Taking a closer look at Cargo metadata

In this blog post I’m going to describe the Cargo metadata format and how it’s used to build a project.

Cargo does a great job managing different kinds of dependencies. It can easily resolve those, taking into account different package features and targets to understand how a project needs to be build. I’ll use the word package to describe a Cargo crate and by project I mean either a single or multiple packages.

You can use cargo metadata command to retrieve the metadata for the project. When executed in a Cargo project, it prints a JSON structure that describes all the relevant data Cargo could resolve for the project. The format is packed, so to get a better look at it, it’s a good idea to run cargo metadata | python -m json.tool (requires Python 2.6+).

Today we’re mostly concerned with packages and resolve objects.


The packages object is a list of Packages that are in the project scope, i.e. are a dependency (direct or indirect) to the packages in the workspace.

Each Package contains further information about its own direct, declared Package dependencies along with the SemVer requirement and the kind (whether it’s a regular or a build-/dev-dependency). Furthermore, it also contains specified features for the package or other additional metadata, such as the package name, description or a license.


Since declared dependencies specify SemVer constraints, these need to be further resolved, in order to create a simpler, acyclic dependency graph with concrete and locked down versions of the packages, that will be used during the build procedure.

A resolve object is such a graph. The data representation is a dependency graph between PackageIds. A PackageId is essentially a triple of a package (name, exact version, source). This is not directly included in the graph representation, but the resolve object is constructed with specified features being taken into account, and also more information about a certain package can be retrieved via the PackageId from the packages object.

This information allows to build the project bottom-up, starting from the dependencies, and guarantees that after doing so, all required dependencies will be built for the packages in the project.


Exact cargo metadata JSON schema is defined over at doc.crates.io.