Report on platform-compliance for cargo directories

When you use the Rust programming language toolchain, usually through a cargo command, it needs a place to store a bunch of config files, caches, and the cargo binary itself. By default, that place will be your operating system’s user directory, which I’m going to refer to as $HOME or ~, where it will put a .cargo folder.

This is a very common approach for Unix projects, but not the preferred approach of any of the platforms Rust is available on. Each platform has its own folders that it expects apps to store different types of data in, with various degrees of compliance.

Platform compliance is a subject that pops up every now and then, usually with some frustration that Rust still doesn’t have it. Here’s an overview of the main threads I’ve found on the subject:

I am leaving out various people complaining about Rust’s XDG non-compliance on reddit, Hacker News and Github (and I probably missed quite a few threads). As you can see, many of these threads have high vote counts: people wanted this in 2014, and they still want it now.

As the saying goes, “the best time to plant a tree is back in 2014 when the language was unstable and breaking changes weren’t much of a concern”; and indeed, going through these threads, you can feel the frustration of a bunch of users asking for the change to be implemented as fast as possible before the ecosystem ossifies, being ignored, and years later being told that it’s too costly to implement now that the ecosystem has ossified.

That frustration can get pretty close to resentment and hostility. Indeed, speedrunning through past discussions, it can feel like platform-compliance skeptics’ position is a textbook application of the OSS’s Simple Sabotage Field Manual: “insist on doing everything through channels, never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions”, “haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions”, “refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision”.

Now, there is an important point I want to make: the previous paragraph is not me accusing developers who favor the status quo of deliberately making the process harder. This might be a reasonable belief in a corporate environment, but Rust is a high-trust open-source community, where we have the privilege of being able to assume good faith.

Rather, I think that developers resistant to platform-compliant config files have concerns; some of which I feel are valid, some which are basically noise; and that despite the eagerness of the community for a fix, and the attempts of multiple members to implement ones, nobody was able to propose a solution that truly addressed those concerns.

Part of this is bureaucratic entropy (if skeptics oppose the same minor concerns over and over again, eg because they are not aware someone else already raised them, discussion inevitably gets bogged down), part of this is that the major concerns are actually pretty complex.

And since the second best time to plant a tree is right now, I’d like to lay out those concerns, and exactly what it would take to implement platform-compliance for cargo in 2023 (and whatever year you’re reading this).

Okay, what are you even talking about?

If you’re not familiar with the subject matter, this introduction might have been a bit unclear to you. To get a better idea of what the fuss is about, let’s get into low-level details.

When you run

cargo build

into your terminal, cargo needs a bunch of configuration values to figure out what it wants to do; things like “do I pass additional flags to the compiler?”, “which linker do I use?”, “what is the default optimization level?”, etc. It will look for config files in the current directory, every parent directory, and in a special path, ~/.cargo/config.

Moreover, cargo also wants to keep a cache of previously built crates, downloaded source files, credential tokens, etc. All of these files will be stored in paths like ~/.cargo/git, ~/.cargo/credentials, etc.

And cargo also keeps both the rust toolchain (cargo itself, rustfmt, rustc, etc) and all the globally-installed binaries it builds in ~/.cargo/bin. That directory is usually added to your $PATH on first install, so after running cargo install somerustprogram, you can run somerustprogram directly from your terminal like any other command.

(Also, rustup has its own config files in ~/.rustup, which we won’t cover here; the general principle is the same.)

Currently, you can change the ~/.cargo part by setting the environment variable $CARGO_HOME. If you set CARGO_HOME=/foo/bar, then your global config file will be in /foo/bar/config, your credentials file will be in /foo/bar/credentials, etc.

However, there is no way to “split” the cargo home. There is no way to say: I want config files to be in one folder, temporary files to be in another, and binaries to be in yet another.

Except this is exactly what some users want! On Linux in particular, there is an increasingly popular standard called XDG Base Directory:

  • XDG_CONFIG_HOME: Where user-specific configurations should be written (analogous to /etc). Should default to $HOME/.config.
  • XDG_CACHE_HOME: Where user-specific non-essential (cached) data should be written (analogous to /var/cache). Should default to $HOME/.cache.
  • XDG_DATA_HOME: Where user-specific data files should be written (analogous to /usr/share). Should default to $HOME/.local/share.
  • XDG_STATE_HOME: Where user-specific state files should be written (analogous to /var/lib). Should default to $HOME/.local/state.
  • (Non-standard, but popular) XDG_BIN_HOME: Where user-specific executables should be written (similar to /usr/bin). Default to $HOME/.local/bin.

(Mac, Windows, and other OSes have their own conventions, which I’m less familiar with.)

