Simulating Closures

Capture External Variables via Automatic Currying

Since anonymous functions de-sugar to standard function definitions, they retain all the behaviors of Rhai functions, including being pure, having no access to external variables.

The anonymous function syntax, however, automatically captures variables that are not defined within the current scope, but are defined in the external scope – i.e. the scope where the anonymous function is created.

Variables that are accessible during the time the anonymous function is created can be captured, as long as they are not shadowed by local variables defined within the function’s scope.

The captured variables are automatically converted into reference-counted shared values (Rc<RefCell<Dynamic>> in normal builds, Arc<RwLock<Dynamic>> in sync builds).

Therefore, similar to closures in many languages, these captured shared values persist through reference counting, and may be read or modified even after the variables that hold them go out of scope and no longer exist.

Use the Dynamic::is_shared function to check whether a particular value is a shared value.

Automatic currying can be turned off via the no_closure feature.


fn main() {
let x = 1;                          // a normal variable

x.is_shared() == false;

let f = |y| x + y;                  // variable 'x' is auto-curried (captured) into 'f'

x.is_shared() == true;              // 'x' is now a shared value! == 3;                     // 1 + 2 == 3

x = 40;                             // changing 'x'... == 42;                    // the value of 'x' is 40 because 'x' is shared

// The above de-sugars into this:
fn anon$1001(x, y) { x + y }        // parameter 'x' is inserted

$make_shared(x);                    // convert variable 'x' into a shared value

let f = Fn("anon$1001").curry(x);   // shared 'x' is curried == 42;

Beware: Captured Variables are Truly Shared

The example below is a typical tutorial sample for many languages to illustrate the traps that may accompany capturing external scope variables in closures.

It prints 9, 9, 9, ... 9, 9, not 0, 1, 2, ... 8, 9, because there is ever only one captured variable, and all ten closures capture the same variable.

fn main() {
let funcs = [];

for i in range(0, 10) {
    funcs.push(|| print(i));        // the for loop variable 'i' is captured

funcs.len() == 10;                  // 10 closures stored in the array

funcs[0].type_of() == "Fn";         // make sure these are closures

for f in funcs {;                       // all references to 'i' are the same variable!

Therefore – Be Careful to Prevent Data Races

Rust does not have data races, but that doesn’t mean Rhai doesn’t.

Avoid performing a method call on a captured shared variable (which essentially takes a mutable reference to the shared object) while using that same variable as a parameter in the method call – this is a sure-fire way to generate a data race error.

If a shared value is used as the this pointer in a method call to a closure function, then the same shared value must not be captured inside that function, or a data race will occur and the script will terminate with an error.

fn main() {
let x = 20;

x.is_shared() == false;             // 'x' is not shared, so no data race is possible

let f = |a| this += x + a;          // 'x' is captured in this closure

x.is_shared() == true;              // now 'x' is shared, 2);                       // <- error: data race detected on 'x'

Data Races in sync Builds Can Become Deadlocks

Under the sync feature, shared values are guarded with a RwLock, meaning that data race conditions no longer raise an error.

Instead, they wait endlessly for the RwLock to be freed, and thus can become deadlocks.

On the other hand, since the same thread (i.e. the Engine thread) that is holding the lock is attempting to read it again, this may also panic depending on the O/S.

fn main() {
let x = 20;

let f = |a| this += x + a;          // 'x' is captured in this closure

// Under `sync`, the following may wait forever, or may panic,
// because 'x' is locked as the `this` pointer but also accessed
// via a captured shared value., 2);


Q: How is it actually implemented?

The actual implementation of closures de-sugars to:

  1. Keeping track of what variables are accessed inside the anonymous function,

  2. If a variable is not defined within the anonymous function’s scope, it is looked up outside the function and in the current execution scope – where the anonymous function is created.

  3. The variable is added to the parameters list of the anonymous function, at the front.

  4. The variable is then converted into a reference-counted shared value.

    An anonymous function which captures an external variable is the only way to create a reference-counted shared value in Rhai.

  5. The shared value is then curried into the function pointer itself, essentially carrying a reference to that shared value and inserting it into future calls of the function.

    This process is called Automatic Currying, and is the mechanism through which Rhai simulates normal closures.

Q: Why are closures implemented as automatic currying?

In concept, a closure closes over captured variables from the outer scope – that’s why they are called closures. When this happen, a typical language implementation hoists those variables that are captured away from the stack frame and into heap-allocated storage. This is because those variables may be needed after the stack frame goes away.

These heap-allocated captured variables only go away when all the closures that need them are finished with them. A garbage collector makes this trivial to implement – they are automatically collected as soon as all closures needing them are destroyed.

In Rust, this can be done by reference counting instead, with the potential pitfall of creating reference loops that will prevent those variables from being deallocated forever. Rhai avoids this by clone-copying most data values, so reference loops are hard to create.

Rhai does the hoisting of captured variables into the heap by converting those values into reference-counted locked values, also allocated on the heap. The process is identical.

Closures are usually implemented as a data structure containing two items:

  1. A function pointer to the function body of the closure,
  2. A data structure containing references to the captured shared variables on the heap.

Usually a language implementation passes the structure containing references to captured shared variables into the function pointer, the function body taking this data structure as an additional parameter.

This is essentially what Rhai does, except that Rhai passes each variable individually as separate parameters to the function, instead of creating a structure and passing that structure as a single parameter. This is the only difference.

Therefore, in most languages, essentially all closures are implemented as automatic currying of shared variables hoisted into the heap, automatically passing those variables as parameters into the function. Rhai just brings this directly up to the front.