The Ad-Dressing of Bits

Published on 2021, Apr 16

My bitvec project is composed of a very small handful of core engineering components without which the project fundamentally cannot exist. This article addresses the pointer encoding allowing it to interact with the language core libraries.


bitvec exists to implement a bit-precision addressing scheme that has the same source code affordances as byte-addressed memory while transparently using compacted memory accesses internally. It is a library implementation of shift/mask operations that presents a usize -> bool API to clients that mirrors existing APIs in the Rust core libraries that do not use memory compaction.

Processors have stabilized as addressing memory with the byte as the unit of step for several decades now, and software built atop them retains the same model. As such, neither LLVM nor Rust have the concept of single-bit addressing, and the implementation in bitvec has to exist within their rules about element addressing in order to work.

Memory Addressing

The main-memory address space is modeled as a long sequence of slots. Each slot is consecutively numbered, running from 0 at the bottom and some very large number at the top. The slot at each number has a fixed amount of information it can store. That amount is eight bits. These bits are always in the same order at each slot.

This makes memory essentially two-dimensional: it is a plane with a length of the memory capacity in bytes and a depth of eight bits.

Batched Access

Because information is typically wider than eight bits, and individual memory transactions are slow, memory controllers will frequently send back larger batches of memory at a time, since heuristically for any given request, it is very likely that the processor will also request its neighbors. Rather than start the batch at the requested address and count upwards for the batch size, though, memory controllers typically just mask away the least N bits of the requested address. This imprecision is what gives rise to alignment: if the range you want is not the range that the memory controller produces, you need to issue two requests rather than one.

What, Exactly, Are Addresses?

To the CPU, they’re exactly what I’ve said. They’re street numbers on one very long street.

To a programming-language compiler, they’re more than just a number. But I am not a compiler engineer, and so I’m not going to talk about that too much.

Let’s look at some arbitrary address.


That is the address of a single byte, so it can have any last digit, including odd digits, it wants. Let’s get an address for a two-byte value:


This will always be an even number, ending in 0, 2, 4, 6, 8, a, c, or e. It can be any of those, but not an odd number.

Let’s ask for the address of a four-byte region.


This address is required to be a multiple of four, ending in 0, 4, 8, or c. Let’s finish by asking for the address of an eight-byte region:


These ones are easy: the last digit of the address will be either 0, or 8. Nothing else.

There are wider numbers than this in memory, but eight bytes is usually where CPUs stop enforcing alignment. So we won’t talk about those.

Consequences of Alignment

The address of an element with one-byte alignment can have any last digit it wants, and so has zero bits at the end of the address number to spare.

The address of an element with two-byte alignment can only be an even number, so it must always have a last bit of 0, so that last bit is available. We can put a flag in it to mark whether we want the lower or higher byte, as long as we remove that flag before giving the address to the memory controller.

The address of an element with four-byte alignment has two bits to spare at the very end; we can use one of those bits to select the high or low pair, and the other to select the high or low byte within that pair.

The address of an element with eight-byte alignment has three bits to spare at the end; we can put three flags in them, for high or low quadron, high or low pair in that half, and high or low byte in that pair.

Thus, no matter what element type we have – u8, u16, u32, u64 – we can always cram enough information in its address element to narrow the address down to a single interesting byte.

Here’s a table:

Type Alignment Spare Bits
u8 1 0
u16 2 1
u32 4 2
u64 8 3

This may seem obvious, or tautological, and it is. All the work done in this section is just done to compute the bitmasks used to turn a byte address back into a correct element address, in a way that bitvec can write generically over the integer types.

Rust References

Rust has a concept called a “reference”. A reference is, to the machine, the address of some data. To the compiler, it has much more information attached to it, but we don’t care about that right now.

There are six versions of references in the language, on two axes. On one axis, we have &T references vs &mut T references – this distinction is purely internal to the compiler, and only marks whether or not the compiler will allow us to use exclusive privileges through the reference to the referent, that is, whatever data lives at the address the reference contains.

