Bringing include_dir Into the Modern Era

Way back in mid-2017 I created a crate called include_dir with a single goal in mind - give users an include_dir!() macro that lets them embed an entire directory in their binary.

By most metrics, we’ve been doing phenomenally well. The crate has received a fair amount of engagement on GitHub via pull requests and issues, and it has had over 1 million downloads and 127 direct dependents published to alone.

However, due to work commitments and low motivation, the include_dir crate hasn’t received as much love as I’d like to give it over the last year or so ๐Ÿ˜ž

I recently1, I found myself with a free weekend and a desire to be productive, so I thought I’d take advantage of how Rust has evolved since 2017 and work through some of include_dir’s backlog.

The code written in this article is available on GitHub. Feel free to browse through and steal code or inspiration.

If you found this useful or spotted a bug in the article, let me know on the blog’s issue tracker!

Project Goals and Values Link to heading

I’ve written a fair amount of Rust code in my time and reviewed a lot more, and that has left me with some strong opinions about authoring crates:

  1. Don’t pull in unnecessary dependencies
  2. Make the happy path simple and intuitive
  3. Don’t make me pay for what I don’t use
  4. Unless you have a good reason, cross-compilation should Just Work without any extra configuration or fiddling

In the past, several people have asked if I can add a level of configurability to the include_dir!() macro (e.g. excluding files or using a different base directory when resolving paths), but most of these proposals involve creating multiple macros or overloading the existing include_dir!() macro with an optional config argument. According to rule 2, these proposals would be non-starters because there are now multiple ways of doing things.

Points 1, 3, and 4 all relate to how compilation and where the crate can be used.

At work, my main project has a component that is compiled to WebAssembly and deliberately doesn’t use the standard library (i.e. it is a no_std crate). We have a second component that depends on TensorFlow and needs to be cross-compiled to Windows/Linux/MacOS desktops, mobile devices, and the web.

Targeting such a large variety of platforms makes you appreciate libraries that are platform-agnostic where cross-compiling Just Works, and you really notice when they don’t. That second component reminded me just how lucky Rust is to have cargo instead of the mish-mash of Bazel, CMake, Makefiles, and random shell scripts.

Migrating to Newer Language Features Link to heading

Function-like Procedural Macros Link to heading

Procedural macros have evolved a lot since include_dir was first created and as of Rust 1.45 we no longer need hacks like the proc-macro-hack crate to use them in expressions.

Most notably, this lets the include_dir!() macro parse its input directly as a string literal instead of needing to go through a custom derive. It sounds boring, but this means we get to drop the syn dependency altogether and reduce our compile times quite a bit.

Once the proc_macro_quote feature is stabilised we should be able to drop our macro’s final two dependencies, quote and proc_macro2, and just use the proc_macro crate directly.

Either way, dropping dependencies without losing functionality is nice.

Const Functions Link to heading

In Rust 1.46 (September 2020), a really cool feature was stabilised - the ability to write functions which can be evaluated at compile time and in a const context.

Previously, the include_dir!() macro would take an expression like include_dir!("./assets/") and expand it to an object literal that looks something like this:

static ASSETS: Dir<'_> = Dir {
  path: "",
  children: &[
    DirEntry::File(File {
      path: "index.html",
      contents: b"<html>..."
    DirEntry::Dir(Dir {
      path: "img",
      children: &[

On its own this seems rather innocuous, but because macros are evaluated within the context of wherever they are called and because we are setting fields directly, it means everything needs to be publicly accessible otherwise your macro runs into " field path of struct Dir is private" errors.

However, making all your fields public means it is possible for anyone to use them and due to Hyrum’s Law we know someone will invariably depend on these internals. Therefore, if we ever want to restructure things or change assumptions made about a semantically-internal-but-technically-public field we’ll have people complaining about broken builds.


(obligatory XKCD reference)

As a hack workaround, we can use the #[doc(hidden)] attribute to hide our internal fields from a crate’s documentation. That means people can still technically access them, but only if they have deliberately read the source code and opted in to accessing those hidden fields anyway.

Now, with the ability to call functions when initializing static or const variables, we can just give Dir and File constructors while keeping internal details inaccessible from the outside.

Environment Variable Interpolation Link to heading

After using include_dir in the wild for a while, we found a couple of limitations with we convert the provided string into a path.

