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Kevin K.
Kevin K.

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Diving into Rust with a CLI

A blog post titled, "Diving into Go by Building a CLI Application" has been making it's rounds of the internet. It uses a small XKCD downloader as the subject. I thought was small and self contained enough, that it'd be interesting to see the same example in Rust!

NOTE: This article assumes the reader is at least mildly familiar with Rust.

This will be an almost one to one comparison, however there are slight differences that I will call out as we go along.

We'll call this grab-xkcd since we're dropping the go.

$ cargo new grab-xkcd
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The basic structure will be this:

  • A main() function will drive the application, and exit with any error messages
  • An Args struct will hold and control our CLI
  • A XkcdClient struct will hold our logic for making requests and running the application
  • A Comic struct will hold our representation of a single comic
  • A ComicResponse will represent the JSON returned by the XKCD API


With those components in mind, I like to start all CLI applications by building, or at least stubbing the CLI. This allows me to get a feel for what it's like to use the tool, and often leads to small changes for a better user experience
(UX). Granted, we're talking about the CLI here, so UX is on a relative scale, but there is nothing that says a CLI has to be terrible!

As per the other article, we'll accept four arguments:

  • --number: which allows picking a certain comic, or defaults to 0 which the XKCD API defines as the most recent comic
  • --save: to fetch and save the actual comic image to our current directory
  • --output: to allow selecting between JSON or Text representations of our Comic (defaulting to text)
  • --timeout: which allows customizing the request timeout, defaulting to 30 seconds

We can do this all in just a few lines of Rust via the clap crate. However,
for those familiar with the structopt crate, which allows one to define a Rust struct that contains all the CLI logic, as of clap 3.0 that
code has been merged together. We will use the 3.0.0-beta.1 release of clap to demonstrate.

We'll use cargo-edit to add our dependencies:

$ cargo add clap --allow-prerelease
    Updating '' index
      Adding clap v3.0.0-beta.1 to dependencies
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Here is our CLI:

use clap::Clap;

/// A utility to grab XKCD comics
pub struct Args {
    /// Set a connection timeout
    #[clap(long, short, default_value = "30")]
    pub timeout: u64,
    /// Print output in a format
    #[clap(long, short, arg_enum, default_value = "text")]
    pub output: OutFormat,
    /// The comic to load
    #[clap(long, short, default_value = "0")]
    pub num: usize,
    /// Save image file to current directory
    #[clap(long, short)]
    pub save: bool,

#[derive(Clap, Copy, Clone)]
pub enum OutFormat {
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I'll do a quick walk through of highlights to explain a few differences from the first article.

  • #[derive(Clap) is where all the magic happens, it tells clap to use the struct Args as the CLI.
  • /// ... is a documentation comment, which gets translated into the "about" section of a CLI or argument
  • long, short tells clap to create a long --foo and short -f switch automatically based off the field name.
  • arg_enum tells clap to use the field's enum as the value variants.

Notice we included an enum OutFormat with two variants. This allows us to limit the possible values provided on the CLI to known values. It also allows us to not have to use Strings to represent it, reducing errors and typos!

If we provide some value not expected, clap informs the user an exits:

$ grab-xkcd --output yaml
error: 'yaml' isn't a valid value for '--output <FMT>'
    [possible values: json, text]

    grab-xkcd --num <num> --output <FMT> --timeout <timeout>

For more information try --help
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Ok, so the CLI is pretty much complete. Let's drive our main() function with what we've got so far:

fn main() {
    let args = Args::parse();
    // ... todo
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Since clap handles the errors on invalid CLI use, we don't need to worry about any sort of validation or exiting on errors.

NOTE: clap does provide the ability to handle errors manually. But for this quick example it's out of scope.

Let's also add some of those constants from the other article:

const BASE_URL: &str = "";
const LATEST_COMIC: usize = 0;
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As noted comments from the other article, 0 represents the latest comic according to the API.


Alright, now we can start on the client to actually fetch the data from the server.

We'll use this client to hold the logic for our application, that means it needs to do a few things:

  • Make a GET request against the XKCD API
  • Parse the response JSON into a Comic
  • Print the Comic in the format specified by --output
  • If the user requested to save the image:
    • Fetch the image from the server via another HTTP GET request
    • Write the data to a file
  • Return any errors that happen along the way

Since we'll need to know a few items from our CLI, we can make our XkcdClient contain a field holding our Args struct. And a way to instantiate a new instance of this client:

struct XkcdClient {
    args: Args,

impl XkcdClient {
    fn new(args: Args) -> Self {
        XkcdClient { args }
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Now we can add that to our main() method:

main() {
    let args = Args::parse();
    let client = XkcdClient::new(args);
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At this point, I usually stub out the rest of the main function:

main() {
    let args = Args::parse();
    let client = XkcdClient::new(args);;
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Hmm...but we already said errors can happen along the way, so XkcdClient::run will most likely return some form of Result.

