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Structure and Organisation of Rustc

This is the second part of a planned series about rustc, the Rust compiler

This post is going to discuss the structure and organisation of rustc, covering the major moving parts and how they interact. I’ll start, of course, where it starts, and ending, of course, where it ends.

rustc is a fairly large, complex beast. Unless otherwise mentioned, all paths are relative to src/librustc. If you’re unfamiliar with Rust, a “crate” is a compilation unit: a library or an executable.


The entry point, run_compiler in, does argument parsing, using extra::getopts and calls into the driver, in driver/, which coordinates the various pieces of the compiler and the rest of the argument parsing. The key data structure here is the Session, which you can find (along with a bunch of other things like the option context) in driver/ Back to the driver, the function compile_input is where most of the magic happens. This function runs all the various passes over the crate. It starts with parsing and macro expansion and moves onto various static analysis of the code to make sure it is correct, finally generating LLVM IR (intermediate representation), running LLVM optimizations, and linking the final binary.

An interlude

If you’re not familiar with compilers, you might find this process a labyrinthine fractal of complexity. Which it is, don’t get me wrong. But the various pieces of the rust compiler are fairly well separated, even if they are complex. The basic structure of a compiler is operations on a tree data structure representing the crate called an AST or Abstract Syntax Tree. An AST is the output of parsing, and everything in the compiler is transforms or analysis of this tree. Once everything is done, it takes this AST and translates it into LLVM IR. This is probably the most hairy part of the compiler, and it lives in middle/trans. LLVM IR is a representation of code that the LLVM library can operate on to optimize and generate native machine code. LLVM does most of the heavy lifting that a traditional compiler would need to do (optimization and codegen), so the rest of rustc is largely dedicated to actually dealing with Rust programs.

Parsing + expansion

Parsing and macro expansion happen in src/libsyntax, so all paths in this section will be relative to that. This corresponds to phase_1_parse_input and phase_2_configure_and_expand. Phase 1 does the parsing, and results in an AST. If you want, you can look into parse/ for the parse_crate_mod method. Very rarely will one have to modify the parser. The most important part of the parser, from an outsider’s perspective, is in The codemap has the concept of a “span”, which is a piece of source code, represented by a start and an end. Whenever you see an error and a squiggly line underneath where the error happenes, that is the result of a span. Almost everything in the AST has a span.

After phase 1 comes, of course, phase 2. Phase 2 is what does macro expansion, deriving implementations, and removal of items which are conditionally included with the cfg attribute. This all happens in the ext directory. Personally I haven’t poked around too much at how macros work, but things to note are,,, and the deriving directory. These do cfg!, asm!, format! (and friends), and #[deriving(...)], respectively.

If you’re curious how a syntax extension works, is a good example. In the expand_env function, it takes the syntax extension context (cx), a span of the macro invocation, and the “token tree” that the macro was invoked with. When you do foo!(....), the .... is the token tree. It checks the structure of the token tree (it expects either one or two arguments), and then returns the environment variable referenced by constructing an ast::Expr, using the ExtCtxt to mark that the expression came from the given span. This is so the compiler can track which span a piece of macro-generated code initially came from, for better error reporting.

You might notice that phase 2 actually runs the configuration step twice. This is so that macros that expand to items with a cfg attribute also get removed from the final output.


Phase 3, the analysis phases, is the real meat of rustc. All of this code lives in middle. The most important passes are probably typeck, the type checker; resolve, the name resolver; borrowck, the borrow checker; and lint, the lint runner. Not to say the other passes aren’t important, but they’re less frequently worked or worried about by mere mortals such as myself.


trans is the part of the compiler that takes the AST from syntax as well as the tables created by analysis and outputs LLVM IR. All of this happens in middle/trans. There is a lot of code, and I’ve never actually been able to figure out which piece generates what.


That’s my basic overview of how the compiler is structured. If you want something added, or as questions get asked, I’ll fill in more information. The analysis and trans sections are sparse as I’ve little experience with them.