The biggest issue was that Rust doesn’t guarantee which folder a procedural macro will be executed from, meaning all relative paths would be implicitly resolved relative to $CARGO_MANIFEST_DIR.

That meant your src/ file might look like this…

// src/
static SRC_DIR: Dir<'_> = include_dir!(".");

… and looking up would fail at runtime because the actual directory structure is something completely different.

โ”œโ”€โ”€ Cargo.lock
โ”œโ”€โ”€ Cargo.toml
โ””โ”€โ”€ src

Users also wanted to resolve paths relative to different directories, namely $OUT_DIR, and were proposing alternate macros like include_dir_from_out_dir!() or adding configuration arguments to include_dir!().

However, both of those proposals complicate the crate by creating multiple ways to accomplish similar things, which clashes with my Make the happy path simple and intuitive goal.

I ended up choosing an alternative solution that should be familiar to anyone that has used a terminal before - environment variable interpolation.

The idea is you can write include_dir!("$CARGO_MANIFEST_DIR/src/") and avoid all ambiguity. It also solves the $OUT_DIR problem quite elegantly if I do say so myself.

File Metadata Link to heading

Some people were asking if we could record filesystem metadata when embedding a directory tree.

Adding hidden fields and extra methods to a type doesn’t have much of an impact on the way people use the include_dir!() macro, but because it adds a level of non-determinism to builds I opted to put this behind its own feature flag.

There are some technical difficulties in that std::time::SystemTime doesn’t have any public const fn constructors so we end up storing time as a duration since the UNIX_EPOCH, but other than that it’s pretty straightforward.

Nightly Features Link to heading

As well as all the normal functionality, we’ve created an opt-in feature flag which lets people use nightly-only features to improve their developer experience.

Better Dependency Tracking Link to heading

Something I like about build scripts is that you can tell cargo to only re-run when a particular environment variable or file has changed. This helps cut down on unnecessary recompiles by giving tools like cargo and rust-analyzer a better idea of your dependencies, letting them improve caching accuracy.

Procedural macros have similar functionality that is currently unstable, namely…

  • the tracked_env feature which enables the proc_macro::tracked_env::var() function for reading environment variables, and
  • the tracked_path feature which enables the proc_macro::tracked_path::path() function for telling the compiler that this build script depends on a specific path

Personally, I would prefer if the tracked_path feature exposed wrappers around the std::fs module (e.g. std::fs::read_dir() and std::fs::read_to_string()) because it means using a resource automatically notifies the compiler of the dependency instead of needing to “remember” to call proc_macro::tracked_path::path(), but it’s a start.

My hope is that down the track, rust-analyzer will be able to hook into these APIs and avoid unnecessarily reading a directory tree into memory and compiling it into Rust constants (a fairly memory-intensive task).

Document Feature-gated APIs Link to heading

The tool used to generate pretty HTML documentation for Rust code, rustdoc, has a feature which lets users see when particular functions and types are feature-gated.

If you have ever browsed the standard library’s API docs, you will be familiar with the This is a nightly-only experimental API annotations that guard unstable features.

A screenshot of the proc_macro::tracked_path::path() docs

Unstable feature annotation used in proc_macro::tracked_path::path()

By adding #![feature(doc_cfg)] to the top of your, any crate can get similar annotations for code guarded by #[cfg(...)].

The Tokio crate's time feature

Annotation on the Tokio crate’s "time" feature

In version 0.7 of the include_dir crate I’ve enabled this annotation whenever the nightly feature flag is enabled.

Most end users won’t actually use this directly, instead they’ll get the annotations for free whenever they visit the online API docs.

Conclusion Link to heading

This release introduces several big improvements, but more than that I think it’s helped me solidify my goals and values for the project.

Unfortunately, that means I will probably be closing several PRs and issues as “won’t fix”. I’m apologising ahead of time to those affected because I know what it’s like to really want a feature only to have the project maintainer reject it, however I think it’s important in the overall goal of making this crate as nice to use as possible.

In my opinion, the best thing a person can say about a library or product is that it Just Works, and I’m hoping this 0.7 release will bring us one step closer to that goal.

I’d also like to use this blog post as an opportunity to ask for reviews. It would be really nice to have extra eyes on this crate, and using a public review system like CREV would give people more confidence that they can use include_dir in production. You can check out their Getting Started guide for more.

  1. Well… “recently” when I started writing this post. It’s been about 2 months since then ๐Ÿ˜… ↩︎