Rust compiler-as-a-library


What if you could extend Rust with your own lints, compiler errors, custom standard library and semantics?

For example, using annotations in the Linux kernel to determine atomic context violations, or writing Postgres functions in Rust.

Well, what if I told you rustc, the Rust compiler, is a library, and you can do that without forking the compiler?

In this post, we'll go compare them to their C/C++ version, why you would use or not use them and how they work at a high level.

From compiler plugin to compiler driver

Both Clang and GCC have their own version of what they call "compiler plugins". These let you write code that extend the compiler, and are nice because you don't have to change compiler code.

Rust's approach is a bit different.

Rust provides the entire compiler API to developers. Everything is public, so you can use all the compiler crates freely, as a library. Your program becomes a wrapper over the Rust compiler.

One use for this are tools that you can run over a Rust codebase:

A more niche use is for Rust compiler authors to prototype quickly against the Rust codebase without having to maintain a separate branch or fork: for example, Polonius implements a next generation borrow checker, the part of Rust that checks lifetimes.

Finally, these can be also used as custom compilers for a specific project, replacing rustc and adding extra analysis or behavior. For example, klint in Rust for Linux tracks preemption count at compile time, by reading the CFG, and erroring otherwise (check out their full blog post!):

error: this call expects the preemption count to be 0
  --> samples/rust/
76 |  kernel::delay::coarse_sleep(core::time::Duration::from_secs(1));
   |  ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^
   = note: but the possible preemption count at this point is 1

Benefits and drawbacks

The main drawback is that nothing is stable. Apart from the rustc-driver and associated APIs, any internal APIs you depend on may break between compiler updates.

Of course, maintaining a compiler driver also has significant complexity, not only for implementers but especially if you want to keep it up to date.

If you don't have esoteric needs or you don't fit one or the above use cases, see if proc macros can solve them.

Cool, how do I make one?

Because drivers are forever unstable, any code I give here is likely to be outdated in a year's time. Instead I'll stick to high level recommendations.

To learn how the whole system works, check out the Peeking at compiler-internal data talk (slides here).

For reference, check out the rustc dev guide, the official Rust compiler doc. In particuliar the sections on rustc-driver and queries are of great interest.

For reference implementations, the highest quality one is probably plrustc. Of note is their build script which outputs a statically linked rustc without dependencies. Make sure to use RUSTC_BOOTSTRAP in your .cargo/config so your driver can depend on stable versions.


Rust's compiler-as-a-library approach offers you the ability to extend the Rust compiler with custom lints, compiler errors, and even create custom standard libraries and semantics.

While there are benefits to this approach, like making special-purpose tools and custom compilers, it also comes with drawbacks, most notably the lack of stability and the need for ongoing maintenance to keep up with new Rust versions.

But if you have specific needs, it opens up new possibilities for extending and customizing Rust.