Cross-compilation in Rust

This post contains excerpts of my book Black Hat Rust

Now we have a mostly secure RAT, it's time to expand our reach.

Until now, we limited our builds to Linux. While the Linux market is huge server-side, this is another story client-side, with a market share of roughly 2.5% on the desktop.

To increase the number of potential targets, we are going to use cross-compilation: we will compile a program from a Host Operating System for a different Operating System. Compiling Windows executables on Linux, for example.

But, when we are talking about cross-compilation, we are not only talking about compiling a program from an OS to another one. We are also talking about compiling an executable from one architecture to another. From x86_64 to aarch64 (also known as arm64), for example.

In this chapter, we are going to see why and how to cross-compile Rust programs and how to avoid the painful edge-cases of cross-compilation, so stay with me.

Why multi-platform

From computers to smartphones passing by smart TVs, IoT such as cameras or "smart" fridges... Today's computing landscape is kind of the perfect illustration of the word "fragmentation".

Thus, if we want our operations to reach more targets, our RAT needs to support many of those platforms.

Platform specific APIs

Unfortunately, OS APIs are not portable: for example, persistence techniques(the act of making the execution of a program persist across restarts) are very different if you are on Windows or on Linux.

The specificities of each OS force us to craft platform-dependent of code.

Thus we will need to write some parts of our RAT for windows, rewrite the same part for Linux, and rewrite it for macOS...

The goal is to write as much as possible code that is shared by all the platforms.

Cross-platform Rust

Thankfully, Rust makes it easy to write code that will be conditionally compiled depending on the platform it's compiled for.

The cfg attribute

The cfg attribute enables the conditional compilation of code. It supports many options so you can choose on which platform to run which part of your code.

For example: #[cfg(target_os = "linux")], #[cfg(target_arch = "aarch64")], #[cfg(target_pointer_width = "64")];

Here is an example of code that exports the same install function but picks the right one depending on the target platform.


// ...

#[cfg(target_os = "linux")]
mod linux;

#[cfg(target_os = "linux")]
pub use linux::install;

#[cfg(target_os = "macos")]
mod macos;
#[cfg(target_os = "macos")]
pub use macos::install;

#[cfg(target_os = "windows")]
mod windows;
#[cfg(target_os = "windows")]
pub use windows::install;

Then, in the part of the code that is shared across platforms, we can import and use it like any module.

mod install;

// ...


The cfg attribute can also be used with any, all, and not:

// The function is only included in the build when compiling for macOS OR Linux
#[cfg(any(target_os = "linux", target_os = "macos"))]
// ...

// This function is only included when compiling for Linux AND the pointer size is 64 bits
#[cfg(all(target_os = "linux", target_pointer_width = "64"))]
// ...

// This function is only included when the target Os IS NOT Windows
#[cfg(not(target_os = "windows"))]
// ...

Platform dependent dependencies

We can also conditionally import dependencies depending on the target.

For example, we are going to import the winreg crate to interact with Windows' registry, but it does not makes sense to import, or even build this crate for platforms different thant Windows.


winreg = "0.10"

Supported platforms

The Rust project categorizes the supported platforms into 3 tiers.

  • Tier 1 targets can be thought of as "guaranteed to work".
  • Tier 2 targets can be thought of as "guaranteed to build".
  • Tier 3 targets are those for which the Rust codebase has support for but which the Rust project does not build or test automatically, so they may or may not work.

Tier 1 platforms are the followings:

  • aarch64-unknown-linux-gnu
  • i686-pc-windows-gnu
  • i686-pc-windows-msvc
  • i686-unknown-linux-gnu
  • x86_64-apple-darwin
  • x86_64-pc-windows-gnu
  • x86_64-pc-windows-msvc
  • x86_64-unknown-linux-gnu

You can find the platforms for the other tiers in the official documentation:

In practical terms, it means that our RAT is guaranteed to work on Tier 1 platforms without problems (or it will be handled by the Rust teams). For Tier 2 platforms, you will need to write more tests to be sure that everything works as intended.


Error: Toolchain / Library XX not found. Aborting compilation.

How many times did you get this kind of message when trying to follow the build instructions of a project or cross-compile it?

What if, instead of writing wonky documentation, we could consign the build instructions into an immutable recipe that would guarantee us a successful build 100% of the time?

This is where Docker comes into play:

Immutability: The Dockerfiles are our immutable recipes, and docker would be our robot, flawlessly executing the recipes all days of the year.

Cross-platform: Docker is itself available on the 3 major OSes (Linux, Windows, and macOS). Thus, we not only enable a team of several developers using different machines to work together, but we also greatly simplify our toolchains.

By using Docker, we are finally reducing our problem to compiling from Linux to other platforms, instead of:

  • From Linux to other platforms
  • From Windows to other platforms
  • From macOS to other platforms
  • ...


The Tools team develops and maintains a project named cross which allow you to easily cross-compile Rust projects using Docker, without messing with custom Dockerfiles.

It can be installed like that:

$ cargo install -f cross

cross works by using pre-made Dockerfiles, but they are maintained by the Tools team, not you, and they take care of everything.

The list of targets supported is impressive. As I'm writing this, here is the list of supported platforms:


Cross-compiling from Linux to Windows

# In the folder of your Rust project
$ cross build --target x86_64-pc-windows-gnu

Cross-compiling to aarch64 (arm64)

# In the folder of you Rust project
$ cross build --target aarch64-unknown-linux-gnu

Cross-compiling to armv7

# In the folder of your Rust project
$ cross build --target armv7-unknown-linux-gnueabihf

Custom Dockerfiles

Sometimes, you may need specific tools in your Docker image, such as a packer (what is a packer? we will see that below) or tools to strip and rewrite the metadata of your final executable.

In this situation, it's legitimate to create a custom Dockerfile and to configure cross to use it for a specific target.

Create a Cross.toml file in the root of your project (where your Cargo.toml file is), with the following content:

image = "my_image:tag"

We can also completely forget cross and build our own Dockerfiles. Here is how.

Cross-compiling from Linux to Windows


FROM rust:latest

RUN apt update && apt upgrade -y
RUN apt install -y g++-mingw-w64-x86-64

RUN rustup target add x86_64-pc-windows-gnu
RUN rustup toolchain install stable-x86_64-pc-windows-gnu


CMD ["cargo", "build", "--target", "x86_64-pc-windows-gnu"]
$ docker build . -t black_hat_rust/ch12_windows -f
# in your Rust project
$ docker run --rm -ti -v `pwd`:/app black_hat_rust/ch12_windows

Cross-compiling to aarch64 (arm64)


FROM rust:latest

RUN apt update && apt upgrade -y
RUN apt install -y g++-aarch64-linux-gnu libc6-dev-arm64-cross

RUN rustup target add aarch64-unknown-linux-gnu
RUN rustup toolchain install stable-aarch64-unknown-linux-gnu


    CC_aarch64_unknown_linux_gnu=aarch64-linux-gnu-gcc \

CMD ["cargo", "build", "--target", "aarch64-unknown-linux-gnu"]
$ docker build . -t black_hat_rust/ch12_linux_aarch64 -f Dockerfile.aarch64
# in your Rust project
$ docker run --rm -ti -v `pwd`:/app black_hat_rust/ch12_linux_aarch64

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