25 Jul 2014

Wayland protocol design: object lifespan

Now that we have a few years of experience with the Wayland protocol, I thought I would put some of my observations in writing. This, what will hopefully become a series rather than just one post, considers how to design Wayland protocol extensions the right way.

This first post considers protocol object lifespan and the related races between the compositor/server and the client. I assume that the reader is already aware of the Wayland protocol basics. If not, I suggest reading Chapter 4. Wayland Protocol and Model of Operation.

How protocol objects are created

On a new Wayland connection, the only object that exists is the wl_display which is a specially constructed object. You always have it, and there is no wire protocol for creating it.

The only thing the client can create next is a wl_registry through the wl_display. Registry is the root of the whole interface (class) hierarchy. Wl_registry advertises the global objects by numerical name, and using wl_registry.bind request to bind to a global is the first normal way to create a protocol object.

Binding is slightly special still, as the protocol specification in XML for wl_registry uses the new_id argument type, but does not specify the interface (class) for the new object. In the wire protocol, this special argument gets turned into three arguments: interface name (string), interface version (uint32_t), and the new object ID (uint32_t). This is unique in the Wayland core protocol.

The usual way to create a new protocol object is for the client to send a request that has a new_id type of argument. The protocol specification (XML) defines what the interface is, so there is no need to communicate the interface type over the wire. All that is needed on the wire is the new object ID. Almost all object creation happens this way.

Although rare, also the server may create protocol objects for the client. This happens by having a new_id type of argument in an event. Every time the client receives this event, it receives a new protocol object.

As all requests and events are always part of some interface (like a member of a class), this creates an interface hierarchy. For example, wl_compositor objects are created from wl_registry, and wl_surface objects are created from wl_compositor.

Object creation never fails. Once the request or event is sent, the new objects it creates exists, period. This keeps the protocol asynchronous, as there is no need to reply or check that the creation succeeded.

How protocol objects are destroyed

There are two ways to destroy a protocol object. By far the most common one is to have a request in the interface that is specified to be a destructor. Most often this request is called "destroy". When the client code calls the function wl_foobar_destroy(), the request is sent to the server and the client side proxy (struct wl_proxy) for the object gets destroyed. The server then handles the destructor request at some point in the future.

The other way is to destroy the object by an event. In that case, no destructor must be defined in the interface's protocol specification, and the event must be clearly documented to be destructive as there is no automation nor safeties for this. This is for cases where the server decides when an object dies, and requires extreme care in protocol design to work right in all cases. When a client receives such an event, all it can do is destroy the proxy. The (in)famous example of an interface like this is wl_callback.

Enter the boogeyman: races

It is very important that both the client and the server agree on which protocol objects exist. If the client sends a request on, or references as an argument, an object that does not exist in the server's opinion, the server raises a protocol error, and disconnects the client. Obviously this should never happen, nor should it happen that the server sends an event to an object that the client destroyed.

Wayland being a completely asynchronous protocol, we have no implicit guarantees. The server may send an event at the same time as the client destroys the object, and now the event targets an object the client does not know about anymore. Rather than the client shooting itself dead (that's the server's job), we have a trick in libwayland-client: it silently ignores events to destroyed objects, until the server confirms that the object is truly gone.

This works very well for interfaces where the destructor is a request. If the client first sends the destructor request and then sends another request on the destroyed object, it just shot its own head off - no race needed.

Things get tricky for the other case, destructor events. The server may send the destructor event at the same time the client is sending a request on the same object. When the server finally gets the request, the object is already gone, and the client gets taken behind the shed and shot. Therefore pretty much the only safe way to use destructor events is if the interface does not define any requests at all. Ever, not even in future extensions. Furthermore, objects with that interface should not be used as arguments anywhere, or you may hit the race. That is why destructor events are difficult to use right.

The boogeyman's brother

There is yet another nasty race with events that create objects, i.e. server-created objects. If the client is destroying the (parent) object at the same time as the server is sending an event on that object, creating a new (child) object, the server cannot know if the client actually handled the event or not. If the client ignored the event, it will never tell the server to destroy that new object, and you leak in the server.

You could try to make your way out of that pitfall by writing in your protocol specification, that when the (parent) object is destroyed, all the child objects will be destroyed implicitly. But then the client must not send the destructor request for the child objects after it has destroyed the parent, because otherwise the server sees requests on objects it does not know about, and kicks you in the groin, hard. If the child interface defines a destructor, the client cannot destroy its proxies after destroying the parent object. If the child interface does not define a destructor, you can never free the server-side resources until the parent gets destroyed.

The client could destroy all the child objects with a defined destructor in one go, and then immediately destroy the parent object. I am not sure if that works, but it might. If it does not, you have to specify a whole tear-down protocol sequence. The client tells the server it wants to destroy the parent object, the server acks and guarantees it no longer sends any events on it, then the client actually destroys the parent object. Hey, you have a round-trip and just turned a beautiful asynchronous protocol into synchronous, congratulations!

Concluding with recommendations

Here are my recommendations when designing Wayland protocol extensions:
  • Always make sure there is a guaranteed way to destroy all objects. This may sound obvious, but we have fixed several cases in the Wayland core protocol where there was no way to destroy a created protocol object such, that all resources on both server and client side could be freed. And there are still some cases not fixed.
  • Always define a destructor request. If you have any doubt whether your new interface needs a destructor request, just put it there. It is more awkward to add later than normal requests. If you do not have one, the client cannot tell the server to free those protocol object resources.
  • Do not use destructor events. They are hard to design right, and extending the interface later will be a bitch. The client cannot tell the server to free the resources, so objects with destructor events should be short-lived, and the destruction must be guaranteed.
  • Do not use server-side created objects without a serious thought. Designing the destruction sequence such that it never leaks nor explodes is tricky.


pf_packet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
pf_packet said...

Hi, Pekka.

First, thank you for writing this nice article.
This post is very intersting to me.
So I have translated it into Japanese.
Now I want to publish my translation on my blog.
My blog is at http://d.hatena.ne.jp/devm33/
Are there any problems to do so?
Or is this blog licensed under some licenses?


pq said...

Hi pf_packet,

you are welcome to do a translation as long as you clearly mention the source of the original text you translated. I.e., clearly say that it is a translation from what I wrote and link back here. I have no problem with that as long as you reference your sources properly. :-)

Oh and do mention the date of which version you looked at. I don't usually edit my posts later, but it's possible.

pf_packet said...

Hi Pekka.

I have published my translation here:

As you said, I mentioned it is translated from this post and the date I looked at.

If you find any problems please let me know.

Bill Spitzak said...

The link is broken, it looks like "chap-Protocol.html" is now called "ch04.html".

Otherwise really useful and informative.

pq said...

Link fixed, thanks.

Adam Goode said...

This post (and others) would be a great addition to the permanent documentation at wayland.freedesktop.org (via wayland-web.git).

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