## Tail Call Optimisation in Rust

Published: 2019-10-26
Tags: rust, recursion

When developing a recursive algorithm regardless of the language one of the issues you as a programmer have to consider is not causing a stack overflow. In some cases you might know that the recursion won't be that deep, but there are perfectly good algorithms that can be expressed in recursive form that can and will consume all of the stack memory and then cause a crash.

There is a way to solve this - by rewriting the algorithm so that the recursive call is the last instruction in the function and the result of it is then returned unchanged you can execute this without adding a new stack frame. This is called tail call optimisation and if the language/compiler you're using supports it - you're in luck. Unfortunately, the Rust compiler doesn't support tail call optimisation in the general case. In this post I will be looking at how you can restructure your recursive functions using loops to avoid causing a stack overflow and why this is effectively the same as performing tail call optimisation.

### A simple recursive algorithm

First we'll need a simple and common recursive algorithm to use as an example. One of the easiest things that make sense to implement recursively is the all function that takes an iterator and a predicate function and checks that all the items in the iterator match the predicate.

fn all<I, P>(mut items: I, predicate: P) -> bool
where
I: Iterator,
P: Fn(I::Item) -> bool,
{
unimplemented!()
}


The recursive implementation of all is simple - if the predicate is false for the next item of the iterator then all should return false. If it is true then we need to repeat the same action on the rest of the iterator until the iterator is empty, at which point we can say that the predicate is true for all the items.

fn all<I, P>(mut items: I, predicate: P) -> bool
where
I: Iterator,
P: Fn(I::Item) -> bool,
{
match items.next() {
Some(item) => {
if predicate(item) {
all(items, predicate)
} else {
false
}
}
None => true,
}
}


It is clear that in this case all could take advantage of tail-call optimisation as the result of the recursive call is returned as-is.

So what's the issue here? Let's say we want to test a very long (potentially infinite) sequence. Every time all calls itself it creates a stack frame that consumes memory. Eventually, that leads to a stack overflow. A quick test to show it failing:

#[test]
fn long_sequence() {
assert!(!all(0.., |x| x < 1_000_000));
}


This fails on my machine, but if it runs fine on yours then it's always possible to make it crash just by increasing the cut-off number (or removing it altogether and making the closure always return true).

### Tail call optimisation using loop

Let's see what we can do to fix this. In case of all the solution is quite obvious - we can rewrite it using a loop. We can simply loop until the iterator is exhausted or we find an item where the predicate is false. To make it clear how this maps to the recursive style let's change the match in the first version to a break match and wrap it inside a loop. That way if the selected match branch returns a value we break out of the loop and return from our function. If on the other hand it would make a recursive call we can instead simply modify the state and use continue to start a new iteration of the loop. When rewriting a recursive function to use a loop this is key - instead of passing modified arguments to a recursive call we change the state and start a new iteration of the loop.

In the case of our all function we don't need to modify the state explicitly, this is done for us by the next method. If the predicate is true we move on to the next iteration using continue and if it's false we simply return false, which breaks the loop and is used as the return value of the function.

pub fn all<I, P>(mut items: I, predicate: P) -> bool
where
I: Iterator,
P: Fn(I::Item) -> bool,
{
loop {
break match items.next() {
Some(item) => {
if predicate(item) {
continue;
} else {
false
}
}
None => true,
};
}
}


If you try running the long_sequence test again you'll see that it no longer fails. However, continue is not often used and I feel that many people are more used to using break statements. We can rewrite the same tail-call optimised function by switching back from break match to a regular match - this way simply returning a value in a match branch does nothing, the loop continues. Instead we need to use a break statement to return a value from the loop and from our functions. The continue statement is no longer needed as the default behavior is to continue with the loop.

pub fn all<I, P>(mut items: I, predicate: P) -> bool
where
I: Iterator,
P: Fn(I::Item) -> bool,
{
loop {
match items.next() {
Some(item) => {
if !predicate(item) {
break false;
}
}
None => break true,
};
}
}


Note that since the None branch of the match is of unit type we also don't need the if to return any value either. This way we can get rid of one of the branches and only keep the one with the break statement.

### Short-circuiting logic operators

While this works, we can do away with the if statement - in Rust both || and && operators are short-circuiting, so we can use them as simple forms of flow control. In this case we want to break false when the predicate is false for the current item, so we can instead write:

pub fn all<I, P>(mut items: I, predicate: P) -> bool
where
I: Iterator,
P: Fn(I::Item) -> bool,
{
loop {
match items.next() {
Some(item) => predicate(item) || break false,
None => break true,
};
}
}


This looks much nicer and also more compact. But remember that we started by using continue instead of break? We can use it in a similar fashion, but since we only want to continue if the predicate is true we have to use && instead.

pub fn all<I, P>(mut items: I, predicate: P) -> bool
where
I: Iterator,
P: Fn(I::Item) -> bool,
{
loop {
break match items.next() {
Some(item) => predicate(item) && continue,
None => true,
};
}
}


This works just fine and passes the test, but I find the && continue part a lot less obvious than the correspondig || break true. Overall I think that while the continue style is helpful for understanding as the continue maps directly to a recursive call in code, the break style should normally be preferred.

Hopefully I've convinced you that while having in-built tail call optimisation is nice it's really not that difficult to rewrite your recursive code using loops thus making it a little more robust. There is also a performance benefit and I'm planning to write another post about that, complete with some benchmarks!