Rust Parallelism Cross-thread communication with Session Types


Session Types are a way to tell the compiler about the protocol you want to use to communicate between threads - not protocol as in HTTP or FTP, but the pattern of information flow between threads. This is useful since the compiler will now stop you from accidentally breaking your protocol and causing deadlocks or livelocks between threads - some of the most notoriously hard to debug issues, and a major source of Heisenbugs. Session Types work similarly to the channels described above, but can be more intimidating to start using. Here's a simple two-thread communication:

// Session Types aren't part of the standard library, but are part of this crate.
// You'll need to add session_types to your Cargo.toml file.
extern crate session_types;

// For now, it's easiest to just import everything from the library.
use session_types::*;

// First, we describe what our client thread will do. Note that there's no reason
// you have to use a client/server model - it's just convenient for this example.
// This type says that a client will first send a u32, then quit. `Eps` is
// shorthand for "end communication".
// Session Types use two generic parameters to describe the protocol - the first
// for the current communication, and the second for what will happen next.
type Client = Send<u32, Eps>;
// Now, we define what the server will do: it will receive as u32, then quit.
type Server = Recv<u32, Eps>;

// This function is ordinary code to run the client. Notice that it takes    
// ownership of a channel, just like other forms of interthread communication - 
// but this one about the protocol we just defined.
fn run_client(channel: Chan<(), Client>) {
    let channel = channel.send(42);
    println!("The client just sent the number 42!");

// Now we define some code to run the server. It just accepts a value and prints
// it.
fn run_server(channel: Chan<(), Server>) {
    let (channel, data) = channel.recv();
    println!("The server received some data: {}", data);

fn main() {
    // First, create the channels used for the two threads to talk to each other.
    let (server_channel, client_channel) = session_channel();

    // Start the server on a new thread
    let server_thread = std::thread::spawn(move || {

    // Run the client on this thread.

    // Wait for the server to finish.

You should notice that the main method looks very similar to the main method for cross-thread communication defined above, if the server were moved to its own function. If you were to run this, you would get the output:

The client just sent the number 42!
The server received some data: 42

in that order.

Why go through all the hassle of defining the client and server types? And why do we redefine the channel in the client and server? These questions have the same answer: the compiler will stop us from breaking the protocol! If the client tried to receive data instead of sending it (which would result in a deadlock in ordinary code), the program wouldn't compile, since the client's channel object doesn't have a recv method on it. Also, if we tried to define the protocol in a way that could lead to deadlock (for example, if both the client and server tried to receive a value), then compilation would fail when we create the channels. This is because Send and Recv are "Dual Types", meaning if the Server does one, the Client has to do the other - if both try to Recv, you're going to be in trouble. Eps is its own dual type, since it's fine for both the Client and Server to agree to close the channel.

Of course, when we do some operation on the channel, we move to a new state in the protocol, and the functions available to us might change - so we have to redefine the channel binding. Luckily, session_types takes care of that for us and always returns the new channel (except close, in which case there is no new channel). This also means that all of the methods on a channel take ownership of the channel as well - so if you forget to redefine the channel, the compiler will give you an error about that, too. If you drop a channel without closing it, that's a runtime error as well (unfortunately, that is impossible to check at compile time).

There are many more types of communication than just Send and Recv - for example, Offer gives the other side of the channel the ability to chose between two possible branches of the protocol, and Rec and Var work together to allow loops and recursion in the protocol. Many more examples of Session Types and other types are available in the session_types GitHub repository. The library's documentation can be found here.