Armin Ronacher's Thoughts and Writings

A Better Way to Borrow in Rust: Stack Tokens

written on Wednesday, November 23, 2022

As a Rust programmer you are probably quite familiar with how references work in Rust. If you have a value of type T you can generally get various references to it by using the ampersand (&) operator on it. In the most trivial case &T gives you just that: a reference to T. There are however cases where you can get something else. For instance String implements Deref<Target=&str> which lets you also get a &str from it and that system also can be extended to work with mutable references as well.

This dereferencing system also lets one work through another type. For instance mutexes in Rust are pretty convenient as a result:

let value: Mutex<u32> = Mutex::new(0);

// acquire the mutex into a guard object
let guard = value.lock()?;

// this "derefs" the guard into &mut u32
*guard += 42;

There are however cases where this neat system does not work: in particular you probably ran into this limitation with thread locals. You would expect a thread local to work this way:

thread_local! {
    static value: RefCell<u32> = RefCell::new(0);

// borrow the cell and write into it.
*value.borrow_mut() += 42;

However unfortunately a thread local (called a LocalKey) does not implement Deref. Instead you have to do this:

thread_local! {
    static value: RefCell<u32> = RefCell::new(0);

// borrow the cell and write into it.
value.with(|value| {
    *value.borrow_mut() += 42;

And it annoys me a lot. It's annoying not only with thread locals but also many other situations where you really would like to be able to deref but it's not possible. But why is that? And is there a better way?

The Leakage Problem

I maintain a crate called fragile. The purpose of this crate is allow you to do something that Rust doesn't want you to do: to send a non Send-able type safely to other threads. That sounds like a terrible idea, but there are legitimate reasons for doing this and there are benefits to it.

There are lots of interfaces that through abstractions require that your types are Send and Sync which means that it needs to be send-able to another thread and self synchronized. In that case you are required to provide a type that fulfills this purpose. But what if the type does not actually cross a thread boundary or not in all cases?

A common use for this are errors. Most error interfaces require that errors are Send and Sync. Yet sometimes auxiliary information that you want to provide just doesn't want to be this. My crates lets you put a reference to that into your error anyways and you can at runtime safely access the value for as long as you are on the same thread.

It accomplishes this in two ways with two different types:

  • Fragile puts the value into type itself and lets you send a value into another thread and back. Crucially you need to send it back if your value has a destructor because if the value gets dropped on the wrong thread fragile will abort your process.
  • Sticky is similar, but it puts the value into a thread local instead. For as long as you are on the same thread you can access your value just fine, on another thread it will error. Crucially though if the type gets dropped on the wrong thread it will temporarily leak until the originating thread shuts down and clears up the value. Not great, but quite useful for some cases.

For Fragile you can do this:

let val = Fragile::new(true);
assert_eq!(*val.get(), true);

This works, because the value is implicitly constrained by the lifetime of the encapsulating object. However for Sticky an issue arises and it has to do with intentional leakage. Rust permits any object to live for as long as the process does by explicit leakage with the Box::leak API. In that case you get a 'static lifetime. Because Sticky does not directly own the data it points to, this means that through that API you can make the lifetime of the Sticky outlast the backing data which is in the thread. This means that if Sticky had the same API as Fragile you could create a crash in no time:

// establish a channel to send data from the thread back
let (tx, rx) = std::sync::mpsc::channel();

std::thread::spawn(move || {
    // this creates a sticky
    let sticky = Box::new(Sticky::new(Box::new(true)));

    // leaks it
    let static_sticky = Box::leak(sticky);

    // and sets the now &'static lifetime to the contained value back

// debug printing will crash, because the thread shut down and the
// reference points to invalid memory in the former thread's TLS

This obviously is a problem and embarassingly that was missed entirely when the API was first created.

This is the same reason why thread locals won't let you deref something. Because you could put something in there which gets leaked to 'static lifetime and then the thread comes in and cleans up.