The other axis is the structure of the reference value. There are three structural variants:

  • &[mut] T where T: Sized: A reference, immutable or mutable, to a section of data with a statically known size, fixed for the lifetime of the program and known to the compiler. Because the compiler knows the length, it does not need to put the length in the program, and so these two references are only the address of the start of the referent.

  • &[mut] T where T: !Sized: A reference, immutable or mutable, to a section of data whose length the compiler does not know, or might change in the lifetime of the program. The most common two examples are [T] slices, and str text. Because the length of that data might change at runtime, the compiler must store the length of the data alongside its address, so these references are essentially a tuple of (&[mut] _, usize), where _ is some underlying type of known size, and the usize is the count of how many elements of the underlying type are in the referent region.

  • &[mut] dyn Trait: A reference to an object of unknown concrete type. This is two pointers: one to the object itself, and the other to a table of functions that can be called on it. It is a tuple of (&[mut] _, &VTable<_>). We don’t care about this reference for this article.

As I discussed above, any of the four machine fundamental types u8, u16, u32, or u64 can be legally refined to the address of a u8. As long as we remember to remove the refinement before asking the memory controller to give us the original type, this is fine. It only uses the known-available bits at the low end of the address, and doesn’t touch the sixteen bits at the high end that will cause the CPU to crash us.

This does not address a bit.

Bit References

A byte is eight bits wide. Eight bits of position require only three bits of address. So we need to get three more bits, somewhere, and we already know that the sixteen empty-looking bits of the high end of the address are forbidden to us on pain of termination.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx yyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy zzz
^---Illegal----^ ^---------------Selects a u64---------------^ ^^^
                                                    Selects a byte

This is why I talked about unsized references (the middle type in the list) above. We can get sixty-four more bits if we decide we don’t want to address just one bit, but rather, address any amount of them.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx yyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy zzz
^---Illegal----^ ^---------------Already used----------------^ ^---+
aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa zzz +- Bit
^------------------------(Bit) Length------------------------^ ^---+

By adding in a second component to our reference, we get the last three bits we need to turn our byte address into a bit address, and we get all the rest of the bits in the second component to count how many bits we have, starting at the bit denoted by the address.

Additionally, this works on 32-bit processors that do not use the AMD64 page table pointer layout and do not have dead high bits, allowing bitvec to be used portably across any device Rust targets.


We have our target structure (an address and a counter), and we have our components (a data address, a byte selector, a bit selector, and a bit counter). Now let’s pack everything into the space available.

struct BitSpan<T> {
  ptr: *const T,
  len: usize,

First up: the data address goes in the pointer slot, exactly as already expected. We double-check that the bottom 0-3 bits, depending on data type, are already zeroed.

Next, we pack our byte selector into the bottom 0-3 bits. This essentially turns the address field into the address of a u8, no matter its original type. This is okay; the total address is always to a u8 that is covered by the original type at the original address, and the original address is recoverable by masking. Furthermore, Rust guarantees that all references are aligned to their type, so we can statically ensure this property by simply only accepting references, not pointers, when creating these structures.

Next, we take our count of how many bits live in the region we’re trying to describe, make sure the top three bits are zero, and then shift the counter up by three. We need to check that the top three bits are zero, because they’re about to be thrown away.

Because our byte selector is between 0 and 3 bits, and our bit selector is 3 bits, we know that the total selector is between 3 and 6 bits. So we can carry both of them in a single u8, and only split them apart inside the structure.

Last, we take our bit selector, and pack it into the bottom three bits of the bit counter field.

impl<T> BitSpan<T> {
  pub fn new(data: *const T, bit: u8, len: usize) -> Self {
    //  safety first
    assert!(bit < data.bit_width());
    assert!(len <= !0 >> 3);

    //  store the address
    let mut ptr = data as usize;
    //  store the byte part of the selector
    ptr &= !7;
    ptr |= (bit as usize >> 3);

    //  store the counter
    let mut len = len << 3;
    //  store the bit part of the selector
    len |= bit as usize & T::BITMASK; // 7, 15, 31, or 63

    Self {

And there we have it: a data address, refined to a byte, refined to a bit, and spanning some count of bits, all neatly packed up in the structure of a slice reference.