We have some options, either match the return of run() and print the error/exit the process on error, or just let main() handle it. For this simple example, we'll let main() handle it. This has the expense that some error messages may be a little cryptic error: OS error 1, but small tool like this it's fine. We can leave it as an exercise for the reader to implement real error handling.

To let main() handle our errors, it needs to return a Result as well. Since we'll be dealing all kinds of different errors from different crates, it's helpful
to have some convenience methods and representation for handling all this. The anyhow crate does just this!

$ cargo add anyhow
    Updating '' index
      Adding anyhow v1.0.31 to dependencies
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We can now use the anyhow::Result type who's E generic uses the anyhow::Error which is a lot like a Box<dyn std::error::Error> under the covers.

So we update our main() method:

use anyhow::Result;

fn main() -> Result<()> {
    let args = Args::parse();
    let client = XkcdClient::new(args);
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Now if our run() method returns an Err(..), Rust will insert a pretty:

error: foo
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message when it exits. This also allows us to bubble up all the various errors with a simple ? operator.

Now it looks like we should implement XkcdClient::run, however since that will drive the entire application, it will utilize a bunch of stuff we haven't created yet. So let's hold off and come back to it later.


First, we know we'll make an HTTP GET request against the API, so lets create a struct to hold the response:

pub struct ComicResponse {
    month: String,
    num: usize,
    link: String,
    year: String,
    news: String,
    safe_title: String,
    transcript: String,
    alt: String,
    img: String,
    title: String,
    day: String,
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Not too bad. But the API will return JSON, so we'll need to marshall the data into our struct. Luckily, the serde crate exists for serializing and deserializing data with ease.

I can't stress this enough. serde is bar none, the best serialization library I've used in any language. Much like the clap crate for CLIs (but I'm biased about that, since I wrote clap... ᕕ(⌐■_■)ᕗ ♪♬).

We can add some crates used for this serialization now:

$ cargo add serde serde_derive serde_json
    Updating '' index
      Adding serde v1.0.110 to dependencies
      Adding serde_derive v1.0.110 to dependencies
      Adding serde_json v1.0.53 to dependencies
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Why three crates?

  • serde provides the traits
  • serde_derive provides the procedural macros so we can just tag our structs with a #[derive(..)]
  • serde_json uses these to convert to/from JSON strings.

So all we do is update our ComicResponse struct with the attribute:

struct ComicResponse {
    // .. same as before
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We only care about deserialization (from JSON to Rust struct), but if we cared about going the other direction we could have just as easily added Serialize to the list of #[derive]ed traits.


So we have our response, which is the Rust representation of the raw JSON, but we only care about a few elements. Likewise, we'd like to display the date in a more friendly format.

Let's first create our Comic struct to hold the data we care about:

struct Comic {
    title: String,
    num: usize,
    date: String,
    desc: String,
    img_url: String,
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The most idiomatic Rust way to get from one type to another is the From trait. So we can now implement the From<ComicResponse> trait for our Comic which will give us some sweet .into() abilities.

impl From<ComicResponse> for Comic {
    fn from(cr: ComicResponse) -> Self {
        Comic {
            title: cr.title,
            num: cr.num,
            date: format!("{}-{}-{}",, cr.month, cr.year),
            desc: cr.alt,
            img_url: cr.img,
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Pretty self explanitory.

Ok, so we have a Comic and we have a ComicResponse and the ability to convert between them, what else do we need to implement run?

Although we derived the ability to go from a JSON formatted string to a ComicResponse we haven't actually utilized that code anywhere yet. So lets wire that up with another From impl:

impl From<String> for ComicResponse {
    fn from(json: String) -> Self {
        serde_json::from_str(&json) // ...uh oh, returns a Result
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Hmm. Ok so serde_json::from_str returns a Result which makes sense. Any string may not be valid JSON, and especially not valid for whatever struct we're trying to create.

So we can either expect that the JSON string we're given is always valid, and panic otherwise, or if we allow From express fallibility.

Turns out there is a version of From for exactly this, std::convert::TryFrom!

