer that fits well in my use-case. When I wanted to generate bindings to a C library, there was bindgen, when I wanted control over my memory layout, there was repr(C), when I wanted to allow a choice of compile directives when compiling jsmn in the jsmn-rs crate, there was features, when I wanted to decode binary data, there was bytes. One of the first things I did with Rust was try to cross compile it for an ARM board I had, just to see if it would work, and I was amazed by how much easier rustup is to use compared to cross compiling in C.

Some Negatives, to Balance out the Post

Of course, there are some areas of Rust that are not ideal. I'm will to accept a lot of issues to get all the nice things Rust provides, and I don't expect perfection, so these are not deal-breakers, but they are there.

One is that I find the use of macros in Rust a little concerning. I don't like looking at a library, and realizing that it is some kind of DSL, the rules of which I have to determine from examples or documentation. They can be very easy to use at times, but as soon as you want to go off the beaten path, or you need to know exactly how they work, there is a lot of work involved in decoding them. This is partially my lack of familiarity with Rust macros, but it just makes me wonder what is lacking in the language that the best way to express something is a DSL. I'm a fan of DSLs in general, but it just feels wrong to me to use them for basic tasks. This is something I need to think more deeply about to understand the core reason they are used so much in Rust.

Another issue is language immaturity- it would be a hard sell to try to get a newer language used on a large project at work. Maybe on a smaller project I could get it in, but there is a lot of trust in experience in aerospace.

The Trait system, while I like it in many ways, can lead to situations where it is hard to figure out how to accomplish a particular task. There is enough abstraction that the available functions you can call on a type can be a hunt around documenation. Its not been too bad for me, and I'm used to this from Haskell, but at times I rely on documentation to provide examples, and have trouble figuring out how to accomplish something due to the amount of type resolution one needs to do in one's head. Again, this hasn't been a big problem, but the complexity is there, and its very visible in the docs section on Traits for certain types.

One aspect of Rust development I have had a problem with occasionally is compile times. They aren't as bad as I had in Haskell, but they don't seem nearly as fast as C. Luckily we have 'cargo check', which helps a great deal, and I think the compile time issue has seen a lot of work and is being taken seriously, but its worth mentioning.

When trying out Rust integration with CFS, I have found that the large object files it produces are a problem. If I needed to uplink a 3 MB binary file just to update a single module, then it is a problem. I know that there are ways to reduce object file size, but so far my attempts still result in orders of magnitude larger files then I get from C.


So far I'm very happy with what I've found in Rust. I feel productive, and I feel like low level programming isn't so much work and pain. I feel like I have the level of control that I want, along with enough abstraction to go beyond the confines of C.

Thats all I can think of for now. Rust on.