An illustration of how much X cares about memory usage

March 4, 2024

In a comment on yesterday's entry talking about X's server side graphics rendering, B.Preston mentioned that another reason for this was to conserve memory. This is very true. In general, X is extremely conservative about requiring memory, sometimes to what we now consider extreme lengths, and there are specific protocol features (or limitations) related to this.

The modern approach to multi-window graphics rendering is that each window renders into a buffer that it owns (often with hardware assistance) and then the server composites (appropriate parts of) all of these buffers together to make up the visible screen. Often this compositing is done in hardware, enabling you to spin a cube of desktops and their windows around in real time. One of the things that clients simply don't worry about (at least for their graphics) is what happens when someone else's window is partially or completely on top of their window. From the client's perspective, nothing happens; they keep drawing into their buffer and their buffer is just as it was before, and all of the occlusion and stacking and so on are handled by the composition process.

(In this model, a client program's buffer doesn't normally get changed or taken away behind the client's back, although the client may flip between multiple buffers, only displaying one while completely repainting another.)

The X protocol specifically does not require such memory consuming luxuries as a separate buffer for each window, and early X implementations did not have them. An X server might have only one significant-sized buffer, that being screen memory itself, and X clients drew right on to their portion of the screen (by sending the X server drawing commands, because they didn't have direct access to screen memory). The X server would carefully clip client draw operations to only touch the visible pixels of the client's window. When you moved a window to be on top of part of another window, the X server simply threw away (well, overwrote) the 'under' portion of the other window. When the window on top was moved back away again, the X server mostly dealt with this by sending your client a notification that parts of its window had become visible and the client should repaint them.

(X was far from alone with this model, since at the time almost everyone was facing similar or worse memory constraints.)

The problem with this 'damage and repaint' model is that it can be janky; when a window is moved away, you get an ugly result until the client has had the time to do a redraw, which may take a while. So the X server had some additional protocol level features, called 'backing store' and 'save-under(s)'. If a given X server supported these (and it didn't have to), the client could request (usually during window creation) that the server maintain a copy of the obscured bits of the new window when it was covered by something else ('backing store') and separately that when this window covered part of another window, the obscured parts of that window should be saved ('save-under', which you might set for a transient pop-up window). Even if the server supported these features in general it could specifically stop doing them for you at any time it felt like it, and your client had to cope.

(The X server can also give your window backing store whether or not you asked for it, at its own discretion.)

All of this was to allow an X server to flexibly manage the amount of memory it used on behalf of clients. If an X server had a lot of memory, it could give everything backing store; if it started running short, it could throw some or all of the backing store out and reduce things down to (almost) a model where the major memory use was the screen itself. Even today you can probably arrange to start an X server in a mode where it doesn't have backing store (the '-bs' command line option, cf Xserver(1), which you can try in Xnest or the like today, and also '-wm'). I have a vague memory that back in the day there were serious arguments about whether or not you should disable backing store in order to speed up your X server, although I no longer have any memory about why that would be so (but see).

As far as I know all X servers normally operate with backing store these days. I wouldn't be surprised if some modern X clients would work rather badly if you ran them on an X server that had backing store forced off (much as I suspect that few modern programs will cope well with PseudoColor displays).

PS: Now that I look at 'xdpyinfo', my X server reports 'options: backing-store WHEN MAPPED, save-unders NO'. I suspect that this is a common default, since you don't really need save-unders if everything has backing store enabled when it's visible (well, in X mapped is not quite 'visible', cf, but close enough).

Written on 04 March 2024.
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A peculiarity of the X Window System: Windows all the way down »

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Last modified: Mon Mar 4 22:02:53 2024
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