Today I and a friend went down a rabbit hole about Rust and how it manages the heap when we use Box, or String, or Vec, and while we were at it, I found out there is such a thing as Box<str>, which might look a bit strange to an untrained eye, since most of the time the str primitive type is passed around as &str.


Box<str> is a primitive str allocated on the heap, whereas String is actually a Vec<u8>, also allocated on the heap, which allows for efficient removals and appends. Box<str> (16 bytes) uses less memory than String (24 bytes).

I will be using rust-lldb throughout this post to understand what is going on in the rust programs we write and run. The source code for this blog post is available on rust-memory-playground.

git clone
cd rust-memory-playground

The Stack

Most of the primitive data types used throughout a program, and the information about the program itself are usually allocated on the stack. Consider this simple program:

fn add_ten(a: u8) -> u8 {
    let b = 10;
    a + b

fn main() {
    println!("{}", add_ten(9));

Let’s examine the stack when we are running a + b by setting a breakpoint on that line:

$ cargo build && rust-lldb target/debug/stack-program

(lldb) breakpoint set -f -l 3
Breakpoint 1: where = stack-program`stack_program::add_ten::h42edbf0bdcb04851 + 24 at, address = 0x0000000100001354

(lldb) run
Process 65188 launched: '/Users/workshop/rust-memory-playground/target/debug/stack-program' (arm64)
Process 65188 stopped
* thread #1, queue = '', stop reason = breakpoint 1.1
    frame #0: 0x0000000100001354 stack-program`stack_program::add_ten::h42edbf0bdcb04851(a=5) at
   1    fn add_ten(a: u8) -> u8 {
   2        let b = 10;
-> 3        a + b
   4    }
   7    fn main() {
(lldb) frame var -L -f X
0x000000016fdfed7e: (unsigned char) a = 0x09
0x000000016fdfed7f: (unsigned char) b = 0x0A

Our program allocates two variables on the stack directly here. Notice that they are allocated right next to each other, their address only one byte apart. Most primitive types are allocated on the stack, and are copied when being passed around because they are small enough, so that copying them around is more reasonable than allocating them in the heap and passing around a pointer to them. In this case, u8 can be allocated in a single byte, it would not make sense for us to allocate a pointer (which can vary in size, but are usually larger than 8 bytes). Every time you call a function, a copy of the values passed to it, along with the values defined in the function itself constitute the stack of that function.

The stack of a whole program includes more information though, such as the backtrace, which allows the program to know how to navigate: once I am done with this function, where should I return to? that information is available in the stack as well. Note the first couple of lines here, indicating that we are currently in stack_program::add_then, and we came here from stack_program::main, and so once we are finished with add_then, we will go back to main:

(lldb) thread backtrace
* thread #1, queue = '', stop reason = breakpoint 1.1
  * frame #0: 0x0000000100001350 stack-program`stack_program::add_ten::hf7dc9cccae290c37(a='\t') at
    frame #1: 0x00000001000013a8 stack-program`stack_program::main::he22b9cf577b52c34 at
    frame #2: 0x00000001000015a4 stack-program`core::ops::function::FnOnce::call_once::hd6bac0cd3fcb8c07((null)=(stack-program`stack_program::main::he22b9cf577b52c34 at, (null)=<unavailable>) at
    frame #3: 0x00000001000014c4 stack-program`std::sys_common::backtrace::__rust_begin_short_backtrace::hc4df46810f9a7139(f=(stack-program`stack_program::main::he22b9cf577b52c34 at at
    frame #4: 0x0000000100001178 stack-program`std::rt::lang_start::_$u7b$$u7b$closure$u7d$$u7d$::hbec5b809d627978a at
    frame #5: 0x000000010001440c stack-program`std::rt::lang_start_internal::hc453db0ee48af82e [inlined] core::ops::function::impls::_$LT$impl$u20$core..ops..function..FnOnce$LT$A$GT$$u20$for$u20$$RF$F$GT$::call_once::h485d4c2966ec30a8 at [opt]
    frame #6: 0x0000000100014400 stack-program`std::rt::lang_start_internal::hc453db0ee48af82e [inlined] std::panicking::try::do_call::h375a887be0bea938 at [opt]
    frame #7: 0x0000000100014400 stack-program`std::rt::lang_start_internal::hc453db0ee48af82e [inlined] std::panicking::try::hecad40482ef3be15 at [opt]
    frame #8: 0x0000000100014400 stack-program`std::rt::lang_start_internal::hc453db0ee48af82e [inlined] std::panic::catch_unwind::haf1f664eb41a88eb at [opt]
    frame #9: 0x0000000100014400 stack-program`std::rt::lang_start_internal::hc453db0ee48af82e [inlined] std::rt::lang_start_internal::_$u7b$$u7b$closure$u7d$$u7d$::h976eba434e9ff4cf at [opt]
    frame #10: 0x0000000100014400 stack-program`std::rt::lang_start_internal::hc453db0ee48af82e [inlined] std::panicking::try::do_call::h8f2501ab92e340b0 at [opt]
    frame #11: 0x0000000100014400 stack-program`std::rt::lang_start_internal::hc453db0ee48af82e [inlined] std::panicking::try::hbeb9f8df83454d42 at [opt]
    frame #12: 0x0000000100014400 stack-program`std::rt::lang_start_internal::hc453db0ee48af82e [inlined] std::panic::catch_unwind::h0a9390b2202af6e9 at [opt]
    frame #13: 0x0000000100014400 stack-program`std::rt::lang_start_internal::hc453db0ee48af82e at [opt]
    frame #14: 0x0000000100001140 stack-program`std::rt::lang_start::h69bdd2191bba2dab(main=(stack-program`stack_program::main::he22b9cf577b52c34 at, argc=1, argv=0x000000016fdff168) at
    frame #15: 0x0000000100001434 stack-program`main + 32
    frame #16: 0x00000001000750f4 dyld`start + 520