It’s controversial how much benefit these conventions really bring. Some people really don’t care, some people swear by them.

Some benefits people have cited:

  • Reducing the home directory clutter, making it easier to find relevant files.
  • Having all config files centralized in an easily backed-up ~/.config/ folder with no clutter.
  • Having all cache files centralized in an easy-to-destroy ~/.cache folder.
  • Having all local binaries in a single folder which is “guaranteed” (your distribution may disagree) to be included in the default $PATH.
  • Following standard paths makes it easier to cooperate with sandboxing frameworks like Flatpak (though it doesn’t seem very tidy in practice).
  • More abstract benefits, like giving analysis and backup tools a better understanding of your folder structure.
  • Windows doesn’t use XDG paths, but has its own standard paths, and rarely uses dotfiles. Having dotfiles used for Windows may be confusing and annoying for users.

Speaking as someone who frequently has to re-install my environment, the first two points speak to me: I really wish app developers stopped having their own special top-level folder for all data that I must then track down and manually copy when I’m trying to port my configuration to a new laptop / PopOS install / whatever. At one point I thought NixOS would be the solution, but, eh, it didn’t pan out.

Also, the supposed benefits I listed strongly depend on network effects: people will only write more tools based on XDG assumptions if developers write xdg-compliant apps; developers will be more motivated to write xdg-compliant apps if there is an ecosystem benefit to doing that. This can lead to frustrating situations where maintainers of a few major projects stall and point at each other to say “If X didn’t bother to do it, why should I?”. That said, in 2023, I’d say support has progressed enough that it’s clear the ecosystem is heading towards widespread support (if at a glacial pace).

So what is blocking us?

Backward compatibility.

It’s a thornier problem than you may think.

First, before the maintainers make any widespread switch, they must make sure that it won’t break ecosystem tools. Say we change the cargo config file to be stored in ~/.config/cargo/config. If tools like cargo-geiger, bacon, or tarpaulin were using the hardcoded legacy path to look for cargo config data, they’d break as soon as you’d change your directory structure.

Second, Rust developers often use the rustup installer to switch between rust versions. If they switch back to a previous version of cargo which only knows to look for ~/.cargo, it won’t read the config files in your new emplacement.

The second point is, as far as I’m aware, the one that all RFCs and PRs so far have failed to address. It’s complicated, the kind of problem that requires a multi-step rollout to solve, where maintainers make sure to proactively notify tool authors, stay on alert for breakage reports, be quick to provide hotfixes, etc. Given that many maintainers are skeptical of the benefits I’ve listed above, they have understandingly not felt keen to accept this workload.

A third point, less complicated but still time-consuming, is that a lot of tests in cargo and rustup are written under the assumption that config files can be found under ~/.cargo. These tests will need to be fixed before any wide-reaching change is implemented. I’m not actually sure what needs to be fixed; the discussion in the RFC thread mentions cargo clean and hardcoded paths.

What should we do?

So, assuming we do want platform-compliant cargo files, which I do, what should we do?

Step zero would be to write an RFC outlining everything I’m about to say in a semi-formal format. RFC #1615 is a good starting point, but has missing steps.

Set up a new directory structure

First, we have to establish three directories where cargo files will be stored:


To quote RFC #1615:

These will be used to split the current .cargo (CARGO_HOME) directory up: The cached packages (.cargo/git, .cargo/registry) will go into CARGO_CACHE_DIR, binaries (.cargo/bin) installed by Cargo will go into CARGO_BIN_DIR and the config (.cargo/config) will go into CARGO_CONFIG_DIR.

We will also define three functions in the cargo library:


During the initial implementation, cache_dir() and config_dir() will return $HOME/.cargo and bin_dir() will return $HOME/.cargo/bin, unless their respective environment variable is set (we’re deliberately ignoring $CARGO_HOME for now). That way, the default behavior should stay the same at first, while giving users the option to have a platform-compliant directory structure.

After a transition period, and depending on a lookup algorithm (see next section), these functions may instead return platform-dependent values:

cache:    AppData\Local\Temp\Cargo
config:   AppData\Roaming\Cargo
binaries: AppData\Local\Programs\Cargo

cache:    .cache/cargo
config:   .config/cargo
binaries: .local/bin

cache:    Library/Caches/org.rust-lang.Cargo
config:   Library/Application Support/org.rust-lang.Cargo
binaries: /usr/local/bin

(Actual values will depend on some runtime stuff: API calls on Windows and MacOS, XDG_***_HOME environment variables on Linux, etc.)

Agree on a canonical lookup algorithm

Given its environment, how should cargo pick a path for its files? In other words, what should eg cargo::config_dir() return?

This is a question with no straightforward answer. RFC #1615 says:

In order to maintain backward compatibility, the old directory locations will be checked if the new ones don’t exist. In detail, this means:

  • If any of the new variables CARGO_BIN_DIR, CARGO_CACHE_DIR, CARGO_CONFIG_DIR are set and nonempty, use the new directory structure.
  • Else, if there is an override for the legacy Cargo directory, using CARGO_HOME, the directories for cache, configuration and executables are placed inside this directory.
  • Otherwise, if the Cargo-specfic platform-specific directories exist, use them. What constitutes a Cargo-specific directory is laid out below, for each platform.
  • If that’s not the case, check whether the legacy directory exists (.cargo) and use it in that case.
  • If everything else fails, create the platform-specific directories and use them.

This makes Cargo use platform-specific directories for new installs while retaining compatibility for the old directory layout. It also allows one to keep all Cargo related data in one place if one wishes to.

The problems with the above algorithm are:

  • It doesn’t specify what to do if some but not all of CARGO_BIN_DIR, CARGO_CACHE_DIR, CARGO_CONFIG_DIR are set.
  • It doesn’t specify what to do when one of the above flags is set, but the matching file doesn’t exist.
  • It assumes that CARGO_***_DIR or CARGO_HOME being set is significant and means “override the default”; except when using cargo (or basically any rust binary) through rustup, CARGO_HOME is always set. Rustup sets it to its default value of $HOME/.cargo if it’s not set before calling your rust binary. (Looking through the code responsible for this, it’s not clear to me how feasible it would be to not do that.)
  • For that matter, it doesn’t account for rustup directories, though they have fewer special cases.

The problem of rustup in particular is tricky. If you run:

cargo build

from a distribution where Rust is installed by your package manager, then chances are your command indeed will run the cargo executable. However, if you run the same command on a system where Rust was installed with rustup, then there’s a good chance the cargo binary is a hardlink to the rustup binary (likely stored in ~/.cargo/bin), which will do some light preprocessing, figure out what toolchain you want to use, and call the appropriate version of the actual cargo binary. This is how rust commands handle these +sometoolchain flags you can give them.

For our problem, the implication is that cargo may run directly, or through a rustup proxy which adds a default value to $CARGO_HOME (and presumably $CARGO_CACHE_DIR, $CARGO_CONFIG_DIR, etc). This means our lookup algorithm needs to work for both scenarios.

Here is the algorithm I would propose:

  • If $CARGO_HOME is set:
      • If the env variable is set, use that value.
      • Else use $CARGO_HOME (or $CARGO_HOME/bin).
  • If $CARGO_HOME isn’t set:
    • Set $CARGO_HOME to $HOME/.cargo.
      • If the env variable is set, use that value.
      • Else if the platform-specific directory (eg $HOME/.cache/cargo) exists, use that directory.
      • Else use $HOME/.cargo.
  • When running rustup, apply the above steps, then pass the environment variables that have been set to the wrapped binary.
  • There are some subtleties in practice where rustup wants to be able to mock environment variables for unit tests, which we won’t cover here.

Note that this algorithm doesn’t specify whether the directories are created in .cargo or in platform-compliant directories. Indeed, the default outcome of using that algorithm as stated, is not using platform-specific directories: the outcome if config files don’t exist is to use $HOME/.cargo; but config files are usually created only when Rustup or cargo first tries to write them (for instance, registry/ is created after your first cargo build starts downloading dependencies). But to know where to write them, it needs to follow the above algorithm, which depends on whether or not these files exist. Hence, by default, it would assume files need to be created in .cargo. This is deliberate.

(Existing proposals ignore this subtlety; they assume that all config files are created once at install time, whereas cargo potentially recreates them on each run, which adds some corner cases.)

A possible change would be to use platform-compliant directories as the ultimate fallback instead of .cargo, though I would recommend against that at first, to make the transition easier.

Instead, rustup could create platform-specific directories (eg $HOME/.cache/cargo, $HOME/.config/cargo) on fresh installs; we could also create a rustup migrate-home command that creates these directories and migrates existing config files. This migration should be super optional, not eg something that’s applied on rustup update.

Also, we can assume that package manager installs would create the platform-specific dirs by default.

Compatibility with earlier Rust versions

The basic point of rustup is to be able to very easily switch between rust versions.

This means users expect to be able to run cargo +v1.50 build and, assuming they’ve installed a toolchain named v1.50, to run the matching cargo binary; since this cargo binary will not have support for platform-specific directories, rustup will need to mock it somehow.

The most obvious solution would be symlinks: when rustup installs a toolchain from a previous version, it will look in its $CARGO_HOME directory and add various links pointing to platform-specific files and folders (eg $CARGO_HOME/registry would point to $CARGO_CACHE_DIR/registry), assuming they exist.

(There are some platform subtleties here; for instance, rustup prefers using hardlinks on Windows IIRC)

The potential existence of these links would add some complexity to the rustup uninstall process, since it would need to remove both them and the actual files separately; but as long as these symlinks are only touched on toolchain install and uninstall, they shouldn’t add too much brittleness to the process. In particular, the lookup algorithm I described above isn’t affected by the existence of symlinks.

Rustup directories

So far we’ve discussed cargo env variables passed to cargo, and cargo env variables passed to rustup, but rustup also has its own env variables to manage!

Rustup currently uses RUSTUP_HOME and defaults to $HOME/.rustup. It would need its own RUSTUP_CACHE_DIR and RUSTUP_CONFIG_DIR env variables. Presumably they would be set in a way consistent with CARGO_HOME and CARGO_***_DIR, but the code should not assume that this is the case.

The algorithm would be the same as the one I described for cargo. Rustup is overall a simpler case, because some of the corner cases (downgrading to previous versions, custom tools fetching hardcoded file locations) are less likely to happen.

Some unresolved questions

Do we really want CARGO_BIN_DIR?

It’s not clear to me that having a separate directory for binaries has a strong benefit. Separating config files from cache data is useful for backups and storage, but separating binary files is only useful for adding them to the $PATH. Except rustup can already add the binary folder to the $PATH variable, and it’s not clear how many platforms have a standard binaries-go-there folder. It’s not part of the main XDG standard, for instance.

And it adds some non-trivial difficulties: using, say, ~/.local/bin for cargo binaries would mean that binaries would be mingled with binaries from other programs. Rustup couldn’t remove all the contents of the directory like it currently does with ~/.cargo/bin.

Also, the symlinking trick I described above gets a lot more complicated if rustup has to guess which binary is or isn’t owned by cargo.

Given the above constraints, it might make sense to consider the bin/ directory a sub-part of the cache directory.

Split cache and data?

To get some of the benefits of platform compliance I mentioned earlier in the post, you have to split your application’s data directory, which stores files you need to keep around, and your cache directory, which stores files that can be removed at any point and will be re-generated.

I’m not sure how feasible it would be to do this for cargo. The directory structure doesn’t really separate files that can be regenerated on demand and files that would need to be downloaded if deleted.

We could come up with a new directory structure; but the transition between old and new versions would get even more complex. We should probably keep it simple at first.

Preparing the transition

To avoid ecosystem-wide breakage, we would have to do a survey of existing cargo-based tools and check how they handle config discovery. Some projects I got from a quick search:

  • cargo
  • clippy, rustfmt, rust-analyzer
  • cargo-audit
  • cargo-auditable
  • cargo-crev
  • cargo-deny
  • cargo-edit
  • cargo-expand
  • cargo-xbuild
  • bacon
  • cargo-geiger
  • cargo-dinghy

Generally, we’d also want to do a github-wide search for CARGO_HOME and RUSTUP_HOME, look through the reverse dependencies of the home crate, and probably a few I forgot. Yeah, that’s a lot.

I expect that most of these projects don’t use cargo configs, and won’t need to be changed; but due diligence requires that we check most of them before we perform a change that has the potential to break the entire ecosystem.

For all these projects, we need to look for hard-coded cargo paths, and replace them with cargo::bin_dir(), cargo::cache_dir() and cargo::config_dir(). (Well in practice, we’d probably add these methods to the home crate, but you get the idea.)

Note though, that we could implement a lot of the changes I’ve described before doing most of that due diligence, as long as we warn users that CARGO_***_DIR and RUSTUP_***_DIR environment variables are experimental and might cause some breakage. The default behavior would stay the same as now.

Before merging any changes, though, what we would need is tests, and lots of them. I don’t know what the testing situation looks like in rustup right now, but for a change that broad we’d probably want integration tests that simulate a full environment on multiple platforms, so probably containers or something.

There are a lot of corner cases we’d want to sand off before we’d be comfortable merging that change.


Is it worth all that effort to implement platform compliance in cargo and rustup?

I’m a lot less confident than I was when I started writing this article. The amount of work seems daunting, and I have a lot more empathy for the maintainers who looked at it and went “nope, not touching that”. I’m certainly not rushing to implement it myself.

That said, I do still feel the same frustration when I do ls ~ and see the little .cargo folder taunting me, polluting my home. I do think it would be better in the long term if someone had the motivation to do all that work, cross the Ts and dot the Is, and actually planted that tree.

Just, you know. Be aware that there’s a lot of work before we can actually get its fruits.

Discussion on r/rust