Rust Compiler Plugins: A Simple Example

As my adventure at Persistence Labs has come to an end I’ve decided to move my blogging back here. In the interests of getting back to writing, I’m going to start with something rather mundane but also easily summarised: Rust is awesome. You should seriously consider putting some time into figuring out if it’s useful for your engineering tasks. For program analysis related experimentation I’ve found it provides a nice balance between execution speed and productivity.

That’s it really, but in the interests of verbosity I’m going to quickly run through one rather pleasing discovery I made when flicking through the documentation a few months back. Most conversations on Rust’s advantages revolve around approaches to types, memory safety and other core language and runtime features. Way down at the end of the Rust book, in the ‘nightly’ section, I discovered that alongside all of these advantages Rust also makes it very simple to write compiler plugins, which can be used for a variety of ends. A minor feature in comparison to the other strides Rust makes, but an important one to be included as a (nearly) first-class member of the language. Tooling is an significant factor in determining language adoption, and standard infrastructure to develop such tooling is a useful foundation.

Compiler plugins are still considered unstable in Rust, and are enabled only on the nightly build, but they’re easy to work with. An example of a linter is provided in the Rust repository, but no sample of a standalone linter package, and its inclusion/use to check other code, is provided (that I could see). To figure out what exactly is involved in that, and to get a feel for how one writes and uses a compiler plugin, I created pedantrs, a very simple compiler plugin which can be included in other Rust projects and will run a few very basic lint checks. The linter isn’t intended to be used “for real”, but it will hopefully provide answers if you’re wondering how to create a simple compiler plugin project and make use of if. Here I’ll just run through some of the things that are underdocumented [1] elsewhere or took me some experimentation to figure out.

Crate Setup

Compiler plugins are libraries and can be created as per usual via cargo create. You indicate that you are creating a compiler plugin by setting plugin = true in the [lib] section of the Cargo.toml.

Early vs Late Lint Passes

The plugin registry provides both the register_early_lint_pass and register_late_lint_pass functions, but the documentation doesn’t have a whole lot to say about when each should be used. Early lint pass functions are provided with an EarlyContext, while late lint pass functions are provided with a LateContext. As the documentation says, and as was clarified by the helpful folks on #rust, the former provides context for checking of the AST before it is lowered to HIR, while the latter provides context after type checking has occurred. Most significantly, the LateContext contains a ctxt instance containing the information generated by the type checker. If you need access to the latter information then you need to register a late pass, while if you only need AST information then you can use an early pass.

The lints which pedantrs provides can function without any type information as they are quite simple, but the lints builtin to Rust provide examples of late passes. It’s worth noting that even access to things like variable names requires the context provided to a late pass. For example, as demonstrated in the builtin bad style checker.

Using the Plugin

Utilising the plugin/linter is quite simple. In the demo folder of pedantrs you’ll find another project, which lists pedantrs as a dependency in its Cargo.toml file. The plugin is then activated in the file, via:


When you run cargo build in the demo folder you should then see something like the following output:

$ cargo build
Compiling unicode-normalization v0.1.1
Compiling clippy v0.0.23 (
Compiling pedantrs v0.1.0 (file:///Users/sean/Documents/git/pedantrs/demo)
Compiling demo v0.1.0 (file:///Users/sean/Documents/git/pedantrs/demo)
src/ 6:39 warning: public constant is missing documentation, #[warn(pub_const_docs)] on by default
src/ pub const UNDOCUMENTED_CONST: i32 = 6;

src/ 62:56 warning: function has an excessive number of arguments, #[warn(fn_arg_list_length)] on by default
src/ let _ = |_: i32, _: i32, _: i32, _: i32, _: i32| {};

Sample Lints

The lints in pedantrs aren’t particularly interesting, but their source can be found here. They are as follows:

And that’s about it. Rust is fun. Go play.

[1] On the topic of documentation: the Rust internal’s documents can be found here and are incredibly useful.