Pietro Albini

Shipping a compiler every six weeks

Written on November 23, 2019.

This blog post is a slightly edited version of the live transcript of the talk I gave at RustFest 2019 in Barcelona on November 10th, 2019. As it’s a transcript some parts of it are a bit repetitive or badly worded, but I hope the message behind the talk will be conveyed by this post anyway.

The original transcript was provided by the RustFest organizers, and it’s released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareALike 4.0 International License.

You can also download the slides or watch the recording of the talk.


Hi, everyone. In this talk I am going to shed a bit of light on how the Rust release process works and why we do it that way. As they said, I’m Pietro, a member of the Rust Release team and the co-lead of the Infrastructure Team. I’m actually a member of other teams: I do a lot of stuff in the project.

I think everyone is aware by now that we actually got a release out a few days ago, with some features everyone awaited for, for a long time but that’s not the only release. Six weeks earlier we released 1.38 which was released in September and changed a hundred thousands lines of code. Users just reported 5 regressions after the release came out. And only two of them broke valid code, the other ones were just performance regressions or worse error messages.

Six weeks earlier, there was another release, 1.37, and this changed tens of thousands of lines of code and we just got 3 regressions reported, and unfortunately all of them broke valid code, but it’s a very little number. Even before, we got 1.36 out in July with just 4 regressions reported. I wanted to explain a little bit why we do releases this fast, which creates a lot of problems for us, and how can we prevent regressions, and just get very few reported after the release is out?

So why do we have this schedule? The question is interesting because it’s really unusual in the compiler world. I collected some stats on some of the most popular languages. While there are some efforts to shorten the release cycles (Python recently announced that they are going to switch to a yearly schedule), Rust is the only compiler except for browsers that’s sort of popular and has a six-week release cycle. In the compiler world that’s pretty fast, but there is a simple reason why we do that: we have no pressure to ship things.

If a feature is not ready, we have issues, we can just delay it by a few weeks, and nobody is going to care if it’s going to get stabilised today or in a month and a half. And we actually do that a lot. The most obvious example is a few weeks ago, when we decided that async/await wasn’t ready enough to be shipped into Rust 1.38, because it turns out it wasn’t actually stabilised when the beta freeze happened and there were blocking issues so we would have to rush the feature and backport the stabilization, and that’s something that we would not love to do.

We actually tried long release cycles, especially with the edition, and it turns out they don’t work for us. The stable edition came out in early December and in September we still had questions on how to make the module system work. We had a proposal in early September which was not implemented yet, and that’s what actually was released, but the proposal had no time to bake on nightly, users didn’t have much time to test it. It broke a lot of our internal processes.

We actually did this thing which is something I’m not comfortable with still, which is we actually landed a change in the behaviour of the module system directly on the beta branch, two weeks before the stable release came out, and if we did a mistake there we would have no way to roll it back before the next edition, and we don’t even know if we are going to do a 2021 edition yet. This PR broke almost all the policies we have, but we had to do it, otherwise we would not have been be able to ship a working edition, and thankfully it ended great.

The 2018 edition works, I’m not aware of any huge mistakes we made but if we actually made them it would’ve been really bad because we would have to wait a lot to fix them and we would be stuck in the 2018 edition with a broken features set for backward compatibility reasons.

So with such fast release cycles, how can we actually prevent regressions from reaching the stable channel? Of course, the first answer is the compiler’s test suite, because rustc has a lot of tests. We have thousands of them that test both the compiled output but also the error messages, and the tests run a lot: we have 60 CI builders that run for each PR taking three to four hours. So, we actually do a lot of testing but that’s not enough because a test suite can’t really express everything that Rust language can do.

So we use the compiler to build the compiler itself: for every release we use the previous one to build the compiler. On nightly we used beta, on beta we used stable and on stable we used the previous stable. That allows us to catch some corner cases, as the compiler codebase uses a lot of unstable features and also it’s a bit old so there are a lot of quirks in it. But still, that can’t actually catch everything.

We get bug reports from you all. We get them mostly from nightly, not from beta, because people don’t actually use beta. Asking our users to test beta is something we can’t really do: with such a fast cycle you don’t have time to test everything manually with the new compiler every six weeks. Languages with long release cycles can afford to say “Hey, test the new beta release”, but we can’t, and even when we ask, people don’t really do that.

So we had an idea. Why don’t we test our users’ code ourselves? This is an idea that seems really bad and seems to waste a lot of money but it actually works and it’s Crater.

Crater is a project that Brian Anderson started and I’m now the maintainer of, which creates experiments which get all the source code available on crates.io and all the Rust repositories on GitHub with a Cargo.lock, so if you create an “Hello World” repo on GitHub, or an Advent of Code solutions repository, that’s actually tested for every release to catch regressions.

For each project we run cargo test two times, once with stable and one with beta, and if cargo test runs on stable but fails on beta then that’s a regression, and we get a nice colourful report where we can inspect.

This is the actual report for 1.39 and we got just 46 crates that failed and those are regressions nobody reported before. The Release Team manually goes through each (I hope we didn’t break any of yours), manually checks the log and then files issues. The Compiler Team looks at the issues, fixes them and ships the fix to you all.

1.39 went pretty well. This is 1.38 and we had 600 crates that were broken, so if we didn’t have Crater there is a good chance your project wouldn’t compile anymore when you updated, and this would break the trust you have in the stable channel.

We know it’s not perfect. We don’t test any kind of private code because of course we don’t have access to your source code. But also we only test crates.io and GitHub, and not other repositories such as GitLab, mostly because nobody got around to write scrapers yet. Also not every crate can be built in a sandbox environment (of course we have a sandbox, we can’t just run any code without protection because turns out people on the Internet are bad).

Crater is not really something we can scale forever in the long term because it uses a lot of compute resources already, which thankfully are sponsored, but if the usage of Rust skyrockets we are going to reach a point where it’s not economically feasible to run Crater in a timely fashion anymore.

Those are real problems but for now it works great. It allows to catch tens of regressions that often affect hundreds of crates and it’s the real reason why we can afford to make such fast releases. Without it, this is my personal opinion, but I know it’s shared by other members of the Release Team, I wouldn’t be comfortable making releases every six weeks without Crater because they would be so buggy I wouldn’t use them myself.

So to recap, the fast release cycles that we have allow the team not to burn out and to simply ignore deadlines, and that’s great especially for a community of mostly volunteers. And Crater is the real reason why we can afford to do that. It’s a tool that wastes a lot of money but actually gets us great results.

So I’m going to be around the conference today so if you have any questions, you want to implement support for other open source repositories, reach out to me, I’m happy to talk to you all. Thanks!

Questions from the audience

You were hinting that maybe the edition idea wasn’t such a success for us. Would you think that jeopardises a possible 2021 edition of the language?

The main issue wasn’t really the edition itself; it was that we actually started working on it really late. So basically we went way over time with implementing the features. This is my personal opinion, it’s not the official opinion of the project, but if we make another edition I want explicit phases where we won’t accept any more changes after this date and to actually enforce that because we nearly burnt out most of the team with the edition. There were people that were just for months fixing regressions and fixing bugs and that’s not sustainable, especially because most of the contributors to the compiler are volunteers.

For private repository, of course you cannot run Crater, but how could somebody who has a private repository, a private crate setup, would run Crater, or is that possible now?

Someone could just test on beta and create bug reports if they fail to compile. We have some ideas on how to create a Crater for enterprises but it’s just a plan, an idea, and at the moment we don’t have enough development resources to actually do the implementation, test and documentation work that such a project would require.

A lot of crates have peculiar requirements about their environments. Can you talk about how Crater handles that and specifically is it possible to customise the environment in which my crates are built on Crater?

So the environment doesn’t have any kind of network access for obvious security reasons, so you can’t install the dependencies yourself but the build environment runs inside Docker. We have these big Docker images, 4GB, which have most of the system dependencies used in the ecosystem installed. You can easily check whether your crate works or not with docs.rs: since recently it uses the same build code as Crater, so if it builds on docs.rs it builds on Crater as well. And if it doesn’t build, you can file an issue, probably the docs.rs issue tracker is the best place, and if there are Ubuntu 18.04 packages available we are just going to install them on the build environment, and then your package will work.

How long does it take to run Crater on all of the crates?

Okay, so that actually varies a lot because we are making constant changes to the build environment, changes with the virtual machines and such. I think at the moment running cargo test on the entire ecosystem takes a week and running cargo check, which we actually do for some PRs, takes three days: if there is a pull request that we know is risky and could break code, we usually run Crater beforehand just on that and in those cases we usually do cargo check because is faster. The times really vary mostly because we make a lot of changes to the virtual machines.

Is it possible to supply the Crater run with more runners to speed up the process?

I think we could. At the moment, we are just in a sweet spot because we have enough experiments that we fill out the servers, we don’t have any idle time, and the queue is not that long. If we had more servers then the end result is that for a bunch of time the server is going to be idle so we are just wasting resources. We have actually more sponsorship offers from corporations, so if we reach a point where the queue is not sustainable anymore we are going to get agents from them before asking the community. Also Crater is really heavy on resources: at the moment I think we have 24 cores and 48GB of RAM, 4 terabytes of disk space, so it’s not something where you can throw out some small virtual machine and get meaningful results out of it.