Value Objects in Rust

When writing software in an OOP language, Value Objects are an invaluable (pun intended) tool in my toolbelt.

The idea of Value Objects arose from Domain Driven Design, but are useful in and on itself, so outside of DDD.

Examples of Value Objects are things like numbers, dates, monies and strings. Usually, they are small objects which are used quite widely. Their identity is based on their state rather than on their object identity. This way, you can have multiple copies of the same conceptual Value Object. Every $5 note has its own identity (thanks to its serial number), but the cash economy relies on every $5 note having the same value as every other $5 note.

C2 Wiki

Value Objects must adhere to three rules. I like to add two.

  • It has no identity.
  • It is immutable.
  • It is comparable.
  • It has meaning to the business.
  • It is guaranteed to be valid according to the business.

Usually, only the first three are mentioned. I always add the last two, to include why we want this. In other words: if there is no need for a business meaning, or there is no validation, a Value Object may be overkill. Sometimes something really is just an integer or string.

In most software, we use Primitives all over the place. Need a URL? Just pass a string. A price? Decimal, or Int (or, heaven forbid: a float). A from- and to date for some report? Send in two Dates. And so on. This is also known as the Primitive Obsession Code-smell.

This causes a lot of issues. Most important issue being: it spreads your business rules all over the place. Or simply leaves you with no business rules at all. And secondly: Meaning is lost. A price as decimal may be unambiguous enough, but a let weight = 3.76; certainly is ambiguous.

Also, primitives aren't immutable by definition (but in Rust at least they are by default) and while often they can be compared, and lack identity, they most certainly lack any meaning to the business. And we cannot guarantee their validity. They have no place in the Domain model. So they tick some boxes, but not all.

An contrived example of "software" that emails your boss some report of recent requests to a website. This uses primitives: strings, integers, vectors etc.

Our API is both PageRequest and make_and_send_report. Aside from the obvious issue that the function has multiple responsibilities, this API leaves a lot to desire. The users (colleagues, future-me, today-me, contractors etc) need additional information that the code does not convey.

  • Our business logic of what is a valid email is encapsulated: good! But we must now remember to use that encapsulated rule everywhere we want to do stuff with an email-address[1].
  • What is the size? Apparently when diving deep into the code, it represents kilobytes.
  • Can a size be negative? 18 quintillion kilobytes? Zero?
  • What is the response_code? Maybe a HTTP code? If so, what is zero? Or 65000?

Please note that PageRequest is not a value object here. It has identity (though no explicit ID field), it makes no sense to compare on its content and it would probably be something that comes from a database or other source in reality. It would be either an Aggregate or Entity. But that's for another discussion.

Value Objects to the rescue

First, a Value Object wraps one, or multiple things. An example of multiple-things would be a 2D coordinate or a "list of things". My contrived example lacks such Value Objects that wrap multiple primitives, but I'll touch on this later.

For now, let's turn the email address into a Value Object:

A HttpResponseCode and PageSize would follow the same pattern.

We then use them as:

An intermediate version where all this is implemented can be found in this playground.

This pattern is: * We define a simple struct. It wraps the value. * We implement a constructor. In that constructor, we place any business rules. So that we can be sure that any such Value Object created through this constructor is valid, by our business-rules. * When the constructor gets an invalid value, it will return an error in runtime. * We implement the Display trait, so that our users can display it.

This is far from ideal, still. But we already have a few boxes ticked:

  • It has no identity.
  • It is immutable.
  • It has meaning to the business.

Still missing:

  • It is guaranteed to be valid according to the business.
  • It is comparable.

For the first, we need to enforce that users' go through our constructors. For the second, we can implement the PartialEq trait.

And for the impatient: yes, we will clean up the API and make it ergonomic later on. The code, with its Results, Displays and whatnots has arguably become worse now. But first some other issues to solve.

In order to avoid someone from simply calling EmailAddress { value: String::from("invalid-email") } we can place our Value Objects in a module and only make the struct and constructor public..

Implementing the PartialEq trait is trivial too. Or, even simpler, with derive:

Most value-objects will be simple enough for derive.

Which we can then use throughout our code when checking equality. E.g. a business rule that ensures we never ever email john:

Whether or not to use the derive or the impl version depends mostly on the business needs. Typically, Value Objects are simple, so the derive version will almost always be good: our value structs hardly ever will have fields that aren't relevant to the comparison.

But maybe our business says: " and are the same". Or maybe our HttpResponseCode 488 should be the same as 400.

Now everything is ticked:

  • It has no identity. - Simply don't add some id: field.
  • It is immutable. - Default in Rust
  • It is comparable. - Derive or implement PartialEq
  • It has meaning to the business. - Give them proper names
  • It is guaranteed to be valid according to the business. - Enforce constructors.

But we can improve a lot still. I won't go through all the improvements that make it more proper rust-ish but will discuss some improvements are specific for the Value Objects. And one makes them a lot nicer to work with.

Most important, is an issue with our PageSize. It is still unclear in what unit this is. We could rename it to PageSizeBytes, implement some From traits to convert between PageSizeBytes, PageSizeKiloBytes and so on. Or we could improve the API of this object. E.g. a ::new_from_kilobytes() constructor, and then some fancy .as_megabytes(), etc. getters.

When to choose what, depends on the domain and requirements.

We can lean on the type checker for cases where a specific unit is a requirement. E.g. maybe a function must operate on bytes, so binding the function parameter to PageSizeBytes then helps: fn is_outlier(size: PageSizeBytes). We can use contracts (traits) for cases where we want to be sure that we can read a specific unit from the Value Object, with, say a as_kilobytes(). In that case, a generic over a trait fn bw_used<T: DataSize>(size: T) might work best, where trait DataSize enforces a as_kilobytes() interface and the type system ensures that whatever we pass in, has this method. And in cases where all this doesn't matter, where only the business meaning and validation is of importance, we can bind to a more generic Value Object type. In our example, the HttpResponseCode or EmailAddress.

In the example, I would go for a PageSize, but clarify the unit in the constructor and a reader:

This shows another benefit of Value Objects: they can be unit-tested, and unit-testing them is dead-easy.

In the first version, had I wanted to test anything related to converting kilo- mega etc bytes, I would probably have had to test that the email being sent, contains the correct strings. But now, I can unit-test the getters and setters on PageSize, which is the most easy (and fastest) kind of test.

A last improvement is to make the Value Objects easier to use. In the intermediate version, we see that all our Value Objects must get the impl Display so that we can display them. The usize, or String we had before, can easily be displayed. Whats worse: we cannot do all the common operators on our Value Objects: they cannot be added, summed, divided, etc. What if we want to add "average page size" to our report? We then need to extract the value. In this we're lucky, because we already have the as_kilobytes() getters. But another example could be a ViewCount which we may want to sum up. This then needs another getter. More boilerplate code, more calls:

Sometimes this isn't an issue. Like when our getters are already there and required to disambiguate. Or when operations values don't make sense: what would it even mean to have the average HTTP status code? Or to sum them up? Yet in the new example above, we'd be helped if we could forward any method calls, or operators, to the wrapped value. Deref can be of help:

We still have to deref any value before using it, but that is rather simple. In the example these are the*vc and the *report_title. This is considered an antipattern though. But, like always, "it depends". With a very simple value object, deref makes sense: it may not be 100% semantic correct: deref is meant for custom pointer types and simple value objects can be considered such a pointer, but not entirely. For value objects that wrap multiple primitives, deref won't work. And when we add semantics, like the as_kilobytes() it isn't needed, and would add only confusion. So use with care and be aware of the downsides. Such as:

Using this pattern gives subtly different semantics from most OO languages with regards to self. Usually it remains a reference to the sub-class, with this pattern it will be the 'class' where the method is defined.

I personally don't use deref that often. Only early on, but I find that when a value object improves and solidifies over time, I almost always remove the deref at some point in favor of semantic getters[2].

So, to sum up:

  • If the wrapped value makes sense as primitive, and we want to allow any operations or methods to be called directly on it, Deref can be of help.
  • If the wrapped value is ambiguous, named getters rather than a generic one, allow us to return a Primitive on which we can operate as we want.
  • If the wrapped value make no business sense as Primitive (e.g. our status code), we should prohibit getting to this primitive.
  • If the wrapped value is made up of multiple primitives, operations don't make sense: getting to the underlying primitives should be prohibited.

The last one needs some extra attention:

Multiple values

Often a Value Object is made up from multiple values. An example would be a Point, coordinates in a 2d plane:

This is another great example where Value Objects make sense. We certainly don't want to pass the two lat: usize and lon: usize around all over the place. Not only is that a codesmell, it is prone to errors (you will swap lat and lon somewhere, you will set one but not the other if you make them Optional. etc.)

A use-case that I come across more often, though, is a from: DateTime, to: DateTime. There is some obvious DateRange waiting to be implemented. This DateRange can ensure the from is never later than the to. It can get extra fancy helpers so that a user can ask date_range.intersects(other_range), date_range.includes(date) or date_range.length_in_seconds() or such.

A third value object would be a collection. A list, queue, vector, array, etc. Most collections are fine as primitive. But quite often they lack the business-validation. E.g. a list of "todo tasks" cannot ever contain a Task that is "done". Or a top-5 Songs cannot ever contain 6 entries. But how to wrap collections ergonomically, is an entire post on itself.

Usage of Libraries

In the first example, way above, we have a url: String. A URL is not a String, just as a date isn't a string, or a credit-card number isn't a string. It's a value with meaning, validation, helpers and so on. My name is Bèr is not a valid URL, yet our program accepted this as URL just fine. When dealing with URLS, you often need to extract a hostname, path, protocol and so on, also lacking in our example.

And rather than writing our own Url Value Object, we can leverage one of the many crates. For example url.

We could use such struct provided by a library directly. Which is often Good Enough. But to limit our coupling, we could wrap it in our own struct; Value Objects are a great place to do this. They double as Anti Corruption Layer in a convenient place.

In addition, wrapping it with our own version, allows different business rules. Maybe what url, the crate deems valid, isn't for our domain. Maybe we can only accept URLs that are https, or only ever for our own hostname. In that case wrapping ,and then Derefing an url in our own value object, is simple and makes the API (and errors and such) consistent.

That leaves us with the final implementation of the Value Objects:

You can play around with this here

This leaves a lot to be desired and improved, still. But a lot of implicit errors that were in the first version were fixed. And it clearly shows some of the neat tricks that Rust allows us to employ. Even though Rust isn't Object Oriented in the traditional sense, doesn't have objects, we can still use the Value Object Pattern (if you may call it that) to put business rules, -logic and meaning in our Rust programs.


Value Objects are a great tool to bring business-meaning and -rules into our code. They allow us to fix a lot of common code-smells. And they remove ambiguity and often make our code much better readable and therefore much easier to maintain. Value Objects are a great place to add some nifty helpers and converters.

In Rust, even though there are no Objects we can leverage structs, methods, traits, modules and the type checker to get Value Objects that make business sense, are valid within our domain, are ergonomic and require rather little boilerplate.

  • [1] And, yes, this isn't any sort of email-validation. It's an example!
  • [2] In Ruby, where I use Value Objects a lot too, and which is fully OOP, I find the same goes. I never just blanket forward all calls to the wrapped primitive. Because that leads to coupling with the primitive, which is one of the reasons for using value objects in the first place. Primitives also come with a very large interface (at least in Rust and Ruby they do), many of which don't make sense in the domain meaning. What is status_code.is_odd() or status_code.len()?
Woodcut from Doré. Purely illustrative
Doré Woodcut. Its only function is to make the layout look better. And these images are really nice themselves

About the author: Bèr Kessels is an experienced webdeveloper with a great passion for technology and Open Source. A golden combination to implement that technology in a good and efficient way. Follow @berkes on Mastodon. Or read more about Bèr.