The Rust Module System and Useful Crates for CLI Apps

Today I’ll be continuing my series of posts on the rust implementation of the Mercurial version control system I’ve been working on. In this post I’ll be focusing on what I learned this week about the rust module system as well as a few helpful crates I discovered to aid in command-line argument parsing and error handling.

What’s in a Name?

Since my last post I’ve landed on a name for my project that’s a bit nicer than hg-rust. From now on this project will be known as rug. I’ve renamed the repository on and the code now lives at There should be redirects in place so the URLs in my old posts will continue to work. I’d also like to come up with a logo. Perhaps a rug with a crab on it that’s playing with a droplet of mercury? Probably not healthy for poor Ferris

The Rust Module System

As of my last post, all of the code lived in a single file that had grown to more than 200 lines of code. Long modules like this can make it difficult to understand exactly how everything interrelates. Following the rust book I decided to break out the code in my project into submodules organized according to the logical structure of the existing code.

First, I moved the code that defines the various custom structs I wrote last week out of and into a new revlogs module. At this point my file was much, much simpler:

use std::env;
use std::fs::File;

mod revlogs;

fn main() -> std::io::Result<()> {
    let args: Vec<String> = env::args().collect();
    let fname = &args[1];

    let mut f = File::open(fname)?;

    let revlog = revlogs::Revlog::new(&mut f)?;

    println!("{}", revlog);


Before this change all of the code that defined the Revlog struct lived above the definition of the main function. Now that code has been replaced with a single line: mod revlogs. This line tells the rust compiler that there is either a file named or a file named revlogs/ The latter allows splitting out a module even further into submodules. The other modification to the main function is the way I’m creating the Revlog instance. Rather than being able to use the Revlog name directly, I need to refer to it as revlogs::Revlog. I could have also said use revlogs::Revlog above main to bring the Revlog struct into scope, but I prefer to avoid doing that too much to make it clear where things are defined as I’m glancing at the code.

I also needed to make the Revlog struct public, along with the new method I implemented on it to create new Revlog instances from a file stream, so the struct definition now looks like:

pub struct Revlog {
    inline: bool,
    generaldelta: bool,
    entries: Vec<RevlogEntry>,

And the signature for the new method now begins with pub fn new instead of just fn new. I haven’t thought in detail about what should be public versus what the compiler insists has to be public due to how I’m using these modules. I think for a command-line application it doesn’t matter so much what my public API is because no one will be consuming it, but for a library it’s probably important. I will come back to these considerations later and see if I can understand how to manage separation of concerns in rust in more detail.

Next I further split out out the code for the Revlog struct into submodules for the Entry, Content, and Header structs and then moved the content and entry modules to be submodules of the entry submodule. Now everything is nice and modular, each module is relatively short, and the code is structured according to the logical structure of the data structure the code describes. Nice!

Error Handling with the Snafu Crate

Error handling in rust is still something that confuses me. It’s very different from how error handling works in Python with exceptions. In rust functions that might raise errors return an enum called Result that wraps either a valid return value or an error. One problem I have with this is that the errors in the rust standard library do not contain context (e.g. a backtrace) unless you explicitly add a context to the error. Any context associated with the error needs to be present at the location the error gets created, calling sites higher up the call stack that might have more information that would be usable to create a more helpful error message must consume the error and transform it into a new error with the appropriate context, all completely manually. Finally, rust’s static type system means that errors of one type are not necessarily convertible to errors of another type, so one must either explicitly convert errors from one type to another or manually define the conversion methods to and from a custom error type to other error types. This leads to a proliferation of boilerplate code for each error type.

The rust error handling story is still somewhat in flux. For example, RFC 2504 describes an ongoing effort to reword the Error type in the standard library. In online discussions people might suggest using the error-chain crate, the failure crate, or suggest just using the standard library Error type and having lots of boilerplate in code to handle conversions. As of early Summer 2019, the consensus seems to have moved to the snafu crate. From my perspective, one of the main advantages of snafu over failure is that snafu has much better documentation that contains clear usage examples. That’s the main reason I chose to use it. A recent reddit thread summarizes the state of things in 2019. I’m hoping that in the next year or two this situation will grow more clear.

The philosophy behind the Snafu crate is to transform instances of errors generated by standard library code or code outside of a developers control into application-specific errors that are variants of a generic enum that represents generic errors an application can produce. One defines an enum, in my case I called it RugError, with variants that correspond to various kinds of errors:

use snafu::{Backtrace, Snafu}
#[derive(Debug, Snafu)]
enum RugError {
    #[snafu(display("rug must be run from inside a valid directory"))]
    NotAValidDirectory {
        backtrace: Backtrace,
        source: std::io::Error,

    #[snafu(display("rug must be run from inside a repository"))]
    NotARepository { backtrace: Backtrace },

    #[snafu(display("The changelog file is not present in repository {}: {}",
                    path.display(), source))]
    NoChangelog {
        path: PathBuf,
        source: std::io::Error,
        backtrace: Backtrace,

    #[snafu(display("The revlog file {} cannot be parsed: {}", path.display(), source))]
    CannotParseRevlog {
        path: PathBuf,
        source: std::io::Error,
        backtrace: Backtrace,

I’ve told the compiler that my RugError enum derives from the Snafu attribute. Each variant in the RugError enum is given a snafu attribute, which allows me to customize the error message based on context-specific data. Together these attributes generate all of the error-conversion boilerplate that I would otherwise need to write myself to allow instances of my error type to be created from standard library errors.

Each error type can optionally define a source and backtrace field. If source is defined, it maps to an error type. That means that the corresponding variant must be created only from errors of the corresponding type. If one tries to create an error from an incompatible error type that will lead to a type mismatch and failed compilation. If source is not provided, that means one is creating an error from the None variant of some Option.

If the backtrace field is defined, the error type generated by snafu will contain a backtrace and when the error is printed out in a Debug or Display representation, the backtrace will also be printed. This is extremely helpful if it isn’t clear where exactly an error of some type might be generated in the code or if it isn’t clear how a piece of code is ultimately getting called by the application. Finally there can also be optional fields that contain metadata one can use to construct a nice error message. For example the CannotParseRevlog variant in my RugError enum contains a path field that represents the path to the changelog file that cannot be parsed. The error message generated by CannotParseRevlog uses both the path and the source field to generate the error message.

To make use of these errors, the snafu crate provides the ResultExt and OptionExt trait to extend the standard library Result and Option enums with new methods that can transform errors at call sites. I made use of the context method in a few places. For example, here is the function that determines whether the current working directory is a mercurial repository:

use snafu::{OptionExt, ResultExt}
fn hg_dir(current_dir: PathBuf) -> Result<PathBuf, RugError> {
    loop {
        let p = match {
            Some(d) => d,
            None => break None,
        let possible_hg_dir = p.join(".hg");
        if possible_hg_dir.is_dir() {
            break Some(possible_hg_dir);

This function takes no arguments and returns a Result that can represent either one of the custom errors I defined - a variant of the RugError enum, or the path of the .hg directory in the root of the repository, represented by a rust PathBuf object. The loop block returns an anonymous Option (e.g. it’s not bound to a variable name), that I call context on. I pass context the NotARepository variant. The context function converts the None variant of the Option into the NotARepository error. If the error ever bubbled back to main it would get printed along with a backtrace because NotARepository has a backtrace field. All of this happens automatically - this is the magic of the snafu crate!

Side note - this uses a newish feature of rust - the break statement can return values from inside a loop block. This feature was very handy here. Without it I would have needed to create a function that did the loop and explicitly returned an Option.

