# Elegant and performant recursion in Rust

This is a post about writing elegant and performant recursive algorithms in Rust. It makes heavy use of a pattern from Haskell called recursion schemes, but you don’t need to know anything about that; it’s just an implementation detail. Instead, as motivation, I have benchmarks showing a 14-34% improvement over the typical boxed pointer representation of recursive data structures in Rust.

# Performance test results

These test results show a performance improvement of 34% for evaluating a very large expression tree (131072 elements, recursive depth 17). They were run on a 6th generation X1 carbon laptop with an Intel i7-8550U with 8MB CPU cache:

The same tests, when run on an AMD Ryzen 9 3900X CPU with more than 64MB total cache (L1/L2/L3), still show a 14% speed improvement over the usual method.

# Evaluating an expression language

We’re going to start with a simple expression language: addition, subtraction, multiplication – just enough to illustrate some concepts. You’ve probably seen something like this before, but if not, it’s just a way to represent simple arithmetic as a tree of expressions. For example, an expression like 1 * (2 - 3) would be written as (pseudocode) Mul(1, Sub(2, 3)).

#[derive(Debug, Clone)]
pub enum ExprBoxed {
a: Box<ExprBoxed>,
b: Box<ExprBoxed>,
},
Sub {
a: Box<ExprBoxed>,
b: Box<ExprBoxed>,
},
Mul {
a: Box<ExprBoxed>,
b: Box<ExprBoxed>,
},
LiteralInt {
literal: i64,
},
}


This is a recursive expression language that uses boxed pointers to handle the recursive case. If you’re not familiar with boxed pointers, a Box<A> is just the Rust way of storing a pointer to some value of type A - think of it as a box with a value of type A inside it. (If you’re curious, there’s more documentation here)

Using this data structure, we can write Mul(1, Sub(2, 3)) as:

ExprBoxed::Mul {
a: Box::new(ExprBoxed::LiteralInt { literal: 1 }),
b: Box::new(ExprBoxed::Sub {
a: Box::new(ExprBoxed::LiteralInt { literal: 2 }),
b: Box::new(ExprBoxed::LiteralInt { literal: 3 }),
}),
}


Evaluating expressions is pretty simple - it’s just addition, subtraction, and multiplication. This recursive eval function provides a fairly elegant and readable example of a recursive algorithm:

impl ExprBoxed {
pub fn eval(&self) -> i64 {
match &self {
ExprBoxed::Add { a, b } => a.eval() + b.eval(),
ExprBoxed::Sub { a, b } => a.eval() - b.eval(),
ExprBoxed::Mul { a, b } => a.eval() * b.eval(),
ExprBoxed::LiteralInt { literal } => *literal,
}
}
}


This algorithm has some issues:

• If we try to evaluate a sufficiently large expression it will fail with a stack overflow - we’re not likely to hit that case here, but this is a real problem when working with larger recursive data structures.
• Each recursive eval call requires us to traverse a boxed pointer. This means we can’t take advantage of cache locality - there’s no guarantee that all these boxed pointers live in the same region of memory. 1

## A more cache-local structure

We can fix that by writing an expression language using a Vec of individual expression nodes (guaranteeing memory locality), with boxed pointers replaced with newtype-wrapped vector indices.

#[derive(Debug, Clone, Copy)]
pub enum ExprLayer<A> {
Add { a: A, b: A },
Sub { a: A, b: A },
Mul { a: A, b: A },
LiteralInt { literal: i64 },
}

#[derive(Eq, Hash, PartialEq)]
pub struct ExprIdx(usize);
impl ExprIdx {
fn head() -> Self {
ExprIdx(0)
}
}

pub struct ExprTopo {
// nonempty, in topological-sorted order. guaranteed via construction.
elems: Vec<ExprLayer<ExprIdx>>,
}


You might have noticed that we have used a generic parameter A rather than simply writing ExprLayer<ExprIdx>. Put a pin in that for now, we’ll come back to that soon.

All our expressions are now guaranteed to be stored in local memory. Here’s a sketch showing what the Mul(1, Sub(2, 3)) expression would look like using this data structure.

[
idx_0:    Mul(idx_1, idx_2)
idx_1:    LiteralInt(1)
idx_2:    Sub(idx_3, idx_4)
idx_3:    LiteralInt(2)
idx_4:    LiteralInt(3)
]


The nodes are stored in topological order, which means that for each node, all of its child nodes are stored at larger indices. To evaluate an ExprTopo, we can perform bottom up recursion: collapse leaf values into their parents, one ExprLayer at a time, until the entire ExprTopo structure has been collpased into a single value. Since it’s topologically sorted, we can do this by iterating over the element vector in reverse order.

