Two ways to declare Rust binaries in Bazel

24 Dec 2023 • 7 min read
Tags:   rust bazel

In Rust, according to the documentation, one can have several binaries per crate. Classical Cargo-compliant structure is quite strict and relatively flat.

Since I use Bazel as my build system for the reasons explained in the course of the post, I explored a bit how to declare build targets in such a way that they enjoy best of two worlds: place BUILD files close to the place of their utilization, while maintaining a Cargo-compliant structure of the project.



Why Bazel

Expanding on why I use Bazel, in addition to great resources one can find1, here’s my own motivation, as a software developer.

Cargo, being a perfect tool for the dependency management, quickly becomes limiting in cases where I want to perform a sequence of dependent steps:

  • building a docker on top of a binary is a simple yet good example;
  • another, more complex, example, consists of an integration test between binaries built in different languages, say a Rust gRPC and a simple Python client calling it;
  • to make things even more complex, and integration test consisting of building multiple dockers representing middleware and backend, running a docker-compose and testing the whole interaction2.

All the above share several traits:

  • usually, multiple frameworks are involved (Rust + Docker, Rust + Python + Testing, Rust + Python + Docker + Testing)
  • usually, dependent binaries/libraries are used

Both are addressed by a DAG-backed build system, whose nodes can be representing any task in any framework. There are more of those (in particular, I like Pantsbuild3), but Bazel, among them, is what I think is truly battle-tested. As anything battle-tested, it is ugly or at least not that shiny when it comes to diving deep into it, but… that’s what we have to deal with.

Constraints I self-impose

I still want to be able to use Cargo and it’s typical structure, this is beneficial for several reasons: - compatibility with Cargo ecosystem - ability to use Rust Language Server a.k.a. rust_analyzer

Boilerplate: main binary, sub-binaries and setup

The example of the repo is located at the Github. From the Cargo prospective, it follows the standard tree structure:

Source tree we use, see GitHub:

├── Cargo.lock
├── Cargo.toml
├── main_bin_crate
│  ├── BUILD
│  ├── Cargo.toml
│  └── src
│     ├── bin
│     │  ├── binary_one  
│     │  │  └──  # <-- first sub-binary
│     │  └── binary_two  
│     │     ├── BUILD
│     │     └──  # <-- second sub-binary
│     └──        # <-- main  binary

The content of the binaries is trivial println!. Running Cargo with all the three shows the expected:

Example of running via Cargo:

❱ cargo run --bin main_bin_crate
    Finished dev [unoptimized + debuginfo] target(s) in 0.00s
     Running `target/debug/main_bin_crate`
Hello from main_bin_crate

❱ cargo run --bin binary_one
    Finished dev [unoptimized + debuginfo] target(s) in 0.00s
     Running `target/debug/binary_one`
Hello from binary_one

❱ cargo run --bin binary_two
    Finished dev [unoptimized + debuginfo] target(s) in 0.00s
     Running `target/debug/binary_two`
Hello from binary_two

Additionally, we see that Cargo creates the following output structure (this will be important below):

Output structure when running via Cargo:

└── target/
    └── debug/
        ├── binary_one*
        ├── binary_two*
        └── main_bin_crate*

In other words, all the three binaries are compiled as top-level ones despite residing on different levels of the source tree.

Bazel implementation

We operate more or less standard boilerplate of the WORKSPACE file, which in a nutshell loads the necessary metadata from both Cargo.toml files:

load("@rules_rust//crate_universe:defs.bzl", "crates_repository")

    name = "crate_index",
    cargo_lockfile = "//:Cargo.lock",
    lockfile = "//:Cargo.Bazel.lock",
    manifests = [

load("@crate_index//:defs.bzl", "crate_repositories")


Option 1: The closest to Cargo implementation

The first option consists in placing all the Bazel targets into the crate-level ./main_bin_crate/BUILD file:

BUILD file from the top-level crate ./main_bin_crate/BUILD, code from GitHub:

load("@rules_rust//rust:defs.bzl", "rust_binary")
load("@crate_index//:defs.bzl", "all_crate_deps")

    name = "main_bin_crate",
    srcs = ["src/"],
    deps = all_crate_deps(),

# This is the first option to define another binary
    name = "binary_one",
    srcs = ["src/bin/binary_one/"],
    deps = all_crate_deps(),

After building the project with

❱ bazel build //main_bin_crate/...

we can observe the output tree structure that Bazel puts it in (compare with the above one created by Cargo) other output such as manifests and runfiles omitted:

├── binary_one*
└── main_bin_crate*

as we see, this is a perfect option to fully imitate the way Cargo does it, with all the binaries at the top level of the build.

However, this clearly goes somewhat against the habit from the Bazel world, where one places BUILD files as close to it’s sources level as possible. To that end, we proceed to the second option.

Option 2: Bazel spirit, put BUILD where the sources are

Initially placing the following code under ./main_bin_crate/src/bin/binary_two/BUILD

load("@rules_rust//rust:defs.bzl", "rust_binary")
load("@crate_index//:defs.bzl", "all_crate_deps")

# Wrong way of placing BUILD near the code
    name = "binary_two",
    srcs = [""],
    deps = all_crate_deps(),

results in an error

❱ bazel build //main_bin_crate/src/bin/binary_two
Error in fail: Tried to get all_crate_deps for package main_bin_crate/src/bin/binary_two 
  but that package had no Cargo.toml file
WARNING: Target pattern parsing failed.

Likely, the root cause is the fact that rules_rust considers each package4 to map into a crate, and as we saw in the WORKSPACE, there indeed exists no Cargo.toml for the ./main_bin_crate/src/bin/binary_two. The necessary correction would be

load("@rules_rust//rust:defs.bzl", "rust_binary")
load("@crate_index//:defs.bzl", "all_crate_deps")

# This is the second option
    name = "binary_two",
    srcs = [""],
    deps = all_crate_deps(
        package_name = "main_bin_crate",  # <--- this is the added line

This compiles, and the compiled output structure is as follows (again, auxiliary files like manifests and runfiles are omitted):

├── main_bin_crate*
└── src/
    └── bin/
        └── binary_two/
            └── binary_two*

As we see, the only inconvenience consists in the fact that the output binary tree layout is now dissimilar to that of what Cargo created. This is a minor inconvenience, especially if you’re developing a non-publishable crate for some internal usage (e.g. dockerizing it later).


The following takeaways of this simple experiment, as I see them, would be

  • it is possible to maintain Cargo-compliant project structure and yet apply Bazel in its natural way – by placing BUILD files close to their sources;
  • Bazel philosophy is the superset of Cargo, allowing more flexibility about where to place various output units of the code (binaries, libraries). It definitely helps for a better structuring of your project;
  • the above becomes especially important in larger monorepos, and in repos with multiple languages/frameworks involved (think examples in the beginning, such as Rust + Python + Docker);
  • the standardized approach that Bazel exhibits gives, in the end of the day, a great freedom to focus on the tasks one solves regardless of the language/stack of a particular project

  1. To list some: a) a great blog post by Roman Kashitsyn: Scaling Rust builds with Bazel b) another one by Ilya Polyakovskiy: Building a Rust workspace with Bazel ↩︎

  2. One of the near-future write-ups will be around building Docker with a Rust binary using cross-compilation, stay tuned. ↩︎

  3. Actually, a nice and beautiful reincarnation of a Pants version 1: ↩︎

  4. Too ambiguous terminology here, package in Bazel world is actually any place in the source tree where a BUILD file would reside. ↩︎

Want to discuss anything? Comments are welcome via e-mail, Telegram @agronskiy or any other social media.