Lifetime Reduction

The reason with() gets around this is that it can guarantee that a reference that it passes to the closure, cannot escape it. This works, but it's incredibly inconvenient. Here an example from MiniJinja about how annoying this API really can be:

pub(crate) fn with<R, F: FnOnce() -> R>(f: F) -> R {
    STRING_KEY_CACHE.with(|cache| {
        STRING_KEY_CACHE_DEPTH.with(|depth| {
            // do something here

This is quite a lot of rightward drift. I need two nested functions to access two thread locals. Incidently I also create a similar API frustration to my caller because internally I need to do work that needs cleaning up.

Surely there must be a better way? And I believe there is. We should be able to let the user "prove" that their lifetime is not 'static. For that we just need to create a utility vehicle that can never be 'static and then that non static reference can be passed to all functions to entangle the lifetimes accordingly.

Introducing Stack Tokens

The solution in fragile uses zero sized token objects on the stack to accomplish this. A StackToken is a value that cannot be safely constructed, it can only be created through a macro on the stack which immediately takes a reference:

pub struct StackToken {
    _marker: std::marker::PhantomData<*const ()>,

impl StackToken {
    pub unsafe fn __private_new() -> StackToken {
        StackToken {
            _marker: std::marker::PhantomData,

macro_rules! stack_token {
    ($name:ident) => {
        let $name = &unsafe { $crate::StackToken::__private_new() };

The stack token itself is zero sized so it occupies no space. It also is !Send and !Sync. That it's !Sync is important. There are two things that matter: one is that this type cannot be safely constructed. The only way to get one is the stack_token! macro:


This will create basically a let &scope = StackToken { ... } on the stack safely. From that point onwards any function that receives a &StackToken can be assured that this has a lifetime that is never static and constrained to a stack frame. The token expresses basically that the thread lifes for at least as long as the lifetime of that borrow. Since threads won't randomly shut down and clean up the stack while code still references it, this lets us create safe borrowing APIs like this:

pub fn get<'stack>(&'stack self, _proof: &'stack StackToken) -> &'stack T;

With this trick the lifetime is constrained and we are allowed to give out references to the thread local which is exactly what Sticky does. So you can use it like this:

let val = Sticky::new(true);
assert_eq!(*val.get(scope), true);

And a hypothetical thread local API supporting stack tokens would change the example from above to this:

pub(crate) fn with<R, F: FnOnce() -> R>(f: F) -> R {
    let cache = STRING_KEY_CACHE.get(scope);
    let depth = STRING_KEY_CACHE_DEPTH.get(scope);
    // do something here

Language Support

In some ways it would be really nice to be able to have first class support for this. In the same way as 'static is a special lifetime, one could imagine there was a 'caller or 'stack lifetime that does this automatically for us:

pub fn get(&'caller self) -> &'caller T;

In that case we wouldn't need to create this token at all. However there are some questions with that, in particular to which scope this should point when nested scopes are involved.

However even without syntax support maybe it would be conceivable to have a standardized way to restrict lifetimes without having to use closures by having something like an explicit StackToken as part of the standard library. Then also the build-in thread locals could provide access through such an API. Here is what this could look like.


So here is an important question: is this sound? The answer is “unclear” as it makes a statement about relationships of stacks to threads that's not entirely explored. To quote Ralf Jung on a reddit thread about this topic:

So this is yet another case where Rust will have to decide -- either Stack Tokens are sound, or mk_static is sound, but not both.

What is mk_static? mk_static is a hypothetical function that lets you make any reference static for as long as you're guaranteed not to return:

pub fn mk_static<T: 'static>(t: &T, f: impl FnOnce(&'static T)) {
    struct DropBomb;
    impl Drop for DropBomb {
        fn drop(&mut self) {

    let _bomb = DropBomb;
    f(unsafe { std::mem::transmute(t)});

If such an API was sound then it would render the guarantees that stack tokens want invalid. So today neither of those things are clear, but one of them would have to be declared invalid for the other to work.

On a personal level I find the possibilities that stack tokens provide to be more valuable than mk_static but there are probably reasons to decide either way.