Programming language Rust: Mozilla job cuts have hit us badly but here's how we'll survive

No existential threat to the Rust programming language, despite major layoffs at its main sponsor, Mozilla.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

The open-source project behind the Mozilla-founded systems programming language, Rust, has announced a new Rust foundation to boost its independence following Mozilla's recent round of pandemic layoffs.  

Firefox-maker Mozilla's decision to cut 250 roles or 25% of its workforce last week has taken a toll on the open-source project behind Rust. Mozilla is the key sponsor of Rust and provides much of the language's infrastructure as well as core talent. 

Some Mozilla contributors to five-year-old Rust did lose their jobs in Mozilla's job cuts, causing some speculation that heavier cuts to the team behind Mozilla's Servo browser engine – a core user of Rust – might pose an existential threat to the young language. 

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Rust's demise would be bad news for a growing number of developers exploring it for system programming – as opposed to application development – as a modern and memory-safe alternative to C and C++. 

Rust is now in developer analyst RedMonk's top 20 most-popular language rankings, and it is being used at Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft and Google Cloud among others for building platforms. And while Mozilla is the main sponsor of Rust, AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud have come on board as a sponsor too

However, discussing Mozilla's layoffs, Steve Klabnik, a Rust Core member, has pointed out that the Rust community is much bigger than the number of Mozilla employees who contributed to the project and were affected by the layoffs.

"Rust will survive," wrote Klabnik in a post on Hacker News. "This situation is very painful, and it has the possibility of being more so, but Rust is bigger than Mozilla."

Nonetheless, as a project born in Mozilla Research and supported heavily by Mozilla, Rust is still currently entrenched in Mozilla's infrastructure, which, for example, hosts the Rust package manager, crates.io

"Mozilla employs a small number of people to work on Rust full time, and many of the Servo people contributed to Rust too, even if it wasn't their job," Klabnik wrote. 

"[Mozilla] also pays for the hosting bill for crates.io. They also own a trademark on Rust, Cargo, and the logos of both. Two people from the Rust team have posted about their situation, one was laid off and one was not. Unsure about the others. Many of the Servo folks (and possibly all, it's not 100% clear yet but it doesn't look good) have been laid off."

But Klabnik notes that the "vast majority" of Rust contributors are not employed by Mozilla, even though the Mozilla's talent and infrastructure is important to the language's survival.  

To resolve issues around ownership and control, the Rust Core team and Mozilla are accelerating plans to create a Rust foundation, which they expect to be operating by the end of the year. 

"The various trademarks and domain names associated with Rust, Cargo, and crates.io will move into the foundation, which will also take financial responsibility for the costs they incur. We see this first iteration of the foundation as just the beginning," the Rust Core team said in a blog post this week

"There's a lot of possibilities for growing the role of the foundation, and we're excited to explore those in the future," it added. 

Addressing the question of Rust's demise, the team noted that it was a "common misconception that all the Mozilla employees who participated in Rust leadership did so as a part of their employment". Instead, some leaders were contributing to Rust on a voluntary basis rather than as part of the job at Mozilla.  

The Rust language project has also selected a team to lead the creation of the Rust foundation, including Microsoft Rust expert Ryan Levick and Josh Triplett, a former Intel engineer and a lead of the Rust language team

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Microsoft Azure engineers are exploring Rust for a Kubernetes container tool, and Microsoft recently released a public preview of Rust/WinRT, or Rust for the Windows Runtime (WinRT), to support Rust developers who build Windows desktop apps, store apps, and components like device drivers.

While a primary sponsor like AWS, Microsoft or Google Cloud could be good news for Rust, the Rust Core team says it doesn't want to rely too heavily on just one sponsor. 

"While we have only begun the process of setting up the foundation, over the past two years the Infrastructure Team has been leading the charge to reduce the reliance on any single company sponsoring the project, as well as growing the number of companies that support Rust," the Rust Core team said.

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