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Cargo Architecture

This document gives a high level overview of Cargo internals. You may find it useful if you want to contribute to Cargo or if you are interested in the inner workings of Cargo.

The purpose of Cargo is to formalize a canonical Rust workflow, by automating the standard tasks associated with distributing software. Cargo simplifies structuring a new project, adding dependencies, writing and running unit tests, and more.


Cargo is a single binary composed of a set of clap subcommands. All subcommands live in src/bin/cargo/commands directory. src/bin/cargo/ is the entry point.

Each subcommand, such as src/bin/cargo/commands/, has its own API interface, similarly to Git's, parsing command line options, reading the configuration files, discovering the Cargo project in the current directory and delegating the actual implementation to one of the functions in src/cargo/ops/ This short file is a good place to find out about most of the things that Cargo can do. Subcommands are designed to pipe to one another, and custom subcommands make Cargo easy to extend and attach tools to.

Important Data Structures

There are some important data structures which are used throughout Cargo.

Config is available almost everywhere and holds "global" information, such as CARGO_HOME or configuration from .cargo/config files. The shell method of Config is the entry point for printing status messages and other info to the console.

Workspace is the description of the workspace for the current working directory. Each workspace contains at least one Package. Each package corresponds to a single Cargo.toml, and may define several Targets, such as the library, binaries, integration test or examples. Targets are crates (each target defines a crate root, like src/ or examples/ and are what is actually compiled by rustc.

A typical package defines the single library target and several auxiliary ones. Packages are a unit of dependency in Cargo, and when package foo depends on package bar, that means that each target from foo needs the library target from bar.

PackageId is the unique identifier of a (possibly remote) package. It consist of three components: name, version and source id. Source is the place where the source code for package comes from. Typical sources are, a git repository or a folder on the local hard drive.

Resolve is the representation of a directed acyclic graph of package dependencies, which uses PackageIds for nodes. This is the data structure that is saved to the lock file. If there is no lock file, Cargo constructs a resolve by finding a graph of packages which matches declared dependency specification according to semver.


Cargo is a non-daemon command line application, which means that all the information used by Cargo must be persisted on the hard drive. The main sources of information are Cargo.toml and Cargo.lock files, .cargo/config configuration files and the globally shared registry of packages downloaded from, usually located at ~/.cargo/registry. See src/cargo/sources/registry for the specifics of the registry storage format.


Cargo is mostly single threaded. The only concurrency inside a single instance of Cargo happens during compilation, when several instances of rustc are invoked in parallel to build independent targets. However there can be several different instances of Cargo process running concurrently on the system. Cargo guarantees that this is always safe by using file locks when accessing potentially shared data like the registry or the target directory.


Cargo has an impressive test suite located in the tests folder. Most of the test are integration: a project structure with Cargo.toml and rust source code is created in a temporary directory, cargo binary is invoked via std::process::Command and then stdout and stderr are verified against the expected output. To simplify testing, several macros of the form [MACRO] are used in the expected output. For example, [..] matches any string.

To see stdout and stderr streams of the subordinate process, add .stream() call to the built-up Execs:

// Before

// After

Alternatively to build and run a custom version of cargo simply run cargo build and execute target/debug/cargo. Note that +nightly/+stable (and variants), being rustup features, won't work when executing the locally built cargo binary directly, you have to instead build with cargo +nightly build and run with rustup run (e.g rustup run nightly <path-to-cargo>/target/debug/cargo <args>..) (or set the RUSTC env var to point to nightly rustc).


Cargo uses env_logger, so you can set CARGO_LOG environment variable to get the logs. This is useful both for diagnosing bugs in stable Cargo and for local development. Cargo also has internal hierarchical profiling infrastructure, which is activated via CARGO_PROFILE variable

# Outputs all logs with levels debug and higher
$ CARGO_LOG=debug cargo generate-lockfile

# Don't forget that you can filter by module as well
$ CARGO_LOG=cargo::core::resolver=trace cargo generate-lockfile

# Output first three levels of profiling info
$ CARGO_PROFILE=3 cargo generate-lockfile