Allocating Memory

Using NonNull throws a wrench in an important feature of Vec (and indeed all of the std collections): creating an empty Vec doesn't actually allocate at all. This is not the same as allocating a zero-sized memory block, which is not allowed by the global allocator (it results in undefined behavior!). So if we can't allocate, but also can't put a null pointer in ptr, what do we do in Vec::new? Well, we just put some other garbage in there!

This is perfectly fine because we already have cap == 0 as our sentinel for no allocation. We don't even need to handle it specially in almost any code because we usually need to check if cap > len or len > 0 anyway. The recommended Rust value to put here is mem::align_of::<T>(). NonNull provides a convenience for this: NonNull::dangling(). There are quite a few places where we'll want to use dangling because there's no real allocation to talk about but null would make the compiler do bad things.


use std::mem;

impl<T> Vec<T> {
    pub fn new() -> Self {
        assert!(mem::size_of::<T>() != 0, "We're not ready to handle ZSTs");
        Vec {
            ptr: NonNull::dangling(),
            len: 0,
            cap: 0,
fn main() {}

I slipped in that assert there because zero-sized types will require some special handling throughout our code, and I want to defer the issue for now. Without this assert, some of our early drafts will do some Very Bad Things.

Next we need to figure out what to actually do when we do want space. For that, we use the global allocation functions alloc, realloc, and dealloc which are available in stable Rust in std::alloc. These functions are expected to become deprecated in favor of the methods of std::alloc::Global after this type is stabilized.

We'll also need a way to handle out-of-memory (OOM) conditions. The standard library provides a function alloc::handle_alloc_error, which will abort the program in a platform-specific manner. The reason we abort and don't panic is because unwinding can cause allocations to happen, and that seems like a bad thing to do when your allocator just came back with "hey I don't have any more memory".

Of course, this is a bit silly since most platforms don't actually run out of memory in a conventional way. Your operating system will probably kill the application by another means if you legitimately start using up all the memory. The most likely way we'll trigger OOM is by just asking for ludicrous quantities of memory at once (e.g. half the theoretical address space). As such it's probably fine to panic and nothing bad will happen. Still, we're trying to be like the standard library as much as possible, so we'll just kill the whole program.

Okay, now we can write growing. Roughly, we want to have this logic:

if cap == 0:
    cap = 1
    cap *= 2

But Rust's only supported allocator API is so low level that we'll need to do a fair bit of extra work. We also need to guard against some special conditions that can occur with really large allocations or empty allocations.

In particular, ptr::offset will cause us a lot of trouble, because it has the semantics of LLVM's GEP inbounds instruction. If you're fortunate enough to not have dealt with this instruction, here's the basic story with GEP: alias analysis, alias analysis, alias analysis. It's super important to an optimizing compiler to be able to reason about data dependencies and aliasing.

As a simple example, consider the following fragment of code:

*x *= 7;
*y *= 3;

If the compiler can prove that x and y point to different locations in memory, the two operations can in theory be executed in parallel (by e.g. loading them into different registers and working on them independently). However the compiler can't do this in general because if x and y point to the same location in memory, the operations need to be done to the same value, and they can't just be merged afterwards.

When you use GEP inbounds, you are specifically telling LLVM that the offsets you're about to do are within the bounds of a single "allocated" entity. The ultimate payoff being that LLVM can assume that if two pointers are known to point to two disjoint objects, all the offsets of those pointers are also known to not alias (because you won't just end up in some random place in memory). LLVM is heavily optimized to work with GEP offsets, and inbounds offsets are the best of all, so it's important that we use them as much as possible.

So that's what GEP's about, how can it cause us trouble?

The first problem is that we index into arrays with unsigned integers, but GEP (and as a consequence ptr::offset) takes a signed integer. This means that half of the seemingly valid indices into an array will overflow GEP and actually go in the wrong direction! As such we must limit all allocations to isize::MAX elements. This actually means we only need to worry about byte-sized objects, because e.g. > isize::MAX u16s will truly exhaust all of the system's memory. However in order to avoid subtle corner cases where someone reinterprets some array of < isize::MAX objects as bytes, std limits all allocations to isize::MAX bytes.

On all 64-bit targets that Rust currently supports we're artificially limited to significantly less than all 64 bits of the address space (modern x64 platforms only expose 48-bit addressing), so we can rely on just running out of memory first. However on 32-bit targets, particularly those with extensions to use more of the address space (PAE x86 or x32), it's theoretically possible to successfully allocate more than isize::MAX bytes of memory.

However since this is a tutorial, we're not going to be particularly optimal here, and just unconditionally check, rather than use clever platform-specific cfgs.

The other corner-case we need to worry about is empty allocations. There will be two kinds of empty allocations we need to worry about: cap = 0 for all T, and cap > 0 for zero-sized types.

These cases are tricky because they come down to what LLVM means by "allocated". LLVM's notion of an allocation is significantly more abstract than how we usually use it. Because LLVM needs to work with different languages' semantics and custom allocators, it can't really intimately understand allocation. Instead, the main idea behind allocation is "doesn't overlap with other stuff". That is, heap allocations, stack allocations, and globals don't randomly overlap. Yep, it's about alias analysis. As such, Rust can technically play a bit fast and loose with the notion of an allocation as long as it's consistent.

Getting back to the empty allocation case, there are a couple of places where we want to offset by 0 as a consequence of generic code. The question is then: is it consistent to do so? For zero-sized types, we have concluded that it is indeed consistent to do a GEP inbounds offset by an arbitrary number of elements. This is a runtime no-op because every element takes up no space, and it's fine to pretend that there's infinite zero-sized types allocated at 0x01. No allocator will ever allocate that address, because they won't allocate 0x00 and they generally allocate to some minimal alignment higher than a byte. Also generally the whole first page of memory is protected from being allocated anyway (a whole 4k, on many platforms).

However what about for positive-sized types? That one's a bit trickier. In principle, you can argue that offsetting by 0 gives LLVM no information: either there's an element before the address or after it, but it can't know which. However we've chosen to conservatively assume that it may do bad things. As such we will guard against this case explicitly.


Ok with all the nonsense out of the way, let's actually allocate some memory:

use std::alloc::{self, Layout};

impl<T> Vec<T> {
    fn grow(&mut self) {
        let (new_cap, new_layout) = if self.cap == 0 {
            (1, Layout::array::<T>(1).unwrap())
        } else {
            // This can't overflow since self.cap <= isize::MAX.
            let new_cap = 2 * self.cap;

            // `Layout::array` checks that the number of bytes is <= usize::MAX,
            // but this is redundant since old_layout.size() <= isize::MAX,
            // so the `unwrap` should never fail.
            let new_layout = Layout::array::<T>(new_cap).unwrap();
            (new_cap, new_layout)

        // Ensure that the new allocation doesn't exceed `isize::MAX` bytes.
        assert!(new_layout.size() <= isize::MAX as usize, "Allocation too large");

        let new_ptr = if self.cap == 0 {
            unsafe { alloc::alloc(new_layout) }
        } else {
            let old_layout = Layout::array::<T>(self.cap).unwrap();
            let old_ptr = self.ptr.as_ptr() as *mut u8;
            unsafe { alloc::realloc(old_ptr, old_layout, new_layout.size()) }

        // If allocation fails, `new_ptr` will be null, in which case we abort.
        self.ptr = match NonNull::new(new_ptr as *mut T) {
            Some(p) => p,
            None => alloc::handle_alloc_error(new_layout),
        self.cap = new_cap;
fn main() {}