With quick update, we're back at it:

impl TryFrom<String> for ComicResponse {
    type Error = anyhow::Error;
    fn try_from(json: String) -> Result<Self, Self::Error> {
        serde_json::from_str(&json).map_err(|e| e.into())
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Notice we used anyhow::Error as the error type, but that meant we needed to map the error from the serde error, to the anyhow error. Not hard, but something to note.

Alright! We finally have enough of the scaffolding to write run with some minor stubs!


First, we know we'll be making an HTTP request so we'll need some crate to do that for us. There are a ton of options out there. One I've used before is reqwest which supports both async and blocking I/O. We'll be using the blocking I/O version, so let's add that crate now. We'll need the blocking feature since we're using blocking I/O:

$ cargo add reqwest --features blocking
    Updating '' index
      Adding reqwest v0.10.4 to dependencies
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We could have done this manually by editting the features array as well:

# Cargo.toml
# .. snip
reqwest = { version = "0.10.4", features = ["blocking"]}
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Now we can write the actual method! Here goes!

impl XkcdClient {
    // ... same as above

    fn run(&self) -> Result<()> {
        let url = if let Some(n) = self.args.num {  // 5
            format!("{}/{}/info.0.json", BASE_URL, n)
        } else {
            format!("{}/info.0.json", BASE_URL)
        };                                          // 9
        let http_client = reqwest::blocking::ClientBuilder::new() // 10
            .build()?;                             // 12
        let resp: ComicResponse = http_client.get(&url).send()?.text()?.try_into()?; // 13
        let comic: Comic = resp.into();            // 14
        if {                        // 15
        }                                          // 17
        comic.print(self.args.output)?;            // 18
        Ok(())                                     // 19
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Ok, that's a lot to take in.

Let's go over the highlights:

  • Lines 5-9: We build a request URL based on if the user requested a particualr comic, if not we get the latest comic
  • Lines 10-12: We build an HTTP client with a custom timeout based on --timeout or the default
  • Line 13: We make the GET request, convert it to text (JSON), then attempt to convert to a ComicResponse
  • Line 14: We convert the ComicResponse into a Comic
  • Lines 15-17: If the user wants to save the image, we stub out save call
  • Line 18: Prints out the Comic repsresentation in the format requested, or the default
  • Line 19: Returns no errors

Notice all the ? points! Turns out errors can happen everywhere but thanks to anyhow::{Result, Error} we can easily convert between them. A more proper solution would be to create our own error representation that contains the
original errors and knows how to print errors and exit appropriately. But that is out of scope for this article.

If we didn't care about custom timeouts, lines 10-13 could have been reduced to a single line using reqwest::blocking::get]( Oh well.

We've also gone ahead and added fallibility to the save and print functions becuase both of which could realistically fail for many reasons, so it's a safe assumption that we'll be returning some kind of Result.

So let's implement those now.


This should be a simple addition, all we need to do is match on the OutFormat and print the Comic representation appropriately.

Let's stub that out:

impl Comic {
    // .. snip

    fn print(&self, of: OutFormat) -> Result<()> {
        match of {
            OutFormat::Text => println!("{}", todo!("print self as Text")),
            OutFormat::Json => println!("{}", todo!("print self as JSON")),
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NOTE: The signature of print takes OutFormat by value, which only works because we #[derive]d Copy and it's a small struct that fits into a register so this is fine. If we had larger variants, that caused OutFormat to be a large enum, we could have taken it by reference &OutFormat instead.

NOTE: todo!() is like unimplemented!() and will allow code to compile but you'll receive a nice todo message if this code is reached during execution.


Ok, so first what does it mean to print the Comic struct as text? Well we can implement std::fmt::Display for Comic which will allow an instance of Comic to be printed using things like println! directly.

So if we implement Display for the OutFormat::Text variant, it would look something like this:

impl fmt::Display for Comic {
    fn fmt(&self, f: &mut fmt::Formatter<'_>) -> fmt::Result {
            "Title: {}\n\
            Comic No: {}\n\
            Date: {}\n\
            Description: {}\n\
            Image: {}\n",
            self.title, self.num,, self.desc, self.img_url
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Then updating our print method like so:

impl Comic {
    // .. snip

    fn print(&self, of: OutFormat) -> Result<()> {
        match of {
            OutFormat::Text => println!("{}", self),
            OutFormat::Json => println!("{}", todo!("print self as JSON")),
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Now for JSON!

