When Zig Outshines Rust - Memory Efficient Enum Arrays
Sep 2023 - RSS
Enums (or tagged unions) whose variants vary in size are prone to significant memory fragmentation in Rust. That's because we need to allocate enough data to accommodate the largest variant.
Figure 1: Consider the following enum:
pub enum Foo { 

Because of the space needed for tagging and alignment, this type is 16 bytes long.
A visualization of an enum with variants of different sizes, and their respective memory fragmentation.

This presents real pain when collecting a large number of them into a Vec or HashMap. The padding can be dealt with using some form of struct of arrays (SoA) transformation that stores the tag in a separate allocation. However, reducing the variant fragmentation is not so trivial.

You could hand-roll specialized data structures for a particular enum that reduce fragmentation to a minimum; but doing this generically for an arbitrary enum with maximum memory efficiency is close to impossible in Rust. The only options we have are proc-macros, which compose poorly (no #[derive] on third-party code or type aliases) and are not type aware (unless using workarounds based on generic_const_expr, which infect the call graph with verbose where-clauses and don't work with generic type parameters). Zig on the other hand let's us perform the wildest data structure transformations in a generic and concise way.

Before I go into the implementation details, I'd like to explain why reducing the aforementioned memory fragmentation is useful in practice.


To me, one of the biggest motivators for efficient enum arrays has been compilers. One problem that keeps coming up when designing an AST is figuring out how to reduce its memory footprint. Big ASTs can incur a hefty performance penalty during compilation, because memory bandwidth and latency are a frequent bottleneck in compiler frontends. Chandler Carruth's video on the Carbon compiler has been making the rounds on language forums. In it he describes how a parsed clang AST regularly consumes 50x more memory than the original source code!

Alright, so what does this have to do with enums? Well, the most common way of representing syntax tree nodes is via some kind of recursive (or recursive-like) data structure. Let's define a node for expressions in Rust, using newtype indices for indirection:

enum Expr {
    Binary(Operation, ExprId, ExprId),
    Eval(ExprId, ExprSlice),
    BlockExpression(ExprId, StatementSlice)
Note: We can write an AST node in OCaml for comparison:
type expr = 
  | Unit
  | Number
  | Binary of op * expr * expr
  | Ident of symbol
  | Eval of expr * stmt list

A big difference compared to Rust is that we can express truly recursive data types without any form of explicit indirection. That's because the runtime system and garbage collector take care of the memory bookkeeping for us.
The problem we have now is that we want to improve the packing efficiency of those enums. A simple Vec(Expr) will consume sizeof(Enum) amount of memory for every element, which corresponds to the size of the largest variant + tag + padding. Luckily, there are some ways of dealing with this.
Reducing Fragmentation
Let's take a simple example of a 3-variant enum with member sizes 8, 16 and 32 bits. Storing those in a regular Vec will look like this:
Figure 2: Here every element reserves a large amount of space to accommodate the 32-bit variant and to satisfy its alignment.
A visualization of an array of enum values, with varying fragmentation levels per element

The most common way to improve packing efficiency is by just keeping the enum variants as small as possible using tagged indices (*).

(*): For examples in Rust, take a look at the tagged_index crate used in the compiler or check out this recent blog post on small-string optimization. You'll find these optimizations all the time in high-performance code like language runtimes, garbage collectors, compilers, game engines or OS kernels.

Unfortunately, that doesn't completely solve the fragmentation issue. The other way is to tackle the container type directly! We could use a struct-of-arrays approach to store discriminant and value in two separate allocations. In fact, that's what the self-hosted Zig compiler actually does.

Figure 3: The tags and union values are stored in two separate allocations, so we're not paying for padding anymore. However, the union collection still has variant fragmentation.
A struct-of-arrays transformation of an enum array

Because of Zig's staged compilation, we can have container types that perform this SoA transformation generically for any type. In Rust, we're constrained to proc-macros like soa_derive which has several downsides (e.g. we can't place #[derive] on third-party types without changing their source).

Reducing Variant Fragmentation
This SoA transformation reduces a lot of wasted padding introduced by the enum tag, but still isn't optimal. To really get rid of fragmentation in the values, we can create one vector per variant.
Figure 4: Compared to the SoA layout from before, we have a partial order instead of a total order. So upon insertion, we get back a tagged index that holds both the enum tag and the index in the particular variant array.
Visualization of a simple AoVA layout
I don't think there's a name for this collection, so I call it array of variant arrays (or AoVA). This can be implemented in Rust and Zig, using proc-macros and comptime respectively.
Size Equivalence Classes

We could stop here, but let's consider enums that have lots of variants that can be grouped into a small number of clusters with the same type size:

enum Foo {
    A(u8, u8),
    D([u8; 2]),
    F(u16, u16),
    I([u8; 4]),
    J(u32, u32),
    K(u32, (u16, u16)),
    N(u32, u16, u16),
    O([u8; 8])
Naive AoVA layout causes us to create 15 different vectors - one per enum variant

As you can see, the one-vec-per-variant approach would add 15 vectors. It's likely that the number of (re)allocations and system calls would increase substantially, and require a lot of memory to amortize compared to the naive Vec. The vectors may also be arbitrarily spread in memory, leading to a higher chance of cache conflicts. The AoVA collection itself also consumes a lot of memory, bloating any structure it's embedded in.

