Writing GStreamer Elements in Rust (Part 4): Logging, COWs and Plugins

This is part 4, the older parts can be found here: part 1, part 2 and part 3

It’s been quite a while since the last update again, so I thought I should write about the biggest changes since last time again even if they’re mostly refactoring. They nonetheless show how Rust is a good match for writing GStreamer plugins.

Apart from actual code changes, also the code was relicensed from the LGPL-2 to a dual MIT-X11/Apache2 license to make everybody’s life a bit easier with regard to static linking and building new GStreamer plugins on top of this.

I’ll also speak about all this and more at RustFest.EU 2017 in Kiev on the 30th of April, together with Luis.

The next steps after all this will be to finally make the FLV demuxer feature-complete, for which all the base-work is already done now.


One thing that was missing so far and made debugging problems always a bit annoying was the missing integration with the GStreamer logging infrastructure. Adding println!() everywhere just to remove them again later gets boring after a while.

The GStreamer logging infrastructure is based, like many other solutions, on categories in which you log your messages and levels that describe the importance of the message (error, warning, info, …). Logging can be disabled at compile time, up to a specific level, and can also be enabled/disabled at runtime for each category to a specific level, and performance impact for disabled logging should be close to zero. This now has to be mapped somehow to Rust.

During last year’s “24 days of Rust” in December, slog was introduced (see this also for some overview how slog is used). And it seems like the perfect match here due to being able to implement new “output backends”, called a Drain in slog and very low performance impact. So how logging works now is that you create a Drain per GStreamer debug category (which will then create the category if needed), and all logging to that Drain goes directly to GStreamer:

With lazy_static we can then make sure that the Drain is only created once and can be used from multiple places.

All the implementation for the Drain can be found here, and it’s all rather straightforward plumbing. The interesting part here however is that slog makes sure that the message string and all its formatting arguments (the integer in the above example) are passed down to the Drain without doing any formatting. As such we can skip the whole formatting step if the category is not enabled or its level is too low, which gives us almost zero-cost logging for the cases when it is disabled. And of course slog also allows disabling logging up to a specific level at compile time via cargo’s features feature, making it really zero-cost if disabled at compile time.

Safe & simple Copy-On-Write

In GStreamer, buffers and similar objects are inheriting from a base class called GstMiniObject. This base class provides infrastructure for reference counting, copying (cloning) of the objects and a dynamic (at runtime, not to be confused with Rust’s COW type) Copy-On-Write mechanism (writable access requires a reference count of 1, or a copy has to be made). This is very similar to Rust’s Arc, which for a contained type that implements Clone provides the make_mut() and get_mut() functions that work the same way.

Now we can’t unfortunately use Arc directly here for wrapping the GStreamer types, as the reference counting is already done inside GStreamer and adding a second layer of reference counting on top is not going to make things work better. So there’s now a GstRc, which provides more or less the same API as Arc and wraps structs that implement the GstMiniObject trait. The latter provides GstRc functions for getting the raw pointer, swap the raw pointer and create new instances from a raw pointer. The actual structs for buffers and other types don’t do any reference counting or otherwise instance handling, and only have unsafe constructors. The general idea here is that they will never exist outside a GstRc, which will then can provide you with (mutable or not) references to them.

With all this we now have a way to let Rust do the reference counting for us and enforce the writability rules of the GStreamer API automatically without leaving any chance of doing things wrong. Compared to C where you have to do the reference counting yourself and could accidentally try to modify a non-writable (reference count > 1) object (which would give an assertion), this is a big improvement.

And as a bonus this is all completely without overhead: all that is passed around in the Rust code is (once compiled) the raw C pointer of the objects, and the functions calls directly map to the C functions too. Let’s take an example:

After reading this code you might ask why DerefMut is not implemented in addition, which would then do make_mut() internally if needed and would allow getting around the extra method call. The reason for this is that make_mut() might do a (expensive!) copy, and as such DerefMut could do a copy implicitly without the code having any explicit indication that a copy might happen here. I would be worried that it could cause non-obvious performance problems.

The last change I’m going to write about today is that the repository was completely re-organized. There is now a base crate and separate plugin crates (e.g. gst-plugin-file). The former is a normal library crate and contains some C code and all the glue between GStreamer and Rust, the latter don’t contain a single line of C code (and no unsafe code either at this point) and compile to a standalone GStreamer plugin.

The only tricky bit here was generating the plugin entry point from pure Rust code. GStreamer requires a plugin to export a symbol with a specific name, which provides access to a description struct. As the struct also contains strings, and generating const static strings with ‘\0’ terminator is not too easy, this is still a bit ugly currently. With the upcoming changes in GStreamer 1.14 this will become better, as we can then just export a function that can dynamically allocate the strings and return the struct from there.

All the boilerplate for creating the plugin entry point is hidden by the plugin_define!() macro, which can then be used as follows (and you’ll understand what I mean with ugly ‘\0’ terminated strings then):

As a side-note, handling multiple crates next to each other is very convenient with the workspace feature of cargo and the “build –all”, “doc –all” and “test –all” commands since 1.16.