What if we could just use serde_json again, but in the reverse of before (Rust struct to JSON)? #[derive(Serialize)]!

struct Comic {
    // .. snip
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And we update our print method:

fn print(&self, of: OutFormat) -> Result<()> {
    match of {
        OutFormat::Text => println!("{}", self),
        OutFormat::Json => println!("{}", serde_json::to_string(self)?),
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Yep, we knew it could fail somehow! serde_json::to_string returns a Result in case it can't turn the struct in JSON for some reason.


It's also debatable if the logic for save should be in Comic or the XkcdClient. So arbitrarily I picked Comic. In a larger application it would become more apparent which location is more appropriate.

The logic will be similar to that of run where we need to:

  • Determine our current working directory (which can be done with std::env::current_dir)
  • Determine the image file name
  • Add the two together to form a file path for saving
  • Perform an HTTP GET on the image URL
  • Save the bytes to a file

We already have the image URL from the earlier request, but in order to get the file name, we'll need to split the URL parts into the final segment. There are many ways to do this, but the url crate makes it pretty easy with iterators.

First we add the url crate:

$ cargo add url
    Updating '' index
      Adding url v2.1.1 to dependencies
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Next we will need to create an instance of Url from the String we've been storing, and iterate it's "segments" to get the last one which will be the file name.

So let's do that much so far:

impl Comic {
    fn save(&self) -> Result<()> {
        let url = Url::parse(&*self.img_url)?;    // 3
        let img_name = url.path_segments().unwrap().last().unwrap(); // 4
        let p = std::env::current_dir()?;         // 5
        let p = p.join(img_name);                 // 6
        let mut file = std::fs::File::create(p)?; // 7

    todo!("do HTTP GET and save the file!");
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There a little bit to unpack here:

  • Line 3: parses the string URL into an instance of Url with fallibility
  • Line 4: iterates the segments, and takes the last one.
  • Line 5: Gets the current directory
  • Line 6: Joins the current directory and the image file name to create a file path
  • Line 7: Creates a file from the given file path for writing.

Since we already know how to perform a GET request, this next part should be a breeze. The only added part is writing the bytes of the response to a file which can be done with the std::io::Read trait, which provides the write! method for
writing arbitrary bytes, and the bytes() method of the response which turns the response into raw bytes, which can be dereferenced into &[u8] that write! accepts.

fn save(&self) -> Result<()> {
    use std::io::Read;

    // .. snip, same as before

    let body = reqwest::blocking::get(&self.img_url)?;
    file.write_all(&*body.bytes()?).map_err(|e| e.into())
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We once again have to map the error type so it fits our anyhow::Error, but not to much drama.

And we're done!

Notes on Differences

Even though this article isn't to point out differences between Rust and Go, it's still interesting to compare the two.

We can see that the Rust code is a little more verbose than the Go code in some areas, while the Go code is more verbose others. This, in my opinion stems from the Rust code being much more explicit about the errors that are possible at all levels.

We've essentially, ignored most errors and let them bubble up to the terminal function for a simple error: foo message, which we've already acknowledge may include some errors that seem mysterious to the users. Again, if this were a real application, we could create our own errors and utilizing (or map) the ones the originating errors into more friendly messages.

The Rust code also relies on more external libraries. Reasonable people can disagree on if this is good, bad, or a non-issue. I personally like the power that these libraries bring, and their quality is astounding in most cases.

clap handles a ton for us, that makes some differences between the Go and Rust version for almost no boilerplate. We've already seen what happens if we pass an invalid option to --output, but consider what happens if we typo --timeout and instead type --timeotu:

$ grab-xkcd --timeotu
error: Found argument '--timeotu' which wasn't expected, or isn't valid in this context

    Did you mean '--timeout'?

If you tried to supply `--timeotu` as a PATTERN use `-- --timeotu`

    grab-xkcd --timeout <timeout>

For more information try --help
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We can also handle any of the following permutations of options (only using --output as example):

  • -o text
  • -otext
  • -o=text
  • --output=text
  • --output text

We can even "stack" short flags (in our case only --save exists), making any of these valid as well (stacking --save with --output):

  • -so text
  • -so=text
  • -sotext

Another note about serde is we could have forgone the ComicResponse struct altogether and just used Comic to even further reduce the code. This works because serde can be told to #[serde(skip)] fields that we don't care about.
However, I left it in to be closer to the Go version.


Hopefully this article shed some light on building a tiny CLI program in Rust.

Rust is an amazing language for building CLI utilities! In fact, it's replaced Python as my go-to language for CLIs of any size quite some time ago.

In the next post we'll look at adding CLI Shell Completions to this program.

The full code from this article can be found at

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