I can also call context on a Result. For example, here’s the line where I try to open the changelog file. If it isn’t present, I create a custom error that includes the path to the file that is supposed to exist:

let mut f = File::open(&fname).context(NoChangelog { path: &fname })?;

One downside of the snafu approach to error handling is that I need to be careful to ensure standard library errors get converted into RugError variants. In practice this means replacing usages of ? with context(SomeError)?, This can definitely be more verbose, however it also forces me to think about the meaning of my code and what exactly each error state really means. I’m hopeful that this will make debugging easier and lead to fewer cases where I’m looking at opaque, poorly-described errors.

Command Line Argument Parsing with clap and structopt

Of course it’s possible to parse command line arguments fully manually by consuming the iterator over arguments returned by the std::env::args function, as described in the book. This works but requires a lot of wheel-reinventing to get common behaviors like subcommands, positional arguments, optional arguments, and help output to work properly. It makes sense to delegate that work to an external library.

My first attempt at this used the clap library. In my usage of clap I generated the command line arguments for the rug log subcommand like this:

use clap::{App, AppSettings, SubCommand};

fn main() -> Result<(), RugError> {
    let matches = App::new("rug")
        .author("Nathan Goldbaum")
        .about("A rust implementation of some hg functionality")

    match matches.subcommand_name() {
        Some("log") => {
        _ => panic!("should be unreachable!"),


The name of the App corresponds to the name of the CLI binary. The version, author, and about fields populate information in the help text for the binary reported by rug --help. The setting usage tells clap to print the help text if someone calls rug with no arguments. Finally the subcommand creates a log subcommand that for now takes no arguments.

Finally to initiate the control flow for the program, I match over the name of the subcommand that a user supplied and then do the work of running rug log if someone passes in log. Note that the default branch is marked as unreachable, that’s because any other subcommand name will be caught and result in an error message reported to the user at the command line. Here’s a small command-line session to see all of that in action:

$ rug
rug 0.1
Nathan Goldbaum
A rust implementation of some hg functionality

    rug <SUBCOMMAND>

    -h, --help       Prints help information
    -V, --version    Prints version information

    help    Prints this message or the help of the given subcommand(s)

$ rug notacommand
error: Found argument 'notacommand' which wasn't expected, or isn't valid in this context

    rug <SUBCOMMAND>

For more information try --help

I also get colored output in the error case to visually highlight the important parts of the error message to the user - the colored output doesn’t show up in this post so don’t worry that you can’t see it here. I get all of this fancy functionality more or less “for free” just by setting up clap. I like it!

One thing I don’t like is that I’m matching over strings. In general clap will return strings to me that represent the values of command line options. That will work but will be brittle. I also won’t be able to use the ability of rust to check that I’m using all of the variants of an enum in a match statement at compile time - so I might forget to implement a feature and the compiler won’t alert me about it.

This problem is solved by structopt, another crate that wraps clap and allows one to define the command-line arguments and subcommands in terms of and enums or structs. Here is the equivalent structopt code to my usage of clap above:

    name = "rug",
    about = "A rust implementation of some hg functionality",
    author = "Nathan Goldbaum",
    version = "0.1",
    raw(setting = "structopt::clap::AppSettings::ArgRequiredElseHelp")
enum Rug {
    #[structopt(name = "log")]
    Log {},

fn main() {
    match Rug::from_args() {
        Rug::Log {} => match hg_log() {
            Ok(_) => {}
            Err(e) => println!("{}", e),

We define an enum whose variants represent all of the different subcommands. Each subcommand can then in turn define arguments that it accepts. In main I instantiate an instance of the enum from the command-line arguments and match over the result. Since the result will be variants of the enum, I know that I’ve handled all possible subcommands, otherwise I would generate a compiler error.

At this point I’m pretty happy with the state of things. The only thing that bothers me about structopt (and generically with code that uses rust’s attribute system) is that I’m programming inside of the attribute block, which feels a bit like writing code inside of a string: outside of normal control flow. My editor doesn’t highlight this code like normal code. The whole thing feels very magical. That said, I’m OK with the magic if it allows me to avoid a ton of boilerplate and make my code more maintainable.