Now we just need to make the compiler think that it really is a slice reference.

I Didn’t Understand That Reference

Rust uses references pervasively throughout the language. They’re by far one of the most common ways to interact with anything. If we want our custom-made bit address and counter to fit in the language, we have to sneak it past the compiler.

And the compiler has a very watchful eye.

Here’s what we do:

Attempted Alchemy

First: it is absolutely undefined behavior to package up any (&_, usize) tuple and use mem::transmute to turn it into a reference. It doesn’t matter that the reference type we’re targeting happens to have the same structure. Calling mem::transmute with a reference in either the input or the output type is instantly, totally, undefined behavior. The compiler will seize this opportunity to erase the call to transmute, then the code that tried to use the value that would have come out of the transmute, then the data that went into the transmute, then everything that eventually wound up making the data that went into the transmute.

All of it gets tainted when you try to use mem::transmute to make something that isn’t a reference into a reference, or try to turn a reference into something else.

Remember: the Rust compiler is not your friend. Its primary motivating goal is to not compile your code. It will proactively seek out every avenue it can in order to not compile your code. As much as a computer program can be said to want anything, it wants to find any legal reason to reject your code, and it will use any instance of UB to start doing so. We’re not going to give it any.

So we can’t use mem::transmute.

Sneaking In The Sally Port

There is, however, another way in.

Rust is written in Rust. The Rust compiler and core libraries are all built by the Rust compiler, and the language is helpfully designed to have as much as possible defined in the core libraries, rather than in the compiler. We only have access to the compiler through core::intrinsics, but we have access to (almost) all of the core libraries.

And slice references are defined in core::slice.

There exist two methods: core::slice::from_raw_parts and core::slice::from_raw_parts_mut. Their full signatures are:

pub unsafe fn from_raw_parts<'a, T>(
  data: *const T,
  len: usize,
) -> &'a [T];
pub unsafe fn from_raw_parts_mut<'a, T>(
  data: *mut T,
  len: usize,
 -> &'a mut [T];

And these functions, it turns out, will package any pointer and counter you give them into a slice reference, and the compiler has no choice but to let it happen.

You might be thinking, this is perfect! We’ll take our nicely modified pointer to some data element, and our nicely modified length counter, and stick them in this function, and out pops a slice value that fits right in the language!

Rust has very firm rules about references, and especially about slice references.

All reference values, at all times in a program, must obey the rules of the type to which they refer. A reference to u32 must have an address that is well aligned to u32, so, it must have zeros in its bottom two bits.

A slice of any type must describe exactly as many elements of that type as the length counter indicates. There must be that many elements, starting at the address and marching up through memory, and if the compiler even suspects that there aren’t, then that slice becomes undefined behavior, and that UB propagates up and down through everything that leads to or from it.

The Narrowest of Types

So far in this article, I’ve talked about types that have a known size in memory, and types that have an unknown size. There is a third family of types: those that don’t have any size at all. These are called Zero-Sized Types, or ZSTs for short.

A ZST can be found at any address in the memory space. It has no width, and it


than a byte, so ZSTs can only be placed at the start of a byte, but any


ZSTs have no width. If you put two ZST elements in a row, the first will be at some address x, and the second will be offset from that address by its width: x + 0, which is, x.

You can have infinitely (well, !0) many ZST elements in a row in memory, starting at any address you want, and the only constraint is that the address you choose must actually be available in your context. This probably means no kernel-space addresses, but that’s pretty much it. In particular, it does not disallow the zero page – Rust makes a great deal of use of addresses just above 0 as sentinel values that are valid to have as pointers to empty regions.

This even means, for instance, that you can have eight times too many ZST elements at an address.

So if we take our mangled data address and cast it to *const () or *mut (), and take our mangled length counter, we can feed them into these particular slice constructors:

let bp = BitSpan::<T>::new(addr, start, len);
let bp_ptr = bp.ptr as *const ();
let bp_len = bp.len;
let magic: &'_ [()] = unsafe {
let more_magic: &'_ mut [()] = unsafe {
    bp_ptr as *mut (),

And this, dear reader, is not undefined behavior. Any address can be made the address of (), the canonical empty type, and any amount of () can be placed at that address, and the slice &[()] must be able to refer to that many () elements at that address.