Box, String and Vec: Pointers to Heap

There are times when we are working with data types large enough that we would really like to avoid copying them when we are passing them around. Let’s say you have just copied a file that is 1,000,000 bytes (1Mb) in size. In this case it is much more memory and compute efficient to have a pointer to this value (8 bytes) rather than copying all the 1,000,000 bytes.

This is where types such as Box, String and Vec come into play: these types allow you to allocate something on heap, which is a chunk of memory separate from the stack that you can allocate on, and later reference those values using a pointer available on the stack.

Let’s start with Box, the most generic one, which allows you to allocate some data on the heap, consider this example:

fn main() {
    let a = Box::new(5_u8);
    let b = 10_u8;
    println!("{}, {}", a, b);

We again use lldb to check out what is happening:

$ cargo build && rust-lldb target/debug/stack-and-heap-program

(lldb) breakpoint set -f -l 4
Breakpoint 1: where = stack-and-heap-program`stack_and_heap_program::main::ha895783273646dc7 + 100 at, address = 0x0000000100005264

(lldb) run
Process 67451 launched: '/Users/workshop/rust-memory-playground/target/debug/stack-and-heap-program' (arm64)
Process 67451 stopped
* thread #1, queue = '', stop reason = breakpoint 1.1
    frame #0: 0x0000000100005264 stack-and-heap-program`stack_and_heap_program::main::ha895783273646dc7 at
   1    fn main() {
   2        let a = Box::new(5_u8);
   3        let b = 10_u8;
-> 4        println!("{}, {}", a, b);
   5    }
(lldb) frame var -L -f X
0x000000016fdfed48: (unsigned char *) a = 0x0000600000008010 "\U00000005"
0x000000016fdfed57: (unsigned char) b = 0x0A

(lldb) memory read -count 1 -f X 0x0000600000008010
0x600000008010: 0x05

Note that here, instead of a having the value 5, has the value 0x0000600000008010, which is a pointer to a location in memory! lldb is recognises that this is a pointer (note the * sign beside the variable type) and shows us what the memory location contains, but we can also directly read that memory location, and of course we find 5 there. The address of the heap-allocated 5 is far from the stack-allocated 10, since stack and heap are separate parts of memory.

Using Box for an unsigned 8-bit value does not really make sense, the value itself is smaller than the pointer created by Box, however allocating on heap is useful when we have data that we need be able to pass around the program without copying it.

Turns out, String and Vec cover two of the most common cases where we may want to allocate something on heap! Let’s look at what goes on behind allocating a variable of type String:

fn main() {
    let s = String::from("hello");
    println!("{}", s);

And here we go again:

(lldb) breakpoint set -f -l 3
Breakpoint 1: where = string-program`string_program::main::h64ca96ee87b0ceaf + 44 at, address = 0x000000010000476c

(lldb) run
Process 68317 launched: '/Users/workshop/rust-memory-playground/target/debug/string-program' (arm64)
Process 68317 stopped
* thread #1, queue = '', stop reason = breakpoint 1.1
    frame #0: 0x000000010000476c string-program`string_program::main::h64ca96ee87b0ceaf at
   1    fn main() {
   2        let s = String::from("hello");
-> 3        println!("{}", s);
   4    }
(lldb) frame var -L -T
0x000000016fdfed78: (alloc::string::String) s = "hello" {
0x000000016fdfed78:   (alloc::vec::Vec<unsigned char, alloc::alloc::Global>) vec = size=5 {
0x0000600000004010:     (unsigned char) [0] = 'h'
0x0000600000004011:     (unsigned char) [1] = 'e'
0x0000600000004012:     (unsigned char) [2] = 'l'
0x0000600000004013:     (unsigned char) [3] = 'l'
0x0000600000004014:     (unsigned char) [4] = 'o'

