Writing a Wayland Compositor, Part 1: Hello wlroots February 17, 2018 on Drew DeVault's blog

This is the first in a series of many articles I’m writing on the subject of building a functional Wayland compositor from scratch. As you may know, I am the lead maintainer of sway, a reasonably popular Wayland compositor. Along with many other talented developers, we’ve been working on wlroots over the past few months. This is a powerful tool for creating new Wayland compositors, but it is very dense and difficult to understand. Do not despair! The intention of these articles is to make you understand and feel comfortable using it.

Before we dive in, a quick note: the wlroots team is starting a crowdfunding campaign today to fund travel for each of our core contributors to meet in person and work for two weeks on a hackathon. Please consider contributing to the campaign!

You must read and comprehend my earlier article, An introduction to Wayland, before attempting to understand this series of blog posts, as I will be relying on concepts and terminology introduced there to speed things up. Some background in OpenGL is helpful, but not required. A good understanding of C is mandatory. If you have any questions about any of the articles in this series, please reach out to me directly via sir@cmpwn.com or to the wlroots team at #sway-devel on irc.freenode.net.

During this series of articles, the compositor we’re building will live on GitHub: Wayland McWayface. Each article in this series will be presented as a breakdown of a single commit between zero and a fully functional Wayland compositor. The commit for this article is f89092e. I’m only going to explain the important parts - I suggest you review the entire commit separately.

Let’s get started. First, I’m going to define a struct for holding our compositor’s state:

+struct mcw_server {
+       struct wl_display *wl_display;
+       struct wl_event_loop *wl_event_loop;

Note: mcw is short for McWayface. We’ll be using this acronym throughout the article series. We’ll set one of these aside and initialize the Wayland display for it1:

 int main(int argc, char **argv) {
+       struct mcw_server server;
+       server.wl_display = wl_display_create();
+       assert(server.wl_display);
+       server.wl_event_loop = wl_display_get_event_loop(server.wl_display);
+       assert(server.wl_event_loop);
        return 0;

The Wayland display gives us a number of things, but for now all we care about is the event loop. This event loop is deeply integrated into wlroots, and is used for things like dispatching signals across the application, being notified when data is available on various file descriptors, and so on.

Next, we need to create the backend:

 struct mcw_server {
        struct wl_display *wl_display;
        struct wl_event_loop *wl_event_loop;
+       struct wlr_backend *backend;

The backend is our first wlroots concept. The backend is responsible for abstracting the low level input and output implementations from you. Each backend can generate zero or more input devices (such as mice, keyboards, etc) and zero or more output devices (such as monitors on your desk). Backends have nothing to do with Wayland - their purpose is to help you with the other APIs you need to use as a Wayland compositor. There are various backends with various purposes:

Another important backend is the multi backend, which allows you to initialize several backends at once and aggregate their input and output devices. This is necessary, for example, to utilize both drm and libinput simultaneously.

wlroots provides a helper function for automatically choosing the most appropriate backend based on the user’s environment:

        server.wl_event_loop = wl_display_get_event_loop(server.wl_display);
+       server.backend = wlr_backend_autocreate(server.wl_display);
+       assert(server.backend);
        return 0;

I would generally suggest using either the Wayland or X11 backends during development, especially before we have a way of exiting the compositor. If you call wlr_backend_autocreate from a running Wayland or X11 session, the respective backends will be automatically chosen.

We can now start the backend and enter the Wayland event loop:

+       if (!wlr_backend_start(server.backend)) {
+               fprintf(stderr, "Failed to start backend\n");
+               wl_display_destroy(server.wl_display);
+               return 1;
+       }
+       wl_display_run(server.wl_display);
+       wl_display_destroy(server.wl_display);
        return 0;

If you run your compositor at this point, you should see the backend start up and… do nothing. It’ll open a window if you run from a running Wayland or X11 server. If you run it on DRM, it’ll probably do very little and you won’t even be able to switch to another TTY to kill it.

In order to render something, we need to know about the outputs we can render on. The backend provides a wl_signal that notifies us when it gets a new output. This will happen on startup and as any outputs are hotplugged at runtime.

Let’s add this to our server struct:

 struct mcw_server {
        struct wl_display *wl_display;
        struct wl_event_loop *wl_event_loop;
        struct wlr_backend *backend;
+       struct wl_listener new_output;
+       struct wl_list outputs; // mcw_output::link

This adds a wl_listeners which is signalled when new outputs are added. We also add a wl_list (which is just a linked list provided by libwayland-server) which we’ll later store some state in. To be notified, we must use wl_signal_add:

+       wl_list_init(&server.outputs);
+       server.new_output.notify = new_output_notify;
+       wl_signal_add(&server.backend->events.new_output, &server.new_output);
        if (!wlr_backend_start(server.backend)) {

We specify here the function to be notified, new_output_notify:

+static void new_output_notify(struct wl_listener *listener, void *data) {
+       struct mcw_server *server = wl_container_of(
+                       listener, server, new_output);
+       struct wlr_output *wlr_output = data;
+       if (!wl_list_empty(&wlr_output->modes)) {
+               struct wlr_output_mode *mode =
+                       wl_container_of(wlr_output->modes.prev, mode, link);
+               wlr_output_set_mode(wlr_output, mode);
+       }
+       struct mcw_output *output = calloc(1, sizeof(struct mcw_output));
+       clock_gettime(CLOCK_MONOTONIC, &output->last_frame);
+       output->server = server;
+       output->wlr_output = wlr_output;
+       wl_list_insert(&server->outputs, &output->link);

This is a little bit complicated! This function has several roles when dealing with the incoming wlr_output. When the signal is raised, a pointer to the listener that was signaled is passed in, as well as the wlr_output which was created. wl_container_of uses some offsetof-based magic to get the mcw_server reference from the listener pointer, and we cast data to the actual type, wlr_output.

The next thing we have to do is set the output mode. Some backends (notably x11 and Wayland) do not support modes, but they are necessary for DRM. Output modes specify a size and refresh rate supported by the output, such as 1920x1080@60Hz. The body of this if statement just chooses the last one (which is usually the highest resolution and refresh rate) and applies it to the output with wlr_output_set_mode. We must set the output mode in order to render to it.

Then, we set up some state for us to keep track of this output with in our compositor. I added this struct definition at the top of the file:

+struct mcw_output {
+       struct wlr_output *wlr_output;
+       struct mcw_server *server;
+       struct timespec last_frame;
+       struct wl_list link;

This will be the structure we use to store any state we have for this output that is specific to our compositor’s needs. We include a reference to the wlr_output, a reference to the mcw_server that owns this output, and the time of the last frame, which will be useful later. We also set aside a wl_list, which is used by libwayland for linked lists.

Finally, we add this output to the server’s list of outputs.

We could use this now, but it would leak memory. We also need to handle output removal, with a signal provided by wlr_output. We add the listener to the mcw_output struct:

 struct mcw_output {
        struct wlr_output *wlr_output;
        struct mcw_server *server;
        struct timespec last_frame;
+       struct wl_listener destroy;
        struct wl_list link;

Then we hook it up when the output is added:

         wl_list_insert(&server->outputs, &output->link);

+        output->destroy.notify = output_destroy_notify;
+        wl_signal_add(&wlr_output->events.destroy, &output->destroy);

This will call our output_destroy_notify function to handle cleanup when the output is unplugged or otherwise removed from wlroots. Our handler looks like this:

+static void output_destroy_notify(struct wl_listener *listener, void *data) {
+        struct mcw_output *output = wl_container_of(listener, output, destroy);
+        wl_list_remove(&output->link);
+        wl_list_remove(&output->destroy.link);
+        wl_list_remove(&output->frame.link);
+        free(output);

This one should be pretty self-explanatory.

So, we now have a reference to the output. However, we are still not rendering anything - if you run the compositor again you’ll notice the same behavior. In order to render things, we have to listen for the frame signal. Depending on the selected mode, the output can only receive new frames at a certain rate. We keep track of this for you in wlroots, and emit the frame signal when it’s time to draw a new frame.

Let’s add a listener to the mcw_output struct for this purpose:

 struct mcw_output {
        struct wlr_output *wlr_output;
        struct mcw_server *server;
        struct wl_listener destroy;
+       struct wl_listener frame;
        struct wl_list link;

We can then extend new_output_notify to register the listener to the frame signal:

        output->destroy.notify = output_destroy_notify;
        wl_signal_add(&wlr_output->events.destroy, &output->destroy);
+       output->frame.notify = output_frame_notify;
+       wl_signal_add(&wlr_output->events.frame, &output->frame);

Now, whenever an output is ready for a new frame, output_frame_notify will be called. We still need to write this function, though. Let’s start with the basics:

+static void output_frame_notify(struct wl_listener *listener, void *data) {
+       struct mcw_output *output = wl_container_of(listener, output, frame);
+       struct wlr_output *wlr_output = data;

In order to render anything here, we need to first obtain a wlr_renderer2. We can obtain one from the backend:

 static void output_frame_notify(struct wl_listener *listener, void *data) {
        struct mcw_output *output = wl_container_of(listener, output, frame);
        struct wlr_output *wlr_output = data;
+       struct wlr_renderer *renderer = wlr_backend_get_renderer(
+                       wlr_output->backend);

We can now take advantage of this renderer to draw something on the output.

 static void output_frame_notify(struct wl_listener *listener, void *data) {
        struct mcw_output *output = wl_container_of(listener, output, frame);
        struct wlr_output *wlr_output = data;
        struct wlr_renderer *renderer = wlr_backend_get_renderer(
+       wlr_output_make_current(wlr_output, NULL);
+       wlr_renderer_begin(renderer, wlr_output);
+       float color[4] = {1.0, 0, 0, 1.0};
+       wlr_renderer_clear(renderer, color);
+       wlr_output_swap_buffers(wlr_output, NULL, NULL);
+       wlr_renderer_end(renderer);

Calling wlr_output_make_current makes the output’s OpenGL context “current”, and from here you can use OpenGL calls to render to the output’s buffer. We call wlr_renderer_begin to configure some sane OpenGL defaults for us3.

At this point we can start rendering. We’ll expand more on what you can do with wlr_renderer later, but for now we’ll be satisified with clearing the output to a solid red color.

When we’re done rendering, we call wlr_output_swap_buffers to swap the output’s front and back buffers, committing what we’ve rendered to the actual screen. We call wlr_renderer_end to clean up the OpenGL context and we’re done. Running our compositor now should show you a solid red screen!

This concludes today’s article. If you take a look at the commit that this article describes, you’ll see that I took it a little further with some code that clears the display to a different color every frame. Feel free to experiment with similar changes!

Over the next two articles, we’ll finish wiring up the Wayland server and render a Wayland client on screen. Please look forward to it!

Next — Part 2: Rigging up the server

  1. It’s entirely possible to utilize a wlroots backend to make applications which are not Wayland compositors. However, we require a wayland display anyway because the event loop is necessary for a lot of wlroots internals. ↩︎

  2. wlr_renderer is optional. When you call wlr_output_make_current, the OpenGL context is made current and from here you can use any approach you prefer. wlr_renderer is provided to help compositors with simple rendering requirements. ↩︎

  3. Namely: the viewport and blend mode. ↩︎

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