Let’s see what evaluating this structure looks like in practice. It’s not elegant. There’s a bunch of unsafe code, but it does have better performance in benchmarks. Feel free to skim; in the next section we’ll introduce an elegant API that removes the need to write unsafe code.

impl ExprTopo {
fn eval(self) -> i64 {
use std::mem::MaybeUninit;

let mut results = std::iter::repeat_with(|| MaybeUninit::<i64>::uninit())
.take(self.elems.len())
.collect::<Vec<_>>();

fn get_result_unsafe(results: &mut Vec<MaybeUninit<i64>>, idx: ExprIdx) -> i64 {
unsafe {
let maybe_uninit =
std::mem::replace(results.get_unchecked_mut(idx.0), MaybeUninit::uninit());
maybe_uninit.assume_init()
}
}

for (idx, node) in self.elems.into_iter().enumerate().rev() {
let result = {
// each node is only referenced once so just remove it, also we know it's there so unsafe is fine
match node {
ExprLayer::Add { a, b } => {
let a = get_result_unsafe(&mut results, a);
let b = get_result_unsafe(&mut results, b);
a + b
}
ExprLayer::Sub { a, b } => {
let a = get_result_unsafe(&mut results, a);
let b = get_result_unsafe(&mut results, b);
a - b
}
ExprLayer::Mul { a, b } => {
let a = get_result_unsafe(&mut results, a);
let b = get_result_unsafe(&mut results, b);
a * b
}
ExprLayer::LiteralInt { literal } => literal,
}
};
results[idx].write(result);
}

unsafe {
let maybe_uninit =
std::mem::replace(results.get_unchecked_mut(0), MaybeUninit::uninit());
maybe_uninit.assume_init()
}
}
}


The problem here is that this is very difficult to read and write. Imagine having to write all of this by hand, for each recursive function. It would be tedious at best and error prone at worst.

## Factoring out duplicated code

Every arm of the above match statement (except for LiteralInt) calls get_result_unsafe in pretty much the same way. We can start by factoring that out.

Now you can see why we made ExprLayer<A> parameterized over some A. Since it is parameterized over some A, we can apply a function to each A inside it, turning it into an ExprLayer<B>. We’re going to write some code that’s very similar to Option::map in the standard library.

impl<A> ExprLayer<A> {
#[inline(always)]
fn map<B, F: FnMut(A) -> B>(self, mut f: F) -> ExprLayer<B> {
match self {
ExprLayer::Add { a, b } => ExprLayer::Add { a: f(a), b: f(b) },
ExprLayer::Sub { a, b } => ExprLayer::Sub { a: f(a), b: f(b) },
ExprLayer::Mul { a, b } => ExprLayer::Mul { a: f(a), b: f(b) },
ExprLayer::LiteralInt { literal } => ExprLayer::LiteralInt { literal },
}
}
}


If you’re familiar with functional languages, this is basically just fmap.3

Now, we can write something like this:

impl ExprTopo {
fn eval(self) -> i64 {
use std::mem::MaybeUninit;

let mut results = std::iter::repeat_with(|| MaybeUninit::<i64>::uninit())
.take(self.elems.len())
.collect::<Vec<_>>();

for (idx, layer) in self.elems.into_iter().enumerate().rev() {
let layer: ExprLayer<i64> = layer.map(|idx| unsafe {
let maybe_uninit =
std::mem::replace(results.get_unchecked_mut(idx.0), MaybeUninit::uninit());
maybe_uninit.assume_init()
});

let result = match layer {
ExprLayer::Add { a, b } => a + b,
ExprLayer::Sub { a, b } => a - b,
ExprLayer::Mul { a, b } => a * b,
ExprLayer::LiteralInt { literal } => literal,
};
results[idx].write(result);
}

unsafe {
let maybe_uninit =
maybe_uninit.assume_init()
}
}
}


## Making it generic

Ok, that’s a start. Unfortunately, we still have to write all this boilerplate for every recursive function, even though the only part that really matters is this block:

let result = match layer {
ExprLayer::Add { a, b } => a + b
ExprLayer::Sub { a, b } => a - b
ExprLayer::Mul { a, b } => a * b
ExprLayer::LiteralInt { literal } => literal,
}


This code takes layer, a value of type ExprLayer<i64>, and consumes it to create result, a value of type i64. What if, instead of ExprLayer<i64> -> i64, we use a function of type ExprLayer<A> -> A?