This is a formatted output from lldb, and here you can see that the String type is basically a Vec<unsigned char, alloc::Global> (note that unsigned char is represented using u8 in Rust, so in Rust terminology the type is Vec<u8>), let’s now look at the same command but this time raw and unformatted (-R):

(lldb) frame var -L -T -R
0x000000016fdfed78: (alloc::string::String) s = {
0x000000016fdfed78:   (alloc::vec::Vec<unsigned char, alloc::alloc::Global>) vec = {
0x000000016fdfed78:     (alloc::raw_vec::RawVec<unsigned char, alloc::alloc::Global>) buf = {
0x000000016fdfed78:       (core::ptr::unique::Unique<unsigned char>) ptr = {
0x000000016fdfed78:         (unsigned char *) pointer = 0x0000600000004010
0x000000016fdfed78:         (core::marker::PhantomData<unsigned char>) _marker = {}
0x000000016fdfed80:       (unsigned long) cap = 5
0x000000016fdfed78:       (alloc::alloc::Global) alloc = {}
0x000000016fdfed88:     (unsigned long) len = 5

Ah! I see the ptr field of RawVec with a value of 0x0000600000004010, that is the memory address of the beginning of our string (namely the h of our hello)! There is also cap and len, which respectively stand for capacity and length, with the value 5, indicating that our string is of capacity and length 5; the difference between the two being that you can have a Vec with a capacity of 10 while it has zero items, this would allow you to append 10 items to the Vec without having a new allocation for each append, making the process more efficient, and also a Vec is not automatically shrunk down in size when items are removed from it to avoid unnecessary deallocations, hence the length might be smaller than the capacity. So in a nutshell, our String is basically something like this (inspired by std::vec::Vec):

| String                       |
|     \-> Vec                  |
|          \-> (ptr, cap, len) |
|                |             |
Heap:            v
| ('h', 'e', 'l', 'l', 'o') |

Okay, so far so good. We have String, which uses a Vec under the hood, which is represented by a pointer, capacity and length triplet.

If String is already heap-allocated, why would anyone want Box<str>!? Let’s look at how Box<str> would be represented in memory:

fn main() {
    let boxed_str: Box<str> = "hello".into();

    println!("boxed_str: {}", boxed_str);

And lldb tells us:

0x000000016fdfed80: (alloc::boxed::Box<>) boxed_str = {
0x000000016fdfed80:   data_ptr = 0x0000600000004010 "hello"
0x000000016fdfed88:   length = 5

Okay, so a Box<str> is much simpler than a String: there is no Vec, and no capacity, and the underlying data is a primitive str that does not allow efficient appending or removing. It is a smaller representation as well, due to the missing capacity field, comparing their memory size on stack using std::mem::size_of_val:

let boxed_str: Box<str> = "hello".into();
println!("size of boxed_str on stack: {}", std::mem::size_of_val(&boxed_str));

let s = String::from("hello");
println!("size of string on stack: {}", std::mem::size_of_val(&s));

Results in:

size of boxed_str on stack: 16
size of string on stack: 24

Note that their size on heap is the same, because they are both storing the bytes for hello on the heap (the measurements below show all of the heap allocations of the program, and not only the string. What matters here is that these two programs have exact same heap size in total):

$ cargo run --bin string-dhat
    Finished dev [unoptimized + debuginfo] target(s) in 0.01s
     Running `target/debug/string-dhat`
dhat: Total:     1,029 bytes in 2 blocks
dhat: At t-gmax: 1,029 bytes in 2 blocks
dhat: At t-end:  1,024 bytes in 1 blocks
dhat: The data has been saved to dhat-heap.json, and is viewable with dhat/dh_view.html

$ cargo run --bin box-str-dhat
    Finished dev [unoptimized + debuginfo] target(s) in 0.01s
     Running `target/debug/box-str-dhat`
boxed_str: hello
dhat: Total:     1,029 bytes in 2 blocks
dhat: At t-gmax: 1,029 bytes in 2 blocks
dhat: At t-end:  1,024 bytes in 1 blocks
dhat: The data has been saved to dhat-heap.json, and is viewable with dhat/dh_view.html

There is also Box<[T]> which is the fixed size counterpart to Vec<T>.

Should I use Box<str> or String?

The only use case for Box<str> over String that I can think of, is optimising for memory usage when the string is fixed and you do not intend to append or remove from it. I looked for examples of Box<str> being used, and I found a few examples: