I'm Brandon Smith, a programmer in Austin, Texas. More about me.


Rust's BufRead, And When To Use It


Rust is a low-level language, and its standard library is careful to give the programmer lots of control over how things will behave and avoid implicit behavior, especially when that behavior impacts performance. But at the same time, it doesn't want to make the programmer's life harder than it needs to be. As a result, Rust's language features and standard library often give you access to really low-level concepts with no assumptions baked in, but then also give you abstractions you can optionally layer on top.

One example of this is the Read and BufRead traits. Read is a low-level and unopinionated abstraction for ingesting data from things like files, network sockets, and process input, while BufRead represents a specific kind of layer you can choose to put on top of Read to make it slightly higher-level.

What is Read? #

Several things on a computer may be thought of as a "stream" of bytes. These streams may not immediately have all of the bytes available! The data will come in gradually, over time, and the code that consumes it will have to load it gradually (and usually either process it as it comes in, or store it all in one place before working with it all at once). Examples include a file being read from disk (which gets read gradually from the storage device), data being sent over the network (which gradually makes its way over the wire), or data piped in from another process via stdin (which may come from anywhere!)

To make these easier to work with, Rust exposes a trait called Read. This trait has various methods, but all of them are based on a single key method called read:

fn read(&mut self, buf: &mut [u8]) -> Result<usize>;

This method says "for self (the stream-like entity), take the next bytes that are currently available and write them into the byte array buf (up to buf's length; we don't want more than that right now)". It then returns either an error, or a usize telling the caller how many bytes were actually available to be read (it could be as many as buf's length, but it may be less, because they come in gradually!).

A File, TcpStream, etc can implement this trait (by implementing this method), and become usable as a Read for anything that knows how to work with a Read. The code that wants to read data from it can then call .read() over and over, to gradually load the data from the stream.

System calls #

Now as I said, Read is low-level by design! And many of these stream-like entities translate directly to operating-system entities, and reading from them translates directly to a system call. Rust doesn't assume we want anything between us and the system.

The thing about system calls is they're slow, at least compared to normal program logic. The reason for this is a little bit out of scope for the article, but it has to do with privileges: there are certain things that for security reasons, only the kernel is allowed to do. And when a system call is made from non-kernel code (like yours!), a request is made to the kernel to do something on its behalf, and then the CPU has to totally switch contexts to the kernel so it can fulfill your request safely, and then switch everything back to your code afterward. In low-level code, reducing the number of system calls is one of the bigger ways to squeeze out more performance! So, if we've got a loop that reads from a stream over and over in rapid succession, a little bit at a time, that might be a lot of extra system calls, which could slow down our code quite a bit. This is where BufRead comes in!

Buffered reading #

The idea with buffered reading is this: instead of asking the system for little bits of data one at a time, we keep a cache of our own, in non-kernel userspace. This cache (or "buffer") gets filled up as much as possible each time we request more data. If we only need one byte in our aplication logic, we don't just request one byte from the system- we request as many bytes as our buffer can hold, using a single system call, and then dole out just one of those bytes to the application logic that requested it. Then the next time the application logic requests a single byte, we may not even need to make a system call! If we already have the next byte cached in our buffer, we can return it straight away without the whole complicated dance that slows down our program.

You could implement buffered reading yourself on top of a plain Read, but it's a common enough thing that Rust provides us BufRead and BufReader.

BufReader #

BufReader is a struct which implements the BufRead trait. I'll explain why both exist in a second.

BufReader implements exactly the mechanism described in the previous section: it wraps an existing Read entity (like a network stream), and internally it also stores a buffer (8KB by default, but you can specify a custom size). BufReader itself implements Read, so you can then use it just like you would a normal Read and it will do the buffering behavior internally.

When you call read on a BufReader, it will fill up as much of its internal buffer as possible with a single large read from the original stream, before handing you the number of bytes you requested. The next time you call read, if it's already cached enough bytes to fulfill what you requested, it will return those directly without making another system call, hopefully speeding up your program! If you then read again and it doesn't have enough bytes cached, it will make a new system call that (you guessed it) fills up the buffer again, with as much data as is available at that time.

BufRead #

BufRead is a trait that's implemented by BufReader (as well as some other things). It's a little odd- being a trait, it doesn't actually implement the buffering mechanism or anything. So why does it exist?

Read describes the base operations you can do on any readable stream, but there are some operations you could want to do on a stream that would be really inefficient if the stream's content wasn't buffered! So those operations live in BufRead, to separate them out. BufRead says "this Read's data is buffered, so we can do these additional operations without worrying about tanking performance".

An example is the lines method. This method returns an iterator over the "lines" of bytes coming in (delimited by ASCII newline characters). This would be slow to do without a buffer, because you never know when the next byte is going to be a newline. To avoid over-shooting, you would have to read one byte at a time and check if it's a newline before reading the next one. And as we know, a series of tiny reads that translate to a long series of system calls is very inefficient! So this method is only built-in for Read structs that are explicitly marked as being buffered, via BufRead.

Demonstration #

To demonstrate, I've created an example project that you can clone and run on your machine, to demonstrate the performance impact of BufReader. Let's walk through it.

Running the demo #

This project contains both a TCP server and a TCP client. You can start each of them on your machine, and when the client is started it will request a stream of data from the server and then report how long it took with and without BufReader. With the code cloned, open two terminals and navigate both to the project directory. In the first one, type:

cargo run server

It should give you something like this:

  Compiling read-demo v0.1.0 (/Users/my-profile/read-demo)
    Finished dev [unoptimized + debuginfo] target(s) in 0.79s
     Running `target/debug/read-demo server`
Listening started, ready to accept

Now in the other terminal, type:

cargo run client

The program will start in client-mode, find the local server in the other terminal, connect to it, and request a stream of bytes. It will then do the same thing with a BufReader. It will record the time each of these takes, and print it to the console. You should get something like:

    Finished dev [unoptimized + debuginfo] target(s) in 0.00s
     Running `target/debug/read-demo client`
TcpStream (Read) took 469ms
BufReader<TcpStream> (BufRead) took 109ms

Of course your numbers won't match mine exactly, but the BufReader one should be significantly faster.

How it works #

Here's what happens when we start up the server:

fn server() {
    let listener = TcpListener::bind(HOST).unwrap();
    println!("Listening started, ready to accept");
    // listen for incoming connections
    for stream in listener.incoming() {
        thread::spawn(move || {
            // create a large set of data [0, 1, .., 255, 0, 1, ..]
            let data: Vec<u8> = (0..TOTAL_BYTES).map(|n| (n % 255) as u8).collect();
            // write entire set of data
            println!("Data sent, closing connection");

We open a TCP socket on localhost, and wait for incoming connections. When one is made, we spawn a new thread, generate a 1MB array of junk bytes (0-255 over and over), and send it all over the socket.

The client is where the relevant part happens. We run the client logic twice, once without and then once with a BufReader:

fn client() {
    // test with a raw TCP stream
    client_inner("TcpStream (Read)", TcpStream::connect(HOST).unwrap());
    // test with the stream wrapped in a buffered reader
        "BufReader<TcpStream> (BufRead)",

The core logic is then the same between the two:

fn client_inner<TRead: Read>(description: &str, mut stream: TRead) {
    let mut index = 0;
    // create a large buffer to hold all incoming data
    let mut buffer: Vec<u8> = (0..TOTAL_BYTES).map(|_| 0).collect();
    let start = Instant::now();
    // loop while there are still bytes to be read
    loop {
        // get the next one-byte slice of the buffer to use for reading (the
        // tiny slice is chosen to make this as inefficient as possible, for
        // illustration purposes)
        let buffer_slice = &mut buffer[index..usize::min(index + 1, TOTAL_BYTES)];
        // read new data into the buffer slice
        let received_bytes =;
        if received_bytes > 0 {
            // advance `index` by the number of bytes read
            index += received_bytes;
        } else {
            // if there are no more bytes to be read, we're done
    let end = Instant::now();
        "{} took {}ms",

We create a buffer large enough to hold the expected payload. Then we loop, reading exactly one byte at a time from the stream on each iteration. Once we've stopped receiving bytes (the stream has been closed), we break out of the loop and print how long the whole thing took.

One byte at a time #

Intentionally reading only one byte at a time is a bit silly; it isn't a very common situation to be in where you need to do that. But it's done here for illustration purposes, to make sure the difference is as exaggerated as possible.

Reasons to use or not use BufReader #

So, when should you wrap your Read in BufReader? It may be surprising to hear that the answer isn't "always".

First and foremost: it's unlikely to be helpful if there isn't a system call underlying your Read stream (i.e., if your Read is just handing you data that's already in your program's memory). Reads are often, but not always, backed by system calls: you could just as easily write a struct that implements Read but doesn't make any system calls!

Second: the larger each of your own reads is, the less helpful BufReader will be. You can read any number of bytes each time you call read, so if that number of bytes is large, you'll already be making fewer system calls than you would otherwise. At some point, BufReader won't help you reduce them, it'll just be an extra intermediate memory copy happening each time.

And BufReader itself isn't free! So if it's not helping, you don't want to be using it. It has two main costs:

  1. The buffer it holds will take up memory. If you've got the default buffer of 8KB, that's 8KB being occupied no matter how fully it's being utilized. That may sound small, but if you have many BufReaders alive at one time, or if you choose to give each of them a larger buffer, it can add up.

  2. Allocating the buffer is itself a system call! If you're making one system call to avoid many other system calls then it can easily be worth it, but if you aren't avoiding many other system calls it could do more harm than good, especially if you're creating and tearing down BufReaders repeatedly.

These costs bring us to the third situation where you might not use BufReader: when you're creating a very large number of streams. Consider situations where you might be loading thousands of files from disk, or handling thousands of incoming network connections. If every one of those has to allocate a buffer, and then take up that extra memory while it's alive, both the allocations and the memory usage will add up quickly! That doesn't automatically mean it's the wrong choice, but it's something to take into account.

Benchmarks, benchmarks, benchmarks #

But above all: BufReader is an optimization, and any optimization should be grounded in real-life benchmarks. Before incorporating it you should test out your real code with and without it, like we did above, and compare the two. Make sure there's a real - not hypothetical - performance gain, and that you understand why the bottleneck was happening and why adding BufReader will consistently solve it.

It's good to understand how performance will probably work, but it's better to check your assumptions!