Embedded Rust in 2018

January 21, 2018 by Jorge Aparicio

This is my #Rust2018 blog post.

These are some things I think the Rust team needs to address this year to make Rust a (more) viable alternative to C/C++ in the area of bare metal (i.e. no_std) embedded applications.


Here’s a list of breakage / regressions I encountered (i.e. that I had to work around / fix) during 2017:

  • Changes in target specification files broke compilation of no_std projects that use custom targets. Happened once or twice this year (it has happened in 2016 too); don’t recall the exact number.

  • Adding column information to panic messages, which changed the signature of panic_fmt, bloated binary size by 200-600%.

  • ThinLTO, which became enabled by default, broke linking in release mode.

  • Parallel codegen, which became enabled by default, broke linking in dev mode.

  • Incremental compilation, which became enabled by default, broke linking in dev mode. Or maybe it was the Termination trait stuff. Neither is the direct cause but either change made an old bug resurface. This is still unfixed and disabling both incremental compilation and parallel codegen is the best way to avoid the problem.

  • The Termination trait broke one of the core crates of the Cortex-M ecosystem (and every other user of the start lang item).

  • A routine dependency update (cargo update) in rust-lang/rust broke one of Xargo use cases. Fixing the issue in Xargo broke another use case. Finally, undoing the fix a few days later fixed both use cases.

  • A change in libcore broke compilation of it for ARMv6-M and MSP430, and probably other custom targets. This happened twice.

  • I recall some breakage related to compiler-builtins but don’t remember the details.

Note that only two of these are actually related to feature gated language features (start and panic_fmt). Target specification files are not feature gated even though they are considered unstable by the Rust team.

Ideally, this list should be empty this year. As others have expressed it’s demotivating to come back to a project after a while and see that it no longer builds. And this instability can be exhausting for library crate authors / maintainers, let me explain:

If a library crate has 10 users those users can potentially use up to 10 different nightly versions at any point in time. The bigger this nightly spread the higher the chance of (a) users reporting issues, which usually are rustc issues or language level breaking changes, that occur on nightlies newer than the one the crate author tested, and of (b) users reporting already fixed issues that occur on nightlies older than the one the author tested.

I’ve seen some people suggest pinning crates to some specific nightly version using a rust-toolchain file as a solution to the stability problem. That may work for projects centered around binary crates like Servo and for projects that use monorepos like Tock but it doesn’t work for library crates because the rust-toolchain files of dependencies are ignored.

Library authors could enforce their crates to only build for a certain range of nightlies by checking the compiler version in their crate build script but that makes them less composable: a downstream user may not be able to use your crate if they are also using some other crate that restricts its use to a range of nightlies incompatible with your crate’s restrictions. There are other issues as well: I actually tried this approach and broke the docs.rs build of my cortex-m-rt crate and the docs.rs builds of all the reverse dependencies of my crate.

Establishing a first line of defense

Around half of the issues in my 2017 list were eventually fixed in rustc or in the std facade and required no modification of user code. These issues could have been spotted and fixed by Rust developers before they landed if the Rust test system incorporated building some embedded crates as one of its tests.

Of course, compiler development should not be halted because some crate stops compiling due to a breaking change in an unstable feature. In those cases, the result of building that crate should explicitly marked as “ignore” to let the PR land.

Being able to ignore a failed build seems to defeat the purpose but even in that scenario this system serves as a way to notify the crate author about the upcoming breakage; that way they can start taking measures before the PR lands.

There’s a mechanism for temporarily ignoring some parts of a CI build already in rust-lang/rust (it’s used to test the RLS, clippy, etc.) that could be could be used for this purpose.

Stabilization in baby steps

The ultimate solution to the instability problem is to make embedded development possible on stable. Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to be accomplished in a single year: the number of unstable features used in embedded development is not only long but also includes the hardest ones to stabilize: language items, features for low level control of symbols, features tightly coupled to the backend, etc.

Still, that doesn’t mind we shouldn’t make some progress this year. I think we can attack stabilization from two fronts: (a) get embedded no-std libraries working on stable, and (b) get a minimal no-std binary working on stable.

The feature list for (a) is not that long and it probably overlaps with the needs of non embedded developers. The list contains:

  • Xargo.
  • const fn
  • asm!

There may be more features but those are the most common.

The feature list for (b) in short:

  • Xargo
  • panic_fmt

That should be enough for applications where the boot sequence and compiler intrinsics are written in C (e.g. when you link to newlibc, a libc for embedded systems). If you want to do everything in Rust while providing the functionality you would get from newlib then the list becomes much longer:

  • The compiler_builtins library
  • #[start] entry point
  • #[used]
  • Termination trait (this wasn’t in last year list ….)
  • #[linkage = "weak"]

But I think it makes sense to start with the short version first.

How can we tackle the most pressing unstable features?


Xargo only works on nightly so if you it need for development you are stuck with nightly. The general fix is to land Xargo functionality in Cargo and then stabilize it. But a more targeted and faster fix would be to make a rust-core component available for some embedded targets, thumbv7m-none-eabi for example.

The Cargo team has expressed their intention on working on the general fix this year so we should see some progress.

const fn

I know the plan is to swap the current const evaluator with miri to make const evaluation more powerful. Personally, I wouldn’t want that improvement to delay stabilization of the const fn feature. Even in its current state, where it can only evaluate expression and other calls to const fn, const fn is already very useful and widely used. I’d like to see the current, limited form stabilized sometime this year and the miri version behind a feature gate.


I saw someone posted an asm! like macro that works on stable by compiling external assembly files and using FFI to call into them. Unfortunately, that solution is not appropriate for this application space, for several reasons:

  • These assembly invocations can’t be inlined (FFI works at the symbol level) so they will always have a function call indirection. no_std embedded applications are both performance and binary size sensitive; the indirection would put us behind C / C++ in both aspects.

  • The function call indirection also makes impossible to have safe wrappers around things like “read the Program Counter”, or “read the Link Register”. It also reduces the effectiveness of breakpoint instructions: the debugger ends in the wrong stack frame.

  • You can’t do global_asm! because of the FFI call. We use global_asm! in the ARM Cortex-M space to implement weak aliasing since the language doesn’t have support for it (C does).

  • This adds a dependency on an external assembler or, worst, a C compiler (the implementation used a C compiler last time I checked). I would consider that a tooling regression. Today, building ARM Cortex-M applications only requires an external linker and we use ld, not gcc. LLD also works as a linker and as soon as LLD lands in rustc Cortex-M builds won’t require any external tool.

Bottom line: we need proper inline assembly to be stabilized. And, yes, I know it’s hard; which is why I don’t have any suggestion here :-).


I wrote an RFC for adding a stable mechanism to specify panicking behavior in no_std applications that would remove the need for the panic_fmt lang item. The RFC has been accepted but it has not been implemented yet. If you are looking for ways to help solve the instability problem implementing that RFC would be a great contribution!

The no_std / std gap

Only a small fragment of crates.io ecosystem is no_std compatible but there are several crates in the std-only category that could become no_std compatible:

  • Some std-only crates can become no_std compatible simply by adding #![no_std] to the source code. Many times this wasn’t done from the beginning because the author wasn’t aware it was possible or because #![no_std] wasn’t a priority for them.

  • Some std-only crates only depend on re-exported things that are defined in the core and collections crates. These could become no_std compatible by adding a "std" Cargo feature, #[cfg(not(std))] extern collections, and a few other #[cfg] statements here and there.

  • Some std-only crates depend on abstractions, like CStr and HashMap, that are defined in std but that don’t depend on OS abstractions like threads, sockets, etc.. This situation has led no_std developers to fork these std abstractions to make them no_std compatible (cf. cstr_core and hashmap_core) with the goal of making these crates.io crates no_std compatible.

Making a crate no_std compatible needs to become simpler to avoid the scenario where people prefer to create a new no_std compatible crate instead of making the ones already published no_std compatible.

I don’t have good suggestions here. Perhaps the first scenario could be improved with some rustc / clippy lint that points out that the crate can be marked as no_std compatible. The second and third scenarios might be addressed by the portable lint stuff, but I’m not familiar with that feature.

UPDATE(2018-01-22) I think this comment by /u/Zoxc32 would be a great solution to the last two scenarios.

Better IDE support

Another thing that C embedded developers are used to work with are IDEs with integrated embedded tooling: register views, tracing and profiling. Of course, I’m not going to ask the Rust team to implement embedded tooling but improvements to the RLS improve the IDE experience for everyone so those are very welcome.

Code completion

I’m personally really looking forward to awesome code completion support in the RLS. Recently I’ve been writing some crates using svd2rust generated APIs and I’m afraid to admit that I had to disable auto completion because it was slowing down my coding with delays of around one second and because it didn’t provide assistance where I needed it (it didn’t suggest methods). svd2rust generated crates are huge though; they usually contain thousands of structs, each one with a handful of methods. I hope RLS powered code completion will be able to handle them!

Language features

In embedded programs we tend to use a bunch of static variables. There are still some limitations around static variables but some planned features would solve them. I’m personally looking forward to these features:

impl Trait everywhere

As I mentioned in my previous blog post we want to write generic async drivers but to do that we need traits whose methods return generators and that doesn’t work right now so we are blocked on that front.

trait Write {
    fn write_all<B>(
        buffer: B,
    ) -> impl Generator<Return = (Self, B), Yield = ()> where ..;
    // `-> Box<..>` would work but don't want to depend on a memory allocator

There’s also a use case for storing generators in static variables. That could potentially let us write reactive code (code that gets dispatched in interrupt handlers) in a more natural way (“straight line” code). Today, that reactive style requires hand writing state machines.

// Some DSL (macro) could expand to something like this

static mut GN: Option<impl Generator<Return = (), Yield = ()>> = None;

fn interrupt_handler() {
    // do some magic with `GN`

Const generics

Often we need collections like Vecs and queues with fixed, known at compile time, capacities. Those collections internally use arrays as buffers and need to have their capacity (the array size) parametrized in their types. The problem is that the capacity is a number not a type.

I tried using AsRef and AsMut as bounds but they didn’t cut it because they are limited to arrays of 32 elements.

fn example<T>(xs: &T) where
    T: AsRef<[u8]>,
    // ..

let xs = [0; 33];
//~^ error: `AsRef<[u8]>` not implemented for `[u8; 33]`

So I’m currently using the Unsize trait and it works for arrays of any size but it’s a hack (not its intended usage) and it makes type signatures weird.

struct Vec<T, B>
    B: Unsize<[T]>,
    buffer: B, // B is effectively `[T; N]`
    /* .. */

impl<T, B> Vec<T, B>
    B: Unsize<[T]>,
    fn pop(&mut self) -> Option<T> {
        // unsize the array
        let slice: &mut [T] = &mut self.array;
        // ..

fn example(xs: &mut Vec<u8, [u8; 33]>) { .. }
//                      odd ^^^^^^^^

With const generics we would be able to directly parametrize the capacity in the Vec type:

struct Vec<T, const N: usize> {
    buffer: [T; N],
    /* .. */

fn example(xs: &mut Vec<u8, 33>) { .. }
//                   better ^^

This one’s not a blocker but would be nice to have. We only need the most basic version of const generics, which has already been accepted, so I’m hoping it gets implemented sooner than latter.

That’s my wishlist for the Rust team. Let’s make 2018 a great year for embedded Rust!

Let’s discuss on reddit.


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Jorge Aparicio