Much of my work recently has been in Rust. I’ve known about Rust since its early days but I’ve never had the inclination to sit down and work with it until now. In many respects, I feel like I’m working in a functional programming language given the wide-spread use of map and closures. This may also just be the fact that C provides almost none of these constructs.

I recently had a problem that I solved using procedural macros This took a good bit of debugging from me since I’m still coming up to speed but overall I was pleasantly surprised at the experience. Rust’s type system makes it easy to find errors and didn’t let me do anything (too) bad. The trickiest part for me was figuring out how to go between proc_macro and proc_macro2 types (again, something that would have been easier with more Rust experience).

The entire experience really reminded me of doing compiler work and working with gcc plugins. With both procedural macros and gcc plugins you are making a change to the generated code. This can be harder than it looks since even simple code can be hidden by multiple layers of abstraction (how deep do you have to go to just get the literal). You really need to know exactly what you are expecting and also handle errors gracefully. In comparison to gcc plugins, Rust makes doing this significantly easier. The type system is very helpful as a guide to figure out what needs to be covered as opposed to hoping you caught everything in a switch statement. Rust also intends for procedural macros to be widely used by everyone in contrast to gcc plugins which are intended for a very limited audience. gcc plugins are expected to break across versions since the ABI is not stable whereas Rust takes care not to make breaking changes without serious discussion. One notable limitation of Rust macros is that they are, in fact, macros operating on the syntax. You cannot make changes at the code generation level or add new optimization passes. Rust does have full plugin support though.

Maybe it’s a bit unfair to compare C and Rust macros but I do like the idea of treating macros as an extension of the language instead of just a simple (and potentially unsafe) transformation.