Rust’s original creator, Graydon Hoare on the current state of system programming and safety

Back in July 2010, Graydon Hoare showcased the Rust programming language for the very first time at Mozilla Annual Summit. Rust is an open-source system programming language that was created with speed, memory safety, and parallelism in mind.

Looking at Rust’s memory and thread safety guarantees, a supportive community, a quickly evolving toolchain, many major projects are being rewritten in Rust. And, one of the major ones was Servo, an HTML rendering engine that will eventually replace Firefox’s rendering engine. Mozilla is also using Rust for rewriting many other key parts of Firefox under Project Quantum. Fastly chose Rust to implement Lucet, its native WebAssembly compiler and runtime. More recently, Facebook also chose Rust to implement its controversial Libra blockchain.

As the 9th anniversary of the day when Hoare first presented Rust in front of a large audience is approaching, The New Stack took a very interesting interview with him. In the interview, he talked about the current state of system programming, how safe he considers our current complex systems are, how they can be made safer, and more.

Here are the key highlights from the interview:

Hoare on a brief history of Rust

Hoare started working on Rust as a side-project in 2006. Mozilla, his employer at that time, got interested in the project and provided him a team of engineers to help him in the further development of the language. In 2013, he experienced burnout and decided to step down as a technical lead. After working on some less-time-sensitive projects, he quit Mozilla and worked for the payment network, Stellar. In 2016, he got a call from Apple to work on the Swift programming language. Rust is now being developed by the core teams and an active community of volunteer coders.

This programming language that he once described as “spare-time kinda thing” is being used by many developers to create a wide range of new software applications from operating systems to simulation engines for virtual reality. It was also “the most loved programming language” in the Stack Overflow Developer Survey for four years in a row (2016-2019).

Hoare was very humble about the hard work and dedication he has put into creating the Rust programming language. When asked to summarize Rust’s history he simply said that “we got lucky”.  He added, “that Mozilla was willing to fund such a project for so long; that Apple, Google, and others had funded so much work on LLVM beforehand that we could leverage; that so many talented people in academia, industry and just milling about on the internet were willing to volunteer to help out.

The current state of system programming and safety

Hoare considers the state of system programming language “healthy” as compared to the starting couple of decades in his career. Now, it is far easier to sell a language that is focused on performance and correctness. We are seeing more good languages coming into the market because of the increasing interaction between academia and industry.

When asked about safety, Hoare believes that though we are slowly taking steps towards better safety, the overall situation is not getting better. He attributes building a number of new complex computing systems is making it worse. He said, “complexity beyond comprehension means we often can’t even define safety, much less build mechanisms that enforce it.

Another reason according to him is the huge number of vulnerable software present in the field that can be exploited anytime by a bad actor. For instance, on Tuesday, a zero-day vulnerability was fixed in Firefox that was being “exploited in the wild” by attackers. “Like much of the legacy of the 20th century, there’s just a tremendous mess in software that’s going to take generations to clean up, assuming humanity even survives that long,” he adds.

How system programming can be made safer

Hoare designed Rust with safety in mind. Its rich type system and ownership model ensures memory and thread safety. However, he suggests that we can do a lot better when it comes to safety in system programming. He listed a bunch of new improvements that we can implement, “information flow control systems, effect systems, refinement types, liquid types, transaction systems, consistency systems, session types, unit checking, verified compilers and linkers, dependent types.

Hoare believes that there are already many features suggested by academia. The main challenge for us is to implement these features “in a balanced, niche-adapted language that’s palatable enough to industrial programmers to be adopted and used.

Published by: Bhagyashree R