Lately I’m writing lots of Rust, and I’m particularly interested in systems programming on unix. I’ve been using and contributing to a library called nix1, whose mission is to provide ‘Rust friendly bindings to *nix APIs’.

In this blog post, I hope to convince you that you might want to reach for Rust and nix the next time you need to do some unix systems programming, especially if you aren’t fluent in C. It’s no harder to write, you won’t have to write more code, and it makes it much easier to avoid a few classes of mistakes.

First off, what is systems programming?

The term systems programming can mean all sorts of things, and depends a lot on context and who you’re talking to. For this blog post, here’s my incredibly precise definition:

Systems programming is programming where you spend more time reading man pages than reading the internet.

(As an aside, this means that systems programming is programming you can happily do on the subway if you happen to be in one of those places that doesn’t have connectivity in the tunnels, like New York. I definitely did this when taking the Q train back from the Recurse Center late at night!)

Here are a few examples of things that fall under this definition:

fork(2) and kill(2): an example of how badly things can go

Here’s a fairly innocuous looking C program that uses fork(2) and kill(2) to spawn and kill a process:

#include <signal.h>
#include <unistd.h>

int main(void) {
        pid_t child = fork();
        if (child) {  // in parent
                kill(child, SIGKILL);
        } else {  // in child
                for (;;);  // loop until killed

        return 0;

This program compiles with no errors or warnings, not even with -Wall -Wextra -Werror. I recommend you don’t run it though, and here’s why. From the POSIX specification for fork(2):

Upon successful completion, fork() shall return 0 to the child process and shall return the process ID of the child process to the parent process. Both processes shall continue to execute from the fork() function. Otherwise, -1 shall be returned to the parent process, no child process shall be created, and errno shall be set to indicate the error.

And from the specification for kill(2):

If pid is -1, sig shall be sent to all processes (excluding an unspecified set of system processes) for which the process has permission to send that signal.

Putting the two together, that program could really ruin our day. If the fork() call fails for some reason2, we store -1 in child. Later, we call kill(-1, SIGKILL), which tries to kill all our processes, and most likely hose our login. Not even screen or tmux will save us!3

It’s a pretty scary failure mode, and neither the library nor the language do anything at all to prevent us from having a terrible day.

Why fork and kill go so terribly together

I believe the main issue here is that the C library forces us to try and stick several meanings into one value. For fork(2), the return value is conveying three different things all at once:

  • whether or not the call succeeded (return value -1)
  • if it succeeded, whether or not we are in the child (return value 0)
  • if we are the parent, what the child’s PID is (strictly positive return value)

That’s a lot of information for one poor little pid_t—usually a 32-bit integer—to convey!

In the case of kill(2), the pid parameter conflates several different behaviors. From the POSIX specification again:

  • If pid is greater than 0, sig shall be sent to the process whose process ID is equal to pid.
  • If pid is 0, sig shall be sent to all processes (excluding an unspecified set of system processes) whose process group ID is equal to the process group ID of the sender, and for which the process has permission to send a signal.
  • If pid is -1, sig shall be sent to all processes (excluding an unspecified set of system processes) for which the process has permission to send that signal.
  • If pid is negative, but not -1, sig shall be sent to all processes (excluding an unspecified set of system processes) whose process group ID is equal to the absolute value of pid, and for which the process has permission to send a signal.

Some extra badness comes from C’s way of treating all non-zero integral values as truthy in conditions, so our if (child) check takes the true branch even when fork() failed and returned -1!

The combination of -1 as failure value from fork(2) and as a special value to kill(2) is unfortunate and makes this example especially bad. But other functions treat a pid value of -1 in a special way too, so even if we didn’t call kill(2) this could still turn out badly. For example, if we called waitpid(2) instead, we’d end up either blocking execution waiting for termination of a child that doesn’t exist, or reaping a child that some other thread is waiting for. While they won’t ruin our system in quite the same way as kill(-1, sig), neither are failure modes that should be so easy to end up in!

How nix and Rust help with the fork / kill problem

Here’s what this example would look like in Rust + nix:

extern crate nix;

use nix::sys::signal::*;
use nix::unistd::*;

fn main() {
    match fork().expect("fork failed") {
        ForkResult::Parent{ child } => {
            kill(child, SIGKILL).expect("kill failed");
        ForkResult::Child => {
            loop {}  // until killed

We’ll go over it in detail below, but for now we’ll just notice that the structure and length are really similar to the C version. But it’s much safer, and won’t go on a process killing rampage!

The nix wrapper for fork(2) does two things to make it much easier to avoid accidentally killing all our processes. Both use Rust’s enums, which are effectively tagged unions.

Separating the parent and child returns with an enum

For the success case, nix’s fork() makes a really great use of a custom enum. Instead of returning just a plain pid_t, it returns a ForkResult type. The ForkResult enum looks like this:

pub enum ForkResult {
    Parent {
        child: pid_t

We can read this definition as saying that a ForkResult is either Parent or Child. If it’s Parent then it contains a pid_t value named child, while if it’s Child then it contains no value. Rust has a pattern matching syntax for easily checking which variant an enum value is. If we have a variable fork_result, we can pattern match on it like this:

    match fork_result {
        ForkResult::Parent { child } => {
            // stuff to do if we're in the parent
        ForkResult::Child => {
            // stuff do do if we're in the child

Separating the success and failure cases with Result

The other big thing Rust does to help is having a Result type that’s used to represent the return from functions that can fail. Similar to how ForkResult separated the parent and child cases, the built-in Result type separates successes from failures. It looks like this:

pub enum Result<T, E> {

We can read this definition as saying that a Result<T, E> is either Ok to indicate success, or Err to indicate failure. If it’s Ok, it contains a T value, while if it’s Err it contains an E value. For a specific case, you’d set T to be the successful return type, and E to be the type of error that can happen. And the #[must_use] attribute tells the compiler to warn us if we ignore a Result return value.4

For nix’s fork() function, the return type is Result<ForkResult, Errno>: our happy case is the ForkResult type we talked about earlier. Our sad case is an Errno value, which is simply an integer the OS uses to tell us why our call failed.

We could match on the return value of fork() directly like this:

    match fork() {
        Ok(ForkResult::Parent { child }) => {
            // stuff to do if we're in the parent
        Ok(ForkResult::Child) => {
            // stuff do do if we're in the child
        Err(errno) => {
            // stuff to do if there was an error

However, Rust has some idioms useful for dealing with Result values that make code a little bit tidier. The one we’ll rely on in this post is expect(). It unwraps the success value from an Ok result, or panics with a given error message if called on an Err result. It’s a handy way to just crash the program with a semi-useful error message when an error happens. That’s pretty much perfect for prototyping, or for quick and dirty programs.

With expect(), our match only has to consider the success cases:

    match fork().expect("fork failed") {
        ForkResult::Parent { child } => {
            // stuff to do if we're in the parent
        ForkResult::Child => {
            // stuff do do if we're in the child

If fork() failed, our program will exit with an error message that looks something like this:

thread '<main>' panicked at 'fork failed: ENOMEM', ../src/libcore/

This tells us what failed, and why. For our tiny program, that’s enough to see what went wrong. For a more complicated program, we could ask for a backtrace by setting RUST_BACKTRACE=1 in the environment.

If you want to find out more about error handling in Rust, The Rust book has a chapter with a fantastic and detailed look at different approaches. I highly recommend reading it!

Join us!

I’ve really been enjoying doing this kind of programming in Rust. So much that I became a maintainer for nix! We’ve been exploring a few ways of using Rust’s features to help make systems programming safer and easier to not mess up.

If this kind of thing interests you too, come help out! We have good first bug label on our issue tracker, as well as a mentored bug label. We’d love to have your input and your help!

Thanks to Ant6n Dubrau, Bryan Newbold, Dan Luu, Julia Evans, and Mathieu Guay-Paquet for feedback on drafts of this post.

  1. Confusingly for some, the library has nothing to do with the Nix package manager, NixOS, or any of the related projects.

  2. There are two main ways fork(2) can fail:

    • the system is out of memory
    • we’re at our process limit

    Either of these can happen, and code should be ready if they do!

  3. I first came across this issue in a post on Rachel by the Bay—which incidentally is a great blog!

  4. Fun fact: when I first wrote the example for this post, I forgot to check the return value from kill(). Woops! But the compiler helpfully warned me that I was ignoring a Result return value:

    $ cargo build
       Compiling fork-rs v0.1.0 (file:///home/kamal/projects/talks/2016-03-24-rc/fork-rs)
    src/ 13:34 warning: unused result which must be used, #[warn(unused_must_use)] on by default
    src/             kill(child, SIGKILL);