Improving input latency

Tiago Vignatti vignatti at
Tue Jul 29 18:50:22 PDT 2008


I posted this summary on my blog but I'll send it here as well. The 
feedback that I receive in mailing lists is usually better than in blog :)

Thank you,


= Improving input latency =

GSoC summary #1 - July 29

The current implementation of X Window System relies in a signal scheme 
to manage the input event coming from hardware devices. This scheme 
frequently get blocked when lot of IO is occurring (for instance, when 
the process is swapping in/out). Get blocked means for instance a 
jumping cursor on the screen and in GUI is always desirable to 
prioritize the system responsiveness for end users. The human/computer 
interface should be smooth and this is the most user visible aspect of a 

Besides the need for improvement in system responsiveness, the current 
design of the event stream has some oddities, probably due historical 
reasons, such as the cursor update done in user-space or the huge path 
that takes to draw the cursor instead just connect the mouse hardware 
directly with the cursor position update in-kernel. Moreover there is no 
fundamental reason to input drivers be dependent of DDX part of the X 
server. Therefore a design of the input subsystem must be carefully 
redone to improve such issues.

Our project try to solve all this problems. In summary the goal is: to 
get a path from hardware input event to client delivery that cannot be 
blocked by rendering or IO operations, meaning we always have very low 
latency on input events. Moreover, a redesign of such event stream could 
improve the overall X graphics stack, which must be considered as well.

So far three strategies were explored to achieve the goal:

1. put X input generation stage in a separate thread

2. put X input generation and processing stages others threads

3. shortcut the kernel input layer with drm to decrease the cursor 
update latency

Basically 1. and 2. tries to solve the issue of blocking signals and 3. 
would be a completely redesign in input infrastructure. Anyway, the 3. 
strategy would impact in 1. and 2. but these could be implemented in 
parallel with the third strategy. The following sections details each 

== strategy #1 ==

Strategy 1 does not uses a signal handler anymore to wake up the event 
generation code. It simply poll for device's socket and giving that this 
code is under a separate thread this is a win for the CPUs.

With the separate thread taking care only the input code, it was 
expected that the cursor footprint always lived on resident memory when 
the mouse stills in movement. Unfortunately this was not true. For some 
reason it swaps back to disk. Maybe some scheduler adjusts would help 
here. A memory lock scheme was tried to do lock the cursor footprint 
always in physical memory without success.

This strategy is basically what we've been done is the first GSoC. This 
is pretty much implemented. It would not require much trouble to push it 
to X server from upstream. The code is here:

== strategy #2 ==

This strategy can be thought as an improvement of #1. It can be 
separated in two models of implementation:

Model one:

thread #1 deals with
- injection and processing of input events
thread #2 deals with
- requests from known clients
- new client that tries to connect

It would be very very nice to let both threads totally independents. But 
we cannot. The event delivery depends on window structure and the first 
thread must always wake up the second. Also, sometimes the processing of 
events take a while and the injection of events stays stucked in this 
model. So we came with this another:

Model two:

thread #1 deals with
- injection of input events from devices
thread #2 deals with
- processing of input events to clients
thread #3 deals with
- requests from known clients
- new client that tries to connect

With this model the first and the second thread become not so tied and 
given that we're using non blocking fds to wake up each thread (through 
a pipe), CPU "enjoys" the effect of threads. For instance, under heavy 
drawing primitives only thread #3 would wake up.

We had a proof-of-concept of this last model and it workish 
(occasionally seeing some segfaults probably due of some critical 
regions we forgot to lock - now the only mutex that exists is inside the 
server queue of events).

It's hard to imagine other threaded models mainly because the way X 
deals with clients are very tied in every piece of the server and it 
would require a lot of mutexes.

== strategy #3 ==

For sure this strategy is the most shocking one :) The idea is to 
connect the mouse hardware directly to the cursor position update 
function, all inside kernel. We'd then rewrite the event stream from the 
pointer device to an absolute position. Transform the relative mouse 
motion into an absolute screen position seems to be not that 
complicated, but this strategy would involve acceleration and cursor 
limits inside kernel as well (the current implementation of accel deals 
with floats, so we would have to adapt it to live in kernel).

It is a _very_ _large_ amount of codification. It would require changes 
to the X server, DDX driver and its corresponding kernel DRM drivers, 
drm library and kernel input drivers. A mini-input driver *inside* drm 
is also needed. We would add complexities of the connection between 
input device and output device to the kernel (in my proof-of-concept 
implementation evdev is dependent of drm. Yeah, really weird world). 
Moreover, we would have to avoid somehow two differents sets of the 
exact same code in different contexts in the case of sw cursors (think 
MPX). It's a completely redesign. Things would have to go incrementally.

But why this strategy? Well, this would solve all the current issues 
with input latency. For instance with the current design of the kernel 
modesetting - which seems the future - the cursor is jumping a lot, much 
more than with current implementation. Try to call a xrandr instance and 
move the mouse with kernel modesetting. xrandr will do DDC communication 
which will blocked X in the kernel. So with the handling and update of 
the cursor inside the kernel all would work fine (and my 
proof-of-concept already showed this).

Moreover, I believe the current implementation remained until now due 
historical reasons. Ultrix systems placed the entire input subsystem in 
the kernel. What is the problem to do this in Linux (and others) as well 
(besides massive codification)?

and non-dri drivers? Should we forget them?


Tiago Vignatti
C3SL - Centro de Computação Científica e Software Livre

More information about the xorg mailing list