24 days of Rust - derive_builder

Today our focus is the derive_builder crate. It provides a macro to automatically generate setter methods for struct fields. And since all setters return the struct itself, we can chain them in a so called builder pattern.

Builder and fluent interfaces

Builder pattern (in the sense of the original Design Patterns book) is an object that knows how to construct other objects step by step. The builder approach aims to simplify object creation. Instead of a long argument list in the constructor (or a method like new() in Rust), we initialize the object by calling subsequent builder methods.

Each builder method returns the builder itself. This allows for chaining the calls right after each other just().like().this(). For example diesel uses such method chaining to build database queries:

let versions = Version::belonging_to(krate)

Fluent interfaces are useful in some contexts; they are not a silver bullet (nothing is). Marco Pivetta wrote a good critique in his blog post Fluent interfaces are evil.

Game config example

Imagine we're writing a computer game. We need to store game configuration such as screen resolution, save directory location etc. A lot of modern games start via a separate launcher which tries to autodetect these values and presents initial config to the actual game. Let's see how we could use derive_builder in such a launcher.

extern crate custom_derive;
extern crate derive_builder;

custom_derive is a helper crate that allows deriving user-defined attributes. We'll see that later, but here's a regular derive:

struct Resolution {
    width: u32,
    height: u32,

impl Default for Resolution {
    fn default() -> Resolution {
        Resolution {
            width: 1920,
            height: 1080,

Resolution is just a pair of integers with a debugging representation derived for us by the Rust compiler. We could also derive Default, but this would use default values for both dimensions, giving us a 0px x 0px screen. Not really useful...

custom_derive! {
    #[derive(Debug, Default, Builder)]
    struct GameConfig {
        resolution: Resolution,
        save_dir: Option<String>,
        autosave: bool,
        fov: f32,
        render_distance: u32,

Here's the meat of the matter. Debug and Default are standard Rust traits that the compiler knows how to derive. Builder on the other hand is actually a Builder! macro, that custom_derive! knows how to call on our struct.

So this is a plain Rust struct inside some macro. What does it buy us?

let mut conf = GameConfig::default();
println!("{:?}", conf);
$ cargo run
GameConfig { resolution: Resolution { width: 1920, height: 1080 }, save_dir: Some("saves"), autosave: false, fov: 70, render_distance: 1000 }

Note how the resolution and autosave flag are still correctly set from the defaults, while we use generated setters for the rest of settings. Another interesting thing happens when we set save_dir. The struct contains an Option<String>, but we're passing a String into the setter. How does that even compile?

Since Rust 1.12, Option<T> implements From<T>. And the generated setter signature would look like:

pub fn save_dir<VALUE: Into<Option<String>>(&mut self, value: VALUE) -> &mut Self

From and Into traits complement each other, hence everything typechecks.

We can of course add impl GameConfig and implement our own methods - this is still a regular Rust struct. The only thing derive_builder does is adding public setter methods.

(Non)-consuming builders

There's a small gotcha with derive_builder. We can't initialize config like this:

let mut conf = GameConfig::default().fov(0.0);

This will fail to compile with an error like below:

error: borrowed value does not live long enough
  --> src\day6.rs:34:50
34 |     let mut conf = GameConfig::default().fov(0.0);
   |                    ---------------------         ^ temporary value dropped here while still borrowed
   |                    |
   |                    temporary value created here
37 | }
   | - temporary value needs to live until here
   = note: consider using a `let` binding to increase its lifetime

derive_builder prefers a so called non-consuming builder approach, as described in The builder pattern. See this issue for the rationale behind this choice.

Further reading

Photo by David Wilkinson and shared under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License. See https://www.flickr.com/photos/64659016@N03/6344042605/