This function lets us provide an arbitrary function of type ExprLayer<A> -> A and uses it to collapse all the layers in an ExprTopo structure into a single value:

impl ExprTopo {
fn collapse_layers<F: FnMut(ExprLayer<A>) -> A>(self, mut collapse_layer: F) -> A {
use std::mem::MaybeUninit;

let mut results = std::iter::repeat_with(|| MaybeUninit::<A>::uninit())
.take(self.elems.len())
.collect::<Vec<_>>();

for (idx, layer) in self.elems.into_iter().enumerate().rev() {
let result = {
let layer = layer.map(|x| unsafe {
let maybe_uninit =
std::mem::replace(results.get_unchecked_mut(x.0), MaybeUninit::uninit());
maybe_uninit.assume_init()
});
collapse_layer(layer)
};
results[idx].write(result);
}

unsafe {
let maybe_uninit =
maybe_uninit.assume_init()
}
}
}


Nice. Now we can write:

impl ExprTopo {
pub fn eval(self) -> i64 {
self.collapse_layers(|expr| match expr {
ExprLayer::Add { a, b } => a + b,
ExprLayer::Sub { a, b } => a - b,
ExprLayer::Mul { a, b } => a * b,
ExprLayer::LiteralInt { literal } => literal,
})
}
}


It’s pretty much the same logic as the original eval functions, without any of the boilerplate. Since there’s less boilerplate, it’s easier to review and there’s less room for bugs. Also, it retains all the performance benefits of the previous eval implementation - it’s both more elegant and more performant than the traditional representation of recursive expression trees in rust.

# Constructing Exprs

Let’s write a function to build an ExprTopo value from the ExprBoxed representation. Just as before, map helps us keep it concise. Feel free to skim this one too, we’ll be abstracting over the specifics just like we did with collapse_layers:

impl ExprTopo {
fn from_boxed(seed: &ExprBoxed) -> Self {
let mut frontier: VecDeque<&ExprBoxed> = VecDeque::from([seed]);
let mut elems = vec![];

// expand layers to build a vec of elems while preserving topo order
while let Some(seed) = { frontier.pop_front() } {
let layer = match seed {
ExprBoxed::Add { a, b } => ExprLayer::Add { a, b },
ExprBoxed::Sub { a, b } => ExprLayer::Sub { a, b },
ExprBoxed::Mul { a, b } => ExprLayer::Mul { a, b },
ExprBoxed::LiteralInt { literal } => ExprLayer::LiteralInt { literal: *literal },
};
let layer = layer.map(|seed| {
frontier.push_back(seed);
// idx of pointed-to element determined from frontier + elems size
ExprIdx(elems.len() + frontier.len())
});

elems.push(layer);
}

Self { elems }
}
}


## Making it generic

Just as with collapse_layers, we only really care about the match expression here:

let layer = match seed {
ExprBoxed::Add { a, b } => ExprLayer::Add { a, b },
ExprBoxed::Sub { a, b } => ExprLayer::Sub { a, b },
ExprBoxed::Mul { a, b } => ExprLayer::Mul { a, b },
ExprBoxed::LiteralInt { literal } => ExprLayer::LiteralInt { literal: *literal },
};


This matches on seed, a value of type &ExprBoxed, and consumes it to create layer, a value of type ExprLayer<i64ExprBoxed>. What if, instead of i64ExprBoxed -> ExprLayer<i64ExprBoxed>, we use a function of type A -> ExprLayer<A>?

