Rust pretty blatantly just inherits the memory model for atomics from C++20. This is not due to this model being particularly excellent or easy to understand. Indeed, this model is quite complex and known to have several flaws. Rather, it is a pragmatic concession to the fact that everyone is pretty bad at modeling atomics. At very least, we can benefit from existing tooling and research around the C/C++ memory model. (You'll often see this model referred to as "C/C++11" or just "C11". C just copies the C++ memory model; and C++11 was the first version of the model but it has received some bugfixes since then.)

Trying to fully explain the model in this book is fairly hopeless. It's defined in terms of madness-inducing causality graphs that require a full book to properly understand in a practical way. If you want all the nitty-gritty details, you should check out the C++ specification. Still, we'll try to cover the basics and some of the problems Rust developers face.


The C++ memory model is very large and confusing with lots of seemingly arbitrary design decisions. To understand the motivation behind this, it can help to look at what got us in this situation in the first place. There are three main factors at play here:

  1. Users of the language, who want fast, cross-platform code;
  2. compilers, who want to optimize code to make it fast;
  3. and the hardware, which is ready to unleash a wrath of inconsistent chaos on your program at a moment's notice.

The memory model is fundamentally about trying to bridge the gap between these three, allowing users to write the algorithms they want while the compiler and hardware perform the arcane magic necessary to make them run fast.

Compiler Reordering

Compilers fundamentally want to be able to do all sorts of complicated transformations to reduce data dependencies and eliminate dead code. In particular, they may radically change the actual order of events, or make events never occur! If we write something like:

x = 1;
y = 3;
x = 2;

The compiler may conclude that it would be best if your program did:

x = 2;
y = 3;

This has inverted the order of events and completely eliminated one event. From a single-threaded perspective this is completely unobservable: after all the statements have executed we are in exactly the same state. But if our program is multi-threaded, we may have been relying on x to actually be assigned to 1 before y was assigned. We would like the compiler to be able to make these kinds of optimizations, because they can seriously improve performance. On the other hand, we'd also like to be able to depend on our program doing the thing we said.

Hardware Reordering

On the other hand, even if the compiler totally understood what we wanted and respected our wishes, our hardware might instead get us in trouble. Trouble comes from CPUs in the form of memory hierarchies. There is indeed a global shared memory space somewhere in your hardware, but from the perspective of each CPU core it is so very far away and so very slow. Each CPU would rather work with its local cache of the data and only go through all the anguish of talking to shared memory only when it doesn't actually have that memory in cache.

After all, that's the whole point of the cache, right? If every read from the cache had to run back to shared memory to double check that it hadn't changed, what would the point be? The end result is that the hardware doesn't guarantee that events that occur in some order on one thread, occur in the same order on another thread. To guarantee this, we must issue special instructions to the CPU telling it to be a bit less smart.

For instance, say we convince the compiler to emit this logic:

initial state: x = 0, y = 1

y = 3;          if x == 1 {
x = 1;              y *= 2;

Ideally this program has 2 possible final states:

  • y = 3: (thread 2 did the check before thread 1 completed)
  • y = 6: (thread 2 did the check after thread 1 completed)

However there's a third potential state that the hardware enables:

  • y = 2: (thread 2 saw x = 1, but not y = 3, and then overwrote y = 3)

It's worth noting that different kinds of CPU provide different guarantees. It is common to separate hardware into two categories: strongly-ordered and weakly-ordered. Most notably x86/64 provides strong ordering guarantees, while ARM provides weak ordering guarantees. This has two consequences for concurrent programming:

  • Asking for stronger guarantees on strongly-ordered hardware may be cheap or even free because they already provide strong guarantees unconditionally. Weaker guarantees may only yield performance wins on weakly-ordered hardware.

  • Asking for guarantees that are too weak on strongly-ordered hardware is more likely to happen to work, even though your program is strictly incorrect. If possible, concurrent algorithms should be tested on weakly-ordered hardware.