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Ian Wilson
Ian Wilson

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Mastering the File System with Rust

Building backend services with Rust can be difficult if you have to keep 10 tabs worth of documentation open at all times. I find it helpful to practice and learn how certain libraries work, reducing the time spent combing through documentation.

Depending on the kind of application or utility you are making, you may need to deal with the filesystem at some point.

If you're creating some sort of data storage without reaching for a database like Postgres or MySQL, you'll probably store your data in files.

If you're writing software to compose audio or video, you'd have to be able to write and read those files.

If you're creating a utility to help scaffold out a project like create-react-app or cargo new, you would want to use the filesystem to create your boilerplate directories and files.

Regardless of your goals, it would be helpful to know the common methods used in the std::fs namespace as you'll otherwise be looking them up all the time while building your project.

Overview of Key Functions

Docs: The docs for the fs crate are available here.

Reading files

Note: If you do not yet understand how generic function parameters work, you can read this chapter in the Rust Book.

For example, a path, P, is defined to be any type which implements a method which implements the trait AsRef<Path>.

Starting with the basics, this is the function signature for std::fs::read.

fn read<P: AsRef<Path>>(path: P) -> io::Result<Vec<u8>>

You can use this method of the fs crate in order to read a file at a given path and return a vector of bytes. Its usage works like the below snippet:

use std::fs;
use std::path::Path;

fn main() {
  let path = Path::new("screenshot.png");
  let data = fs::read(path).unwrap();

  // do something with `data`

The read method is actually a convenience wrapper for calls to File::open and std::fs::read_to_end. This is nice because we have access to the granular, low-level functions without sacrificing the simpler read method.

pub fn read<P: AsRef<Path>>(path: P) -> io::Result<Vec<u8>> {
    fn inner(path: &Path) -> io::Result<Vec<u8>> {
        let mut file = File::open(path)?;
        let mut bytes = Vec::with_capacity(initial_buffer_size(&file));
        file.read_to_end(&mut bytes)?;

Writing files

Here is the function signature for fs::write:

fn write<P: AsRef<Path>, C: AsRef<[u8]>>(path: P, contents: C) -> Result<()>

Assuming you have some data as a slice of bytes, you can write this to a file at a path.

Since the write method is merely a side-effect, it's return is just a Result type which resolves to either unit or an error if something went wrong.

use std::fs;
use std::path::Path;

fn main() {
  let path = Path::new("hello.txt");
  let contents = "hello there";
  fs::write(path, contents).unwrap();

Just like with the read method, write is a convenience wrapper for File::create and std::io::write_all. Here is the actual implementation:

pub fn write<P: AsRef<Path>, C: AsRef<[u8]>>(path: P, contents: C)
  -> io::Result<()> {
    fn inner(path: &Path, contents: &[u8]) -> io::Result<()> {
    inner(path.as_ref(), contents.as_ref())

With both fs::read and fs::write, we see generic type arguments in action. For the P argument, this allows us to use types like str, String, Path, or PathBuf when calling one of these methods.

The standard library uses a pattern where they define an inner function with specific type parameters. They then call it with the outermost arguments after casting them with as_ref, the function required by the AsRef trait.

My goal is not to explain generic types and traits, but I find exploring how the standard library uses them to be quite insightful.

An Example: Copying files

Let us say we'd like to copy a file from one directory to another, similar to the cp command on unix.

We could do this by writing:

use std::fs;
use std::path::Path;

fn main() {
  let input = Path::new("hello.txt");
  let data = fs::read(input).unwrap();

  let output = Path::new("hello_copy.txt");
  fs::write(output, data).unwrap();

Rust's fs library gives us yet another convenience method for this task, fs::copy.

use std::fs;
use std::path::Path;

fn main() {
  let input = Path::new("hello.txt");
  let output = Path::new("hello_copy.txt");
  fs::copy(input, output).unwrap();

Other Useful Methods

Read and write are definitely some of the more obvious uses of a filesystem, but generally speaking, a thorough application will also include other capabilities like handling directories.

Reading utilities:

  • fs::read_to_string - returns file contents as a String rather than [u8] bytes
  • fs::read_dir - returns an iterator over all of the entries (files and other directories) within a directory

Writing utilities:

  • fs::create_dir - creates a new, empty directory at a given path.
  • fs::create_dir_all - given a path, will recursively create all necessary directories if they are missing
  • fs::rename - rename a file or directory to a given name, similar to mv command in unix

Removal utilities:

  • fs::remove_file - remove a given file
  • fs::remove_dir - remove a given, empty directory
  • fs::remove_dir_all - remove a directory and all of its contents (be careful with this one)

Since this isn't a match statement, I won't present an exhaustive list of methods, but you can view that in the docs.

Thanks For Reading

I hope you have enjoyed this article or found some sort of use for it. I am currently working on a project that uses some of these method to create something that will help my own development.

If you'd like to keep up with the next time I drop an article in the realm of Rust, ReasonML, GraphQL, or software development at large, feel free to give me a follow on Twitter,, or on my website at

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