Rust + Android FAQs

How do I expose Rust code to Kotlin?

Use UniFFI, which can produce Kotlin bindings for your Rust code from an interface definition file.

If UniFFI doesn't currently meet your needs, please open an issue to discuss how the tool can be improved.

As a last resort, you can make hand-written bindings from Rust to Kotlin, essentially manually performing the steps that UniFFI tries to automate for you: flatten your Rust API into a bunch of pub extern "C" functions, then use JNA to call them from Kotlin. The details of how to do that are well beyond the scope of this document.

How should I name the package?

Published packages should be named org.mozilla.appservices.$NAME where $NAME is the name of your component, such as logins. The Java namespace in which your package defines its classes etc should be mozilla.appservices.$NAME.*.

How do I publish the resulting package?

Add it to .buildconfig-android.yml in the root of this repository. This will cause it to be automatically included as part of our release publishing pipeline.

How do I know what library name to load to access the compiled rust code?

Assuming that you're building the Rust code as part of the application-services build and release process, your pub extern "C" API should always be available from a file named

What challenges exist when calling back into Kotlin from Rust?

There are a number of them. The issue boils down to the fact that you need to be completely certain that a JVM is associated with a given thread in order to call java code on it. The difficulty is that the JVM can GC its threads and will not let rust know about it.

JNA can work around this for us to some extent, at the cost of some complexity. The approach it takes is essentially to spawn a thread for each callback invocation. If you are certain you’re going to do a lot of callbacks and they all originate on the same thread, you can have them all run on a single thread by using the CallbackThreadInitializer.

With the help of JNA's workarounds, calling back from Rust into Kotlin isn’t too bad so long as you ensure that Kotlin cannot GC the callback while rust code holds onto it (perhaps by stashing it in a global variable), and so long as you can either accept the overhead of extra threads being instantiated on each call or are willing to manage the threads explicitly.

Note that the situation would be somewhat better if we used JNI directly (and not JNA), but this would cause us to need to generate different Rust FFI code for Android than for iOS.

Ultimately, in any case where there is an alternative to using a callback, you should probably pursue that alternative.

For example if you're using callbacks to implement async I/O, it's likely better to move to doing a blocking call, and have the calling code dispatch it on a background thread. It’s very easy to run such things on a background thread in Kotlin, is in line with the Android documentation on JNI usage, and in our experience is vastly simpler and less painful than using callbacks.

(Of course, not every case is solvable like this).

Why are we using JNA rather than JNI, and what tradeoffs does that involve?

We get a couple things from using JNA that we wouldn't with JNI.

  1. We are able to use the same Rust FFI code on all platforms. If we used JNI we'd need to generate an Android-specific Rust FFI crate that used the JNI APIs, and a separate Rust FFI crate for exposing to Swift.

  2. JNA provides a mapping of threads to callbacks for us, making callbacks over the FFI possible. That said, in practice this is still error prone, and easy to misuse/cause memory safety bugs, but it's required for cases like logging, among others, and so it is a nontrivial piece of complexity we'd have to reimplement.

However, it comes with the following downsides:

  1. JNA has bugs. In particular, its not safe to use bools with them, it thinks they are 32 bits, when on most platforms (every platform Rust supports) they are 8 bits. They've been unwilling to fix the issue due to it breaking backwards compatibility (which is... somewhat fair, there is a lot of C89 code out there that uses bool as a typedef for a 32-bit int).
  2. JNA makes it really easy to do the wrong thing and have it work but corrupt memory. Several of the caveats around this are documented in the ffi_support docs, but a major one is when to use Pointer vs String (getting this wrong will often work, but may corrupt memory).

We aim to avoid triggering these bugs by auto-generating the JNA bindings rather than writing them by hand.

How do I debug Rust code with the step-debugger in Android Studio

  1. Uncomment the packagingOptions { doNotStrip "**/*.so" } line from the build.gradle file of the component you want to debug.
  2. In the rust code, either:
    1. Cause something to crash where you want the breakpoint. Note: Panics don't work here, unfortunately. (I have not found a convenient way to set a breakpoint to rust code, so unsafe { std::ptr::write_volatile(0 as *const _, 1u8) } usually is what I do).
    2. If you manage to get an LLDB prompt, you can set a breakpoint using breakpoint set --name foo, or breakpoint set --file --line 123. I don't know how to bring up this prompt reliably, so I often do step 1 to get it to appear, delete the crashing code, and then set the breakpoint using the CLI. This is admittedly suboptimal.
  3. Click the Debug button in Android Studio, to display the "Select Deployment Target" window.
  4. Make sure the debugger selection is set to "Both". This tends to unset itself, so make sure.
  5. Click "Run", and debug away.