Now, if we group every variant by size, we get three clusters: 2, 4, and 8 bytes. Such clusters can be allocated together into the same vector - thereby reducing the number of total vectors we have in our container by 80%. So we could realistically store variants of Foo in three clusters:

struct FooVec {
    c_2: Vec<[u8; 2]>, // A - D
    c_4: Vec<[u8; 4]>, // E - I
    c_8: Vec<[u8; 8]>, // J - O
The dense AoVA version reduces our vector count to 3

You could say this is a dense version of our AoVA pattern. However, once we colocate different variants in the same allocation, we lose the ability to iterate through the vector in a type-safe way. The only way to access elements in such a container is via the tagged pointer that was created upon insertion. If your access pattern does not require blind iteration (which can be the case for flattened, index-based tree structures), this might be a worthwhile trade-off.

I've implemented a prototype of this data structure in Zig. The most important pieces are the compiler built-ins that allow reflection on field types, byte and bit sizes, as well as inspecting the discriminant.

Snippet: At its core, it performs straightforward compile-time reflection to compute the clusters and field-to-cluster mappings. We do pseudo-dynamic allocation using a stack-allocated vector. The cluster information is used to construct the AoVA data structure. Exact source of the snippet is here.
// determine kind of type (i.e. struct, union, etc.)
switch (@typeInfo(inner)) {
    .Union => |u| {
        // store mapping from union field -> cluster index
        var field_map = [_]u8{0} ** u.fields.len;

        // iterate over union fields
        for (u.fields, 0..) |field, idx| {
            // compute size
            const space = @max(field.alignment, @sizeOf(field.type));

            // insert into hashtable 
            if (!svec.contains_slow(space)) {
                svec.push(space) catch @compileError(ERR_01);

            field_map[idx] = svec.len - 1;

        // return clusters
        return .{ .field_map = field_map, .sizes = svec };
    else => @compileError("only unions allowed"),

If you do want type-safe iteration, you could pay the cost of padding, and add the tag back in:

Figure 5: We've essentially partitioned the enum on the data-level, leaving the interpretation at the type-level untouched
Dense AoVA layout with additional tag and padding

If the padding is too much, you can do an SoA transformation on each of the variant arrays.

Figure 6: Here we have a similar partitioning, but without the padding. The downside is that we're doubling the vector count.
Dense AoVA layout, with tag and per-cluster SoA transformation

So as you can see, there's quite a few trade-offs we can make in this space - and they all depend on the concrete memory layout of our enum.

While creating such data structures is pretty straightforward in Zig, creating any of these examples in Rust using proc macros is basically impossible - the reason being that proc macros don't have access to type information like size or alignment. While you could have a proc macro generate a const fn that computes the clusters for a particular enum, this function cannot be used to specify the length of an array for a generic type.

Another limit to Rust's generics is that the implementation of a generic container cannot be conditioned on whether the given type is an enum or a struct. In Zig, we can effectively do something like this:

// this is pseudocode
struct EfficientContainer<T> {
    if(T.isEnum()) {
        x: EfficientEnumArray<T>,
    } else {
        x: EfficientStructArray<T>,

We can also specialize the flavor of our AoVA implementation based on the enum. Maybe the benefits of colocating different variants only starts to make sense if we reduce the number of vectors by more than 90%.

So ultimately we gain a lot of fine-grained control over data structure selection. And if we have good heuristics, we can let the type-aware staging mechanism select the best implementation for us. To me, this represents a huge step in composability for high-performance systems software.

Bonus: Determining Index Bitwidth at Compile Time

While implementing my prototype, I noticed other ways of saving memory. For instance, if you know the maximum capacity of your data structure at compile time, you can pass that information to the type-constructing function and let it determine the bitwidth of the returned tagged index.

When this tagged index is included in a subsequent data structure, let's say another enum, this information carries over naturally, and the bits that we didn't need can be used for the discriminant!

So what Zig gives you is composable memory efficiency. By being specific about the number of bits you need, different parts of the code can take advantage of that. And with implicit widening integer coercion, dealing with APIs of different bitwidths stays ergonomic. In a way, this reminds me a lot of refinement typing and ranged integers, so this ties in a lot with my post on custom bitwidth integers.

Writing extremely efficient generic data structures in Rust is not always easy - in some cases they incur lots of accidental complexity, in some others they're essentially impossible to implement. I think one of the biggest takeaways for me with regards to staged compilation was the ability to be composable on a memory layout level. If you're developing a systems programming language that embraces efficiency and zero-cost abstractions, you should absolutely take another look at staged programming and in particular Zig's comptime.