Fortunately, just as with collapse_layers, we can separate the machinery of recursion from the actual recursive (or, in this case, co-recursive) logic.

impl ExprTopo {
fn expand_layers<A, F: Fn(A) -> ExprLayer<A>>(seed: A, expand_layer: F) -> Self {
let mut frontier = VecDeque::from([seed]);
let mut elems = vec![];

// repeatedly expand layers to build a vec of elems while preserving topo order
while let Some(seed) = frontier.pop_front() {
let layer = expand_layer(seed);

let layer = layer.map(|seed| {
frontier.push_back(seed);
// idx of pointed-to element determined from frontier + elems size
ExprIdx(elems.len() + frontier.len())
});

elems.push(layer);
}

Self { elems }
}
}


This lets us write from_boxed as:

impl ExprTopo {
pub fn from_boxed(ast: &ExprBoxed) -> Self {
Self::expand_layers(ast, |seed| match seed {
ExprBoxed::Add { a, b } => ExprLayer::Add { a, b },
ExprBoxed::Sub { a, b } => ExprLayer::Sub { a, b },
ExprBoxed::Mul { a, b } => ExprLayer::Mul { a, b },
ExprBoxed::LiteralInt { literal } => ExprLayer::LiteralInt { literal: *literal },
})
}
}


Nice and, as promised, elegant.

# Testing for Correctness

I used proptest to test this code for correctness. It generates many expression trees, each of which is evaluated via both eval methods. I then assert that they have the same result. 4

This actually helped me find a bug! In my first implementation of expand, I used a stack instead of a queue for the frontier, which ended up mangling the order of the expression tree. Since proptest is awesome, it not only found this bug but reduced the failing test case to Add (0, Sub(0, 1)).

// generate a bunch of expression trees and evaluate them via each method
#[cfg(test)]
proptest! {
#[test]
fn expr_eval(boxed_expr in arb_expr()) {
let eval_boxed = boxed_expr.eval();
let eval_via_collapse = ExprTopo::from_boxed(&boxed_expr).eval();

assert_eq!(eval_boxed, eval_via_collapse);
}
}

#[cfg(test)]
pub fn arb_expr() -> impl Strategy<Value = ExprBoxed> {
let leaf = any::<i8>().prop_map(|x| ExprBoxed::LiteralInt { literal: x as i64 });
leaf.prop_recursive(
8,   // 8 levels deep
256, // Shoot for maximum size of 256 nodes
10,  // We put up to 10 items per collection
|inner| {
prop_oneof![
(inner.clone(), inner.clone()).prop_map(|(a, b)| ExprBoxed::Add {
a: Box::new(a),
b: Box::new(b)
}),
(inner.clone(), inner.clone()).prop_map(|(a, b)| ExprBoxed::Sub {
a: Box::new(a),
b: Box::new(b)
}),
(inner.clone(), inner).prop_map(|(a, b)| ExprBoxed::Mul {
a: Box::new(a),
b: Box::new(b)
}),
]
},
)
}


# Testing for performance

For performance testing, we used criterion to benchmark the simple ExprBoxed::eval vs ExprTopo::eval. This code basically just builds up a really big (as in, 131072 nodes) recursive structure (using expand/collapse, because they’re honestly really convenient) and evaluates it a bunch of times. I also ran this test on recursive structures of other sizes, because graphs are cool. You can find the benchmarks defined here.

Evaluating a boxed expression of depth 17 takes an average 733 µs. Evaluating an expression stored in our ExprTopo takes an average of 482 µs. That’s a 34% improvement. Running these tests with expression trees of different depths generated via the above method yields similar results. The standard boxed method is slightly faster for expression trees of size 256 or less. That said, this test provides pretty much optimal conditions with regard to pointer locality, because there are no other heap allocations to fragment things and force the boxed pointers to use different regions of memory.

# To be continued

We started with a simplified non-generic version of this algorithm to build understanding. In future blog posts, I plan on showing how I made it generic, going into more detail on how I optimized it for performance (MaybeUninit absolutely slaps, as do stack machines), and how I used it to implement an async file tree search tool using tokio::fs.

# Thank you

Thank you to Fiona, Rain, Eliza and Gankra, among others, for reviewing drafts of this post.

# Change notes

• 07/24/2022: renamed fold/generate to collapse/expand

1. If you’re not sure what I mean by cache locality, or you want much more information on it than I can provide, there’s a great rust performance optimization resource here↩︎

2. If you’re not familiar with functional languages and are now wondering what fmap is, it’s a method provided by a trait called Functor. It represents the ability to map a function A -> B over some arbitrary structure - if we have a Functor instance for F, then we can map a function over F<A>, for any A. F could be an option, or a list, or a tree - any structure parameterized over some value. map provides an implementation of fmap (as in _f_unction map) that’s specialized to ExprLayer. If you’re curious, read more here↩︎

3. If you’re really familiar with functional languages, you might point out that it’s not quite fmap, but that’s fine for our limited use case. 2 ↩︎

4. I learned this technique from my partner Rain ↩︎