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Writing a better Line Iterator in Rust

mineichen profile image Markus Ineichen ・4 min read

It was great fun solving last year's Advent of Code using Rust.
The problems were all approachable and got me thinking about new algorithms to solve them. A small part of the resulting code ended up in a "utils" crate to be accessible from every sub project in the workspace. The utils-crate included a struct called LineReaderIterator with the following signature:

pub struct LineReaderIterator<T, TFn: FnMut(&str) -> Result<T, Error>, TRead: Read> {
    reader: BufReader<TRead>,
    buffer: String,
    mapper: TFn,
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But why would you write your own iterator when there is std::io::BufRead::lines() in the standard library? When I looked at the lines()-signature, it resulted in a minor hickup: It returns a fresh String for each line instead of reusing a common buffer after the line was processed. Of course this never really impacted performance with such small input files, but as the entire AoC is about fun, I wanted to do that without this additional allocation.

The above iterator was able to parse each line into an appropriate struct. However, it wasn't perfect. When the first puzzle with multiple input sections arrived, I ended up using std::BufRead::lines() again, because there was no way to stop parsing and process the rest of the lines with another reducer. I thought that there must be a way to implement an Iterator<Item=&mut str>. After all, slice::IterMut also returns mutable references to it's data with an iterator.

Unfortunately it turned out you can't, because the signature of iterator makes it impossible to return a reference which only lives until the next call to next().

next(&mut self) -> Option<Self::Item>;
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But how is Slice::iter_mut() doing it? To my surprise, all references retrieved by the iterator could outlive the result of the next item. This is sound, because it never &mut references the same field twice.

let mut data = [1,1];
let mut data_iter = data.iter_mut();
let first =;
let second =;
assert_eq!(first, second); 
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At this point I lost hope to be able to implement my Iterator<&mut str> in a sound way. Even thought I could reuse the buffer with unsafe, the implementation would be unsound as there is no way to assure that the reference from the previous next() isn't used anymore. At least not without runtime checks. But is a runtime check really worse than allocating memory over and over again? What if we try to reuse a std::rc::Rc if the consumer doesn't keep any reference to the previous value? In fact, this seems to work just fine:

pub struct RcLineReaderIterator<TRead: Read> {
    reader: BufReader<TRead>,
    buffer: Rc<String>

impl<TRead: Read> RcLineReaderIterator<TRead> {
    fn new(reader: TRead) -> Self {
        Self { reader: BufReader::new(reader), buffer: Rc::new(String::new()) }

impl<TRead: Read> Iterator for RcLineReaderIterator<TRead> {
    type Item = Result<std::rc::Rc<String>, std::io::Error>;

    fn next(&mut self) -> Option<Self::Item> {
        let buf = if let Some(r) = Rc::get_mut(&mut self.buffer) {
        } else {
            println!("New Buffer");            
            self.buffer = Rc::new(String::new());
            Rc::get_mut(&mut self.buffer).unwrap()
        match self.reader.read_line(buf) {
            Ok(n) if n > 0 => {
                if buf.ends_with('\n') {
                    if buf.ends_with('\r') {
            Ok(_) => None,
            Err(e) => Some(Err(e.into())),
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Here you see a working example:

fn test_keep_ref() {
    let a = "Foo\nFoo\na\nbb\nccc\n";
    let cursor = std::io::Cursor::new(a);
    let mut iter = RcLineReaderIterator::new(cursor);
    assert_eq!(6, iter.filter_map(|i||i| i.len()).ok()).sum::<usize>());
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running 1 test
New Buffer
test tests::test_keep_ref ... ok

test result: ok. 1 passed; 0 failed; 0 ignored; 0 measured; 5 filtered out
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This pattern could be used in other places too, e.g. within a map() function.

Line as an attack vector

A slightly bigger hickup occured when I've read the docs of BufRead::read_line().

This function is blocking and should be used carefully: it is possible for an attacker to continuously send bytes without ever sending a newline or EOF.

It is not very rust-like to just mention such problems in the docs. I'd prefer to have an API which makes you aware of that. While writing this blog post I decided to write a small library avaliable at simple_lines, which returns an Result<Rc<String>, Error> for each line:

pub enum Error {
    Incomplete(Rc<String>), // unfinished lines with len() > buffer_size
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Of course, the actual implementation doesn't use std::BufRead::read_line(), but an alternative crate in the background. A benchmark counting all charracters showed, that my implementation is much faster (34.4 MB in 49.312ms vs 127.73ms with std::io::BufReader::lines()) and is much safer to be used in production.

A quick look into the future

In the future, RFC 1598 (GATs) could be used to address this issue and finally allow borrowing data until the next call to next(). It's however very unlikely that the Iterator trait changes. Not only because it would break backwards compatibility but other optimizations like parallelized data processing wouldn't be possible anymore.
On the other hand, simply introducing an additional trait for lending iterators could lead to coherence issues. If you want to read more about this topic, quinedot suggested the following article about lending streams, which applies to iterators in a similar way.

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