Input to functions and methods

Let the client decide when to copy and where to place data. [FIXME: needs RFC]

Copying:

Prefer

fn foo(b: Bar) {
   // use b as owned, directly
}

over

fn foo(b: &Bar) {
    let b = b.clone();
    // use b as owned after cloning
}

If a function requires ownership of a value of unknown type T, but does not otherwise need to make copies, the function should take ownership of the argument (pass by value T) rather than using .clone(). That way, the caller can decide whether to relinquish ownership or to clone.

Similarly, the Copy trait bound should only be demanded it when absolutely needed, not as a way of signaling that copies should be cheap to make.

Placement:

Prefer

fn foo(b: Bar) -> Bar { ... }

over

fn foo(b: Box<Bar>) -> Box<Bar> { ... }

for concrete types Bar (as opposed to trait objects). This way, the caller can decide whether to place data on the stack or heap. No overhead is imposed by letting the caller determine the placement.

Minimize assumptions about parameters. [FIXME: needs RFC]

The fewer assumptions a function makes about its inputs, the more widely usable it becomes.

Minimizing assumptions through generics:

Prefer

fn foo<T: Iterator<int>>(c: T) { ... }

over any of

fn foo(c: &[int]) { ... }
fn foo(c: &Vec<int>) { ... }
fn foo(c: &SomeOtherCollection<int>) { ... }

if the function only needs to iterate over the data.

More generally, consider using generics to pinpoint the assumptions a function needs to make about its arguments.

On the other hand, generics can make it more difficult to read and understand a function's signature. Aim for "natural" parameter types that a neither overly concrete nor overly abstract. See the discussion on traits for more guidance.

Minimizing ownership assumptions:

Prefer either of

fn foo(b: &Bar) { ... }
fn foo(b: &mut Bar) { ... }

over

fn foo(b: Bar) { ... }

That is, prefer borrowing arguments rather than transferring ownership, unless ownership is actually needed.

Prefer compound return types to out-parameters. [FIXME: needs RFC]

Prefer

fn foo() -> (Bar, Bar)

over

fn foo(output: &mut Bar) -> Bar

for returning multiple Bar values.

Compound return types like tuples and structs are efficiently compiled and do not require heap allocation. If a function needs to return multiple values, it should do so via one of these types.

The primary exception: sometimes a function is meant to modify data that the caller already owns, for example to re-use a buffer:

fn read(&mut self, buf: &mut [u8]) -> IoResult<uint>

(From the Reader trait.)

Consider validating arguments, statically or dynamically. [FIXME: needs RFC]

Note: this material is closely related to library-level guarantees.

Rust APIs do not generally follow the robustness principle: "be conservative in what you send; be liberal in what you accept".

Instead, Rust code should enforce the validity of input whenever practical.

Enforcement can be achieved through the following mechanisms (listed in order of preference).

Static enforcement:

Choose an argument type that rules out bad inputs.

For example, prefer

fn foo(a: ascii::Ascii) { ... }

over

fn foo(a: u8) { ... }

Note that ascii::Ascii is a wrapper around u8 that guarantees the highest bit is zero; see newtype patterns for more details on creating typesafe wrappers.

Static enforcement usually comes at little run-time cost: it pushes the costs to the boundaries (e.g. when a u8 is first converted into an Ascii). It also catches bugs early, during compilation, rather than through run-time failures.

On the other hand, some properties are difficult or impossible to express using types.

Dynamic enforcement:

Validate the input as it is processed (or ahead of time, if necessary). Dynamic checking is often easier to implement than static checking, but has several downsides:

  1. Runtime overhead (unless checking can be done as part of processing the input).
  2. Delayed detection of bugs.
  3. Introduces failure cases, either via fail! or Result/Option types (see the error handling guidelines), which must then be dealt with by client code.

Dynamic enforcement with debug_assert!:

Same as dynamic enforcement, but with the possibility of easily turning off expensive checks for production builds.

Dynamic enforcement with opt-out:

Same as dynamic enforcement, but adds sibling functions that opt out of the checking.

The convention is to mark these opt-out functions with a suffix like _unchecked or by placing them in a raw submodule.

The unchecked functions can be used judiciously in cases where (1) performance dictates avoiding checks and (2) the client is otherwise confident that the inputs are valid.

[FIXME] Should opt-out functions be marked unsafe?