PhantomData

When working with unsafe code, we can often end up in a situation where types or lifetimes are logically associated with a struct, but not actually part of a field. This most commonly occurs with lifetimes. For instance, the Iter for &'a [T] is (approximately) defined as follows:


#![allow(unused)]
fn main() {
struct Iter<'a, T: 'a> {
    ptr: *const T,
    end: *const T,
}
}

However because 'a is unused within the struct's body, it's unbounded. Because of the troubles this has historically caused, unbounded lifetimes and types are forbidden in struct definitions. Therefore we must somehow refer to these types in the body. Correctly doing this is necessary to have correct variance and drop checking.

We do this using PhantomData, which is a special marker type. PhantomData consumes no space, but simulates a field of the given type for the purpose of static analysis. This was deemed to be less error-prone than explicitly telling the type-system the kind of variance that you want, while also providing other useful things such as the information needed by drop check.

Iter logically contains a bunch of &'a Ts, so this is exactly what we tell the PhantomData to simulate:


#![allow(unused)]
fn main() {
use std::marker;

struct Iter<'a, T: 'a> {
    ptr: *const T,
    end: *const T,
    _marker: marker::PhantomData<&'a T>,
}
}

and that's it. The lifetime will be bounded, and your iterator will be variant over 'a and T. Everything Just Works.

Another important example is Vec, which is (approximately) defined as follows:


#![allow(unused)]
fn main() {
struct Vec<T> {
    data: *const T, // *const for variance!
    len: usize,
    cap: usize,
}
}

Unlike the previous example, it appears that everything is exactly as we want. Every generic argument to Vec shows up in at least one field. Good to go!

Nope.

The drop checker will generously determine that Vec<T> does not own any values of type T. This will in turn make it conclude that it doesn't need to worry about Vec dropping any T's in its destructor for determining drop check soundness. This will in turn allow people to create unsoundness using Vec's destructor.

In order to tell dropck that we do own values of type T, and therefore may drop some T's when we drop, we must add an extra PhantomData saying exactly that:


#![allow(unused)]
fn main() {
use std::marker;

struct Vec<T> {
    data: *const T, // *const for variance!
    len: usize,
    cap: usize,
    _marker: marker::PhantomData<T>,
}
}

Raw pointers that own an allocation is such a pervasive pattern that the standard library made a utility for itself called Unique<T> which:

  • wraps a *const T for variance
  • includes a PhantomData<T>
  • auto-derives Send/Sync as if T was contained
  • marks the pointer as NonZero for the null-pointer optimization

Table of PhantomData patterns

Here’s a table of all the wonderful ways PhantomData could be used:

Phantom type'aT
PhantomData<T>-variant (with drop check)
PhantomData<&'a T>variantvariant
PhantomData<&'a mut T>variantinvariant
PhantomData<*const T>-variant
PhantomData<*mut T>-invariant
PhantomData<fn(T)>-contravariant
PhantomData<fn() -> T>-variant
PhantomData<fn(T) -> T>-invariant
PhantomData<Cell<&'a ()>>invariant-