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Recovering Capabilities

A recover expression lets you “lift” the reference capability of the result. A mutable reference capability (iso, trn, or ref) can become any reference capability, and an immutable reference capability (val or box) can become any immutable or opaque reference capability.

Why is this useful?

This most straightforward use of recover is to get an iso that you can pass to another actor. But it can be used for many other things as well, such as:

  • Creating a cyclic immutable data structure. That is, you can create a complex mutable data structure inside a recover expression, “lift” the resulting ref to a val.
  • “Borrow” an iso as a ref, do a series of complex mutable operations on it, and return it as an iso again.
  • “Extract” a mutable field from an iso and return it as an iso.

What does this look like?

The recover expression wraps a list of expressions and is terminated by an end, like this:

recover Array[String].create() end

This expression returns an Array[String] iso, instead of the usual Array[String] ref you would get. The reason it is iso and not any of the other mutable reference capabilities is because there is a default reference capability when you don’t specify one. The default for any mutable reference capability is iso and the default for any immutable reference capability is val.

Here’s a more complicated example from the standard library:

  var s = String((prec + 1).max(width.max(31)))
  var value = x

    if value == 0 then
      while value != 0 do
        let index = ((value = value / base) - (value * base))

  _extend_digits(s, prec')
  _pad(s, width, align, fill)

That’s from format/_FormatInt. It creates a String ref, does a bunch of stuff with it, and finally returns it as a String iso.

You can also give an explicit reference capability:

let key = recover val line.substring(0, i).>strip() end

That’s from net/http/_PayloadBuilder. We get a substring of line, which is a String iso^, then we call strip on it, which returns itself. But since strip is a ref function, it returns itself as a String ref^ - so we use a recover val to end up with a String val.

How does this work?

Inside the recover expression, your code only has access to sendable values from the enclosing lexical scope. In other words, you can only use iso, val and tag things from outside the recover expression.

This means that when the recover expression finishes, any aliases to the result of the expression other than iso, val and tag ones won’t exist anymore. That makes it safe to “lift” the reference capability of the result of the expression.

If the recover expression could access non-sendable values from the enclosing lexical scope, “lifting” the reference capability of the result wouldn’t be safe. Some of those values could “leak” into an iso or val result, and result in data races.

Automatic receiver recovery

When you have an iso or trn receiver, you normally can’t call ref methods on it. That’s because the receiver is also an argument to a method, which means both the method body and the caller have access to the receiver at the same time. And that means we have to alias the receiver when we call a method on it. The alias of an iso is a tag (which isn’t a subtype of ref) and the alias of a trn is a box (also not a subtype of ref).

But we can get around this! If all the arguments to the method (other than the receiver, which is the implicit argument being recovered) at the call-site are sendable, and the return type of the method is either sendable or isn’t used at the call-site, then we can “automatically recover” the receiver. That just means we don’t have to alias the receiver - and that means we can call ref methods on an iso or trn, since iso and trn are both subtypes of ref.

Notice that this technique looks mostly at the call-site, rather than at the definition of the method being called. That makes it more flexible. For example, if the method being called wants a ref argument, and we pass it an iso argument, that’s sendable at the call-site, so we can still do automatic receiver recovery.

This may sound a little complicated, but in practice, it means you can write code that treats an iso mostly like a ref, and the compiler will complain when it’s wrong. For example:

let s = recover String end

Here, we create a String iso and then append some text to it. The append method takes a ref receiver and a box parameter. We can automatically recover the iso receiver since we pass a val parameter, so everything is fine.