Rust std study series: Interior mutability

Continuing the standard library study, it’s time for Cell<T>!

Rust compiler enforces multiple reads access and a single write access mutually exclusive, i.e. either multiple shared references & or one and only one mutable reference & mut. So essentially, Rust prevents the evil of aliasing and mutation between multiple threads.

Cell<T> is a sharable mutable container designed carefully to prevent stepping into the UB land. Note that unsafe cast of & to & mut is immediate UB, so Cell was designed to manage/catch such UB at compile time. This container behaves like & allowing & mut. However, there’s a distinction between a single threaded behavior and multi-threaded one:

  • Single threaded: Cell<T> (owns a values) and RefCell<T> (borrows a value with runtime cost).
  • Multi-threaded: Mutex<T>, RwLock<T>, etc. (synchronization primitives)

The essence of Cell can be understood in terms of Variance and the compiler support which we explored before. As usual, std has a great explanations in particular, an enlightening example in mutating implementations of Clone that manages the side-effect of Rc<T> via Cell. In other words, an immutable struct with a Cell ed field allows mutation for that field.

There core primitive for interior mutability is UnsafeCell<T> which to my knowledge is the only invariant container.


#[lang = "unsafe_cell"] // <-- invariant type support
#[repr(transparent)] // <-- enforces the same type repr as the underlying `T`
pub struct UnsafeCell<T: ?Sized> {
    value: T,
// UnsafeCell is not Sync, hence "single-threadedness".
// In other words, it cannot share references between multiple threads 
impl<T: ?Sized> !Sync for UnsafeCell<T> {}

impl<T: ?Sized> UnsafeCell<T> {
    pub const fn get(&self) -> *mut T {
        // We can just cast the pointer from `UnsafeCell<T>` to `T` because of
        // #[repr(transparent)]
        self as *const UnsafeCell<T> as *const T as *mut T
#[repr(transparent)] // <-- so the final type repr is the same as `T`
pub struct Cell<T: ?Sized> {
    value: UnsafeCell<T>,

impl<T: Copy> Cell<T> { // <-- note that `T` must be `Copy`
    pub fn get(&self) -> T {
        unsafe{ *self.value.get() }

impl<T> Cell<T> {
    // compile time guarantee that we process the ONLY one reference
    pub fn get_mut(&mut self) -> &mut T {
        unsafe {
            &mut *self.value.get()
    pub fn set(&self, val: T) {
        let old = self.replace(val);
        drop(old); // <-- drops the old value

// Uphold the assumption of the wrapped `UnsafeCell`
impl<T: ?Sized> !Sync for Cell<T> {}
// If `T` can be transferred across thread boundaries, so does `Cell`
unsafe impl<T: ?Sized> Send for Cell<T> where T: Send {}

Notable properties

  • Cell’s get method is defined only for Copy i.e. bit-wise copyable, otherwise cannot move of the borrowed &self.
  • Only when the underlying type is Copy it is possible to clone the Cell.
  • Cell’s swap method is just a pointer swap and the difference between this and mem::swap is Cell’s swap doesn’t need & mut.
  • Cell’s take method, takes the value of the cell and leaves Default::default value in its place.
  • Cell’s replace method uses mem::replace to replace the new value and return the old value.
  • Cell<T> is Send + !Sync (given T: Send), meaning it is safe to transfer Cell between multiple threads (when the underlying value allows us) but references of the Cell cannot be shared between multiple threads.


A mutable memory location with dynamically checked borrow rules

Rust std doc
// Positive values shows the number of active `Ref`
// Negative values shows the number of active `RefMut`
type BorrowFlag = isize;

pub struct RefCell<T: ?Sized> {
    borrow: Cell<BorrowFlag>, // <-- subtle
    value: UnsafeCell<T>,

unsafe impl<T: ?Sized> Send for RefCell<T> where T: Send {}
impl<T: ?Sized> !Sync for RefCell<T> {}

struct BorrowRef<'b> {
    borrow: &'b Cell<BorrowFlag>,

/// A wrapper type for an immutably borrowed value from a `RefCell<T>`
pub struct Ref<'b, T: ?Sized + 'b> {
    value: &'b T,
    borrow: BorrowRef<'b>,

struct BorrowRefMut<'b> {
    borrow: &'b Cell<BorrowFlag>,

/// A wrapper type for a mutably borrowed value from a `RefCell<T>`
pub struct RefMut<'b, T: ?Sized + 'b> {
    value: &'b mut T,
    borrow: BorrowRefMut<'b>,

Ref and RefMut are both two words in size, and so there will likely never be enough Refs or RefMuts in existence to overflow half of the usize range. Thus, a BorrowFlag will probably never overflow or underflow. However, this is not a guarantee, as a pathological program could repeatedly create and then mem::forget Refs or RefMuts. Thus, all code must explicitly check for overflow and underflow in order to avoid unsafety, or at least behave correctly in the event that overflow or underflow happens.

Internal std doc of BorrowFlag

One important distinction between RefCell and Cell is the ability to

  • try_borrow (and the panicking versionborrow): It immutably borrows the wrapped value, returning an error if the value is currently mutably borrowed. The borrow lasts until the returned Ref exits scope.
  • try_borrow_mut (panicking version borrow_mut): Mutably borrows the wrapped value, returning an error if the value is currently borrowed. The borrow lasts until the returned RefMut or all RefMuts derived from it exit scope. The value cannot be borrowed while this borrow is active.

We’ve covered most of details and important points of how managed interior mutability is possible in Rust.

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