Now, because any address may be made into a () address, and any address may be a u8 address, we can later extract the pointer and length components to go dig up a byte and work on it.

let byteptr = magic.as_ptr() as *const u8;
let offset = magic.len() >> 3;
let byte: u8 = unsafe {
  *(byteptr.offset(offset as isize))
let which_bit = magic.len() & 7;
let bit = byte & (1 << which_bit) == 1;

And just like that, we have used our mangled descriptors to go dig up a byte and pull a single bit out of it, and the compiler can’t prove we’re not allowed to do that. It is required to allow raw-pointer jumps and dereferences to occur, but it doesn’t have to like it, which is why it takes place in an unsafe block.

And that’s how you teach Rust to address individual bits of memory, and describe contiguous regions of them, without any change to the language itself.

The Extra Mile

BitSpan itself is not a type that anyone should ever use. It is equivalent to a raw *const T or *mut T pointer. We can turn it into a &[()] slice reference in order to participate in the entirety of the language framework that requires references, but we can’t attach any behavior to &[()] because that type is defined entirely in core.

What we can do, however, is make a newtype wrapper over [()], and ensure that our mangled slice handles are only ever used as references of that type, and have the internal implementation route through &[()] as described above.

So we make a new struct:

struct BitSlice<T> {
  region: [()],

and now, because BitSlice ends in an unsized slice type, it itself becomes an unsized type. It must only ever be held by reference, &BitSlice<T> or &mut BitSlice<T>.

We define two constructors: one to make an immutable reference, and one to make a mutable reference, both delegating through BitSpan and &[()].

impl<T> BitSlice<T> {
  pub fn new<'a>(
    data: &'a T,
    bit: u8,
    len: usize,
  ) -> &'a Self {
    let bp = BitSpan::new(data, bit, len);
    unsafe { &*(
        bp.ptr as *const (),
      ) as *const BitSlice<T>
  pub fn new_mut<'a>(
    data: &'a mut T,
    bit: u8,
    len: usize,
  ) -> &'a mut Self {
    let bp = BitSpan::new(data, bit, len);
    unsafe { &mut *(
        bp.ptr as *mut (),
      ) as *mut BitSlice<T>

&T and *const T, and &mut T and *mut T, can implicitly convert between themselves. References to unsized and pointers to unsized are both two-element structures. This lets us glide through the type pathway without affecting the bit patterns after construction, and end up with well-formed reference handles.

Then we just add methods to BitSlice which take &self or &mut self, and teach them how to extract their required parts, and we’re all set with slices.

Ownership (It’s Not Theft where T: Copy)

There are three owning types of [T] in standard Rust: [T; N], Box<[T]>, and Vec<T>. Arrays are values that can construct slice-pointers when asked; boxes and vectors are slice pointers (with additional liveness data for Vec).

We can do the same thing, but we absolutely cannot use standard-library types. We have to make our own:

pub struct BitBox<T> {
  ptr: BitSpan<T>,

pub struct BitVec<T> {
  ptr: BitSpan<T>,
  cap: usize,

and reimplement the entire Box<[T]> and Vec<T> API on them, as well as custom methods to lower each to their equivalent &[mut] BitSlice<T> slices, but this is more tedious than actually difficult and risky.


That covers about everything interesting about how bitvec makes bit-precision references. The crate itself does a lot more work I haven’t touched on here, such as the BitOrder trait, the relationships between the types above BitSpan, or avoiding aliasing concerns.

The BitSpan type’s ability to be used as an ordinary reference is what enables BitSlice to fit in all the language core APIs and reach full parity with the original types. The encoding itself is not terribly interesting nor is it public API, but it is a necessary component to enable bitvec to distinguish itself from any of its competitors and to fulfill its goal of drop-in compatibility with existing code.