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    • 1. Rust: smart pointers
    • 2. Linking the list
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    Rust: smart pointers

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    The Sieve of Eratosthenes

Table of contents
  1. Expressing "nothing"
  2. Infinite recursion
  3. Final code

Linking the list

The linked list is everyone’s favourite data structure, right?

Ali Spittel has a great writeup that answers the questions: “What are linked lists, and how to they work?”.
That article implements them in JavaScript, and in Python.

How would that look in Rust?

struct Node {
data: i32,
next: Node,

Expressing “nothing”

The next value can either be a node, or nothing. In other languages, that would be expressed by not giving next a value, by having it be null. Rust doesn’t have a null value like many other languages do.

The problem with null values is that if you try to use a null value as a not-null value, you’ll get an error of some kind. Because this null or not-null property is pervasive, it’s extremely easy to make this kind of error.

However, the concept that null is trying to express is still a useful one: a null is a value that is currently invalid or absent for some reason.

If we want to express the absence of something, we should do it explicitly. An Option<T> does this. It’s an enum with 2 variants:

  1. Some(T) if there is something
  2. None if there is nothing

Our updated Node struct:

struct Node {
data: i32,
next: Option<Node>,

The value for next can be either None, or Some(Node).

Infinite recursion

This doesn’t compile, Rust has trouble with this. The size of a type needs to be known at compile time.

While compiling, Rust tries to figure out the maximum amount of space an instance of that type can take up in memory. That maximum amount of space needs to be finite.

For our Node type, the process would go like this:

  1. A Node takes up the space required to store an i32, and an other Node.
  2. That other Node takes up the spaces required to store an i32, and yet an other Node.
  3. That next Node takes up the spaces required to store an i32, and yet an other Node.
  4. Repeat ad infinitum

There’s no stop to it, this goes on forever and a variable of type Node would take up an infinite amount of space in memory.

It’s like that song by Journey, it goes on, and on, and on, and on…

The Rust compiler error when trying to execute this code is very helpful.

error[E0072]: recursive type `Node` has infinite size
--> src/
83 | struct Node {
| ^^^^^^^^^^^ recursive type has infinite size
84 | data: i32,
85 | next: Option<Node>,
| ------------ recursive without indirection
help: insert some indirection (e.g., a `Box`, `Rc`, or `&`) to make `Node` representable
85 | next: Box<Option<Node>>,
| ^^^^ ^

We’ve defined our Node type, which holds an instance of itself (in next). It’s a recursive type, and has a possibly infinite size.

The compiler then suggests to add some indirection. indi-what?

They mean instead of storing the Node value (of unknown size) directly, store a pointer to that value.

A Box<T> is great for this. It’s a smart pointer that stores data on the stack and the heap. Nearly all that data is stored on the heap. The only thing that is stored on the stack is a pointer to that location on the heap. Because Box is a smart pointer that implements the Deref trait, we can treat it as a regular immutable reference to that data.

That pointer has a fixed, known size, so we no longer have that “infinite size” problem. The data that is possibly infinite in size is stored on the heap now, that’s okay.

Wrapping the Node in a Box:

struct Node {
data: i32,
next: Option<Box<Node>>,

Final code
struct Node {
data: i32,
next: Option<Box<Node>>,
impl Node {
fn new(num: i32) -> Node {
Node {
data: num,
next: None,
fn set_next(&mut self, next: Node) { = Some(Box::new(next));
let mut one = Node::new(1);
let two = Node::new(2);
// 1
// Some(Node { data: 2, next: None })
println!("{:?}", one);
// Node { data: 1, next: Some(Node { data: 2, next: None }) }

Series navigation for: Smart pointers in Rust

1. Rust: smart pointers

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