Writing GStreamer plugins and elements in Rust

This is part 1, the other parts can be found here: Part 2 and part 3

This weekend we had the GStreamer Spring Hackfest 2016 in Thessaloniki, my new home town. As usual it was great meeting everybody in person again, having many useful and interesting discussions and seeing what everybody was working on. It seems like everybody was quite productive during these days!

Apart from the usual discussions, cleaning up some of our Bugzilla backlog and getting various patches reviewed, I was working with Luis de Bethencourt on writing a GStreamer plugin with a few elements in Rust. Our goal was to be able to be able to read and write a file, i.e. implement something like the “cp” command around gst-launch-1.0 with just using the new Rust elements, while trying to have as little code written in C as possible and having a more-or-less general Rust API in the end for writing more source and sink elements. That’s all finished, including support for seeking, and I also wrote a small HTTP source.

For the impatient, the code can be found here: https://github.com/sdroege/rsplugin

Why Rust?

Now you might wonder why you would want to go through all the trouble of creating a bridge between GStreamer in C and Rust for writing elements. Other people have written much better texts about the advantages of Rust, which you might want to refer to if you’re interested: The introduction of the Rust documentation, or this free O’Reilly book.

But for myself the main reasons are that

  1. C is a rather antique and inconvenient language if you compare it to more modern languages, and Rust provides a lot of features from higher-level languages while still not introducing all the overhead that is coming with it elsewhere, and
  2. even more important are the safety guarantees of the language, including the strong type system and the borrow checker, which make a whole category of bugs much more unlikely to happen. And thus saves you time during development but also saves your users from having their applications crash on them in the best case, or their precious data being lost or stolen.

Rust is not the panacea for everything, and not even the perfect programming language for every problem, but I believe it has a lot of potential in various areas, including multimedia software where you have to handle lots of complex formats coming from untrusted sources and still need to provide high performance.

I’m not going to write a lot about the details of the language, for that just refer to the website and very well written documentation. But, although being a very young language not developed by a Fortune 500 company (it is developed by Mozilla and many volunteers), it is nowadays being used in production already at places like Dropbox or Firefox (their MP4 demuxer, and in the near future the URL parser). It is also used by Mozilla and Samsung for their experimental, next-generation browser engine Servo.

The Code

Now let’s talk a bit about how it all looks like. Apart from Rust’s standard library (for all the basics and file IO), what we also use are the url crate (Rust’s term for libraries) for parsing and constructing URLs, and the HTTP server/client crate called hyper.

On the C side we have all the boilerplate code for initializing a GStreamer plugin (plugin.c), which then directly calls into Rust code (lib.rs), which then calls back into C (plugin.c) for registering the actual GStreamer elements. The GStreamer elements themselves have then an implementation written in C (rssource.c and rssink.c), which is a normal GObject subclass of GstBaseSrc or GstBaseSink but instead of doing the actual work in C it is just calling into Rust code again. For that to work, some metadata is passed to the GObject class registration, including a function pointer to a Rust function that creates a new instance of the “machinery” of the element. This is then implementing the Source or Sink traits (similar to interfaces) in Rust (rssource.rs and rssink.rs):

And these traits (plus a constructor) are in the end all that has to be implemented in Rust for the elements (rsfilesrc.rs, rsfilesink.rs and rshttpsrc.rs).

If you look at the code, it’s all still a bit rough at the edges and missing many features (like actual error reporting back to GStreamer instead of printing to stderr), but it already works and the actual implementations of the elements in Rust is rather simple and fun. And even the interfacing with C code is quite convenient at the Rust level.

How to test it?

First of all you need to get Rust and Cargo, check the Rust website or your Linux distribution for details. This was all tested with the stable 1.8 release. And you need GStreamer plus the development files, any recent 1.x version should work.

What next?

The three implemented elements are not too interesting and were mostly an experiment to see how far we can get in a weekend. But the HTTP source for example, once more features are implemented, could become useful in the long term.

Also, in my opinion, it would make sense to consider using Rust for some categories of elements like parsers, demuxers and muxers, as traditionally these elements are rather complicated and have the biggest exposure to arbitrary data coming from untrusted sources.

And maybe in the very long term, GStreamer or parts of it can be rewritten in Rust. But that’s a lot of effort, so let’s go step by step to see if it’s actually worthwhile and build some useful things on the way there already.

For myself, the next step is going to be to implement something like GStreamer’s caps system in Rust (of which I already have the start of an implementation), which will also be necessary for any elements that handle specific data and not just an arbitrary stream of bytes, and it could probably be also useful for other applications independent of GStreamer.


The main problem with the current code is that all IO is synchronous. That is, if opening the file, creating a connection, reading data from the network, etc. takes a bit longer it will block until a timeout has happened or the operation finished in one way or another.

Rust currently has no support for non-blocking IO in its standard library, and also no support for asynchronous IO. The latter is being discussed in this RFC though, but it probably will take a while until we see actual results.

While there are libraries for all of this, having to depend on an external library for this is not great as code using different async IO libraries won’t compose well. Without this, Rust is still missing one big and important feature, which will definitely be needed for many applications and the lack of it might hinder adoption of the language.