KMSCON Introduction

KMSCON is a KMS/DRM-based system console with an integrated terminal emulator. It was designed to replace the linux-kernel-console and virtual terminals (VTs). When run in default-mode, KMSCON allocates a virtual terminal and provides a terminal-emulator on it. It can thus be used as drop-in replacement for the linux-console and agetty. Compared to the linux-console, KMSCON provides a rich set of enhanced features including full-internationalized keyboard handling, full UTF8 input/font support, hardware-accelerated rendering, multi-seat support and more.

If run in listen-mode, KMSCON can also replace virtual terminals. This allows to run multiple graphics-servers (like kmscon, X-Server, Wayland Compositors) simultaneously on all seats not only on the default seat seat0.

Parts of this article expect the reader to be familiar with the term multi-seat. KMSCON runs on single-seat and multi-seat setups, but to understand the terms used here, you should read up on Wikipedia. On linux, the default seat is called seat0. This is also the primary seat for single-seat setups or if KMSCON is compiled without multi-seat support.

Default Mode

In default-mode KMSCON opens a virtual terminal (VT) to provide a terminal-emulator. It first checks whether the controlling terminal is a VT, if it’s not it tries to find an unused VT via VT_OPENQRY. You can also specify a VT on the command line via --vt=/dev/tty5, or –vt=tty5, or –vt=5. This syntax allows backwards compatibility to most getty implