Does Rust belong in the Linux kernel? October 3, 2022 on Drew DeVault's blog

I am known to be a bit of a polemic when it comes to Rust. I will be forthright with the fact that I don’t particularly care for Rust, and that my public criticisms of it might set up many readers with a reluctance to endure yet another Rust Hot Take from my blog. My answer to the question posed in the title is, of course, “no”. However, let me assuage some of your fears by answering a different question first: does Hare belong in the Linux kernel?

If I should owe my allegiance to any programming language, it would be Hare. Not only is it a systems programming language that I designed myself, but I am using it to write a kernel. Like Rust, Hare is demonstrably useful for writing kernels with. One might even go so far as to suggest that I consider it superior to C for this purpose, given that I chose to to write Helios in Hare rather than C, despite my extensive background in C. But the question remains: does Hare belong in the Linux kernel?

In my opinion, Hare does not belong in the Linux kernel, and neither does Rust. Some of the reasoning behind this answer is common to both, and some is unique to each, but I will be focusing on Rust today because Rust is the language which is actually making its way towards mainline Linux. I have no illusions about this blog post changing that, either: I simply find it an interesting case-study in software engineering decision-making in a major project, and that’s worth talking about.

Each change in software requires sufficient supporting rationale. What are the reasons to bring Rust into Linux? A kernel hacker thinks about these questions differently than a typical developer in userspace. One could espouse the advantages of Cargo, generics, whatever, but these concerns matter relatively little to kernel hackers. Kernels operate in a heavily constrained design space and a language has to fit into that design space. This is the first and foremost concern, and if it’s awkward to mold a language to fit into these constraints then it will be a poor fit.

Some common problems that a programming language designed for userspace will run into when being considered for kernelspace are:

Most languages can overcome these constraints with some work, but their suitability for kernel use is mainly defined by how well they adapt to them — there’s a reason that kernels written in Go, C#, Java, Python, etc, are limited to being research curiosities and are left out of production systems.

As Linus recently put it, “kernel needs trump any Rust needs”. The kernel is simply not an environment which will bend to accommodate a language; it must go the other way around. These constraints have posed, and will continue to pose, a major challenge for Rust in Linux, but on the whole, I think that it will be able to rise to meet them, though perhaps not with as much grace as I would like.

If Rust is able to work within these constraints, then it satisfies the ground rules for playing in ring 0. The question then becomes: what advantages can Rust bring to the kernel? Based on what I’ve seen, these essentially break down to two points:1

  1. Memory safety
  2. Trendiness

I would prefer not to re-open the memory safety flamewar, so we will simply move forward with the (dubious) assumptions that memory safety is (1) unconditionally desirable, (2) compatible with the kernel’s requirements, and (3) sufficiently provided for by Rust. I will offer this quote from an unnamed kernel hacker, though:

There are possibly some well-designed and written parts which have not suffered a memory safety issue in many years. It’s insulting to present this as an improvement over what was achieved by those doing all this hard work.

Regarding “trendiness”, I admit that this is a somewhat unforgiving turn of phrase. In this respect I refer to the goal of expanding the kernel’s developer base from a bunch of aging curmudgeons writing C2 towards a more inclusive developer pool from a younger up-and-coming language community like Rust. C is boring3 — it hasn’t really excited anyone in decades. Rust is exciting, and its community enjoys a huge pool of developers building their brave new world with it. Introducing Rust to the kernel will certainly appeal to a broader audience of potential contributors.

But there is an underlying assumption to this argument which is worth questioning: is the supply of Linux developers dwindling, and, if so, is it to such and extent that it demands radical change?

Well, no. Linux has consistently enjoyed a tremendous amount of attention from the software development community. This week’s release of Linux 6.0, one of the largest Linux releases ever, boasted more than 78,000 commits by almost 5,000 different authors since 5.15. Linux has a broad developer base reaching from many different industry stakeholders and independent contributors working on the careful development and maintenance of its hundreds of subsystems. The scale of Linux development is on a level unmatched by any other software project — free software or otherwise.

Getting Rust working in Linux is certainly an exciting project, and I’m all for developers having fun. However, it’s not likely to infuse Linux with a much-needed boost in its contributor base, because Linux has no such need. What’s more, Linux’s portability requirements prevent Rust from being used in most of the kernel in the first place. Most work on Rust in Linux is simply working on getting the systems to cooperate with each other or writing drivers which are redundant with existing C drivers, but cannot replace them due to Rust’s limited selection of targets.4 Few to none of the efforts from the Rust-in-Linux team are likely to support the kernel’s broader goals for some time.

We are thus left with memory safety as the main benefit offered by Rust to Linux, and for the purpose of this article we’re going to take it at face value. So, with the ground rules set and the advantages enumerated, what are some of the problems that Rust might face in Linux?

There are a few problems which could be argued over, such as substantial complexity of Rust compared to C, the inevitable doubling of Linux’s build time, the significant shift in design sensibilities required to support an idiomatic Rust design, the fragile interface which will develop on the boundaries between Rust and C code, or the challenges the kernel’s established base of C developers will endure when learning and adapting to a new language. To avoid letting this post become too subjective or lengthy, I’ll refrain from expanding on these. Instead, allow me to simply illuminate these issues as risk factors.

Linux is, on the whole, a conservative project. It is deployed worldwide in billions of devices and its reliability is depended on by a majority of Earth’s population. Risks are carefully evaluated in Linux as such. Every change presents risks and offers advantages, which must be weighed against each other to justify the change. Rust is one of the riskiest bets Linux has ever considered, and, in my opinion, the advantages may not weigh up. I think that the main reason we’re going to see Rust in the kernel is not due to a careful balancing of risk and reward, but because the Rust community wants Rust in Linux, and they’re large and loud enough to not be worth the cost of arguing with.

I don’t think that changes on this scale are appropriate for most projects. I prefer to encourage people to write new software to replace established software, rather than rewriting the established software. Some projects, such as Redox, are doing just that with Rust. However, operating systems are in a difficult spot in this respect. Writing an operating system is difficult work with a huge scope — few projects can hope to challenge Linux on driver support, for example. The major players have been entrenched for decades, and any project seeking to displace them will have decades of hard work ahead of them and will require a considerable amount of luck to succeed. Though I think that new innovations in kernels are badly overdue, I must acknowledge that there is some truth to the argument that we’re stuck with Linux. In this framing, if you want Rust to succeed in a kernel, getting it into Linux is the best strategy.

But, on the whole, my opinion is that the benefits of Rust in Linux are negligible and the costs are not. That said, it’s going to happen, and the impact to me is likely to be, at worst, a nuisance. Though I would have chosen differently, I wish them the best of luck and hope to see them succeed.

  1. There are some other arguable benefits which mainly boil down to finding Rust to have a superior language design to C or to be more enjoyable to use. These are subjective and generally are not the most important traits a kernel hacker has to consider when choosing a language, so I’m leaving them aside for now. ↩︎

  2. A portrayal which, though it may have a grain of truth, is largely false and offensive to my sensibilities as a 29-year-old kernel hacker. For the record. ↩︎

  3. A trait which, I will briefly note, is actually desirable for a production kernel implementation. ↩︎

  4. Rust in GCC will help with this problem, but it will likely take several years to materialize and several more years to become stable. Even when this is addressed, rewriting drivers wholesale will be labor intensive and is likely to introduce more problems than solutions — rewrites always introduce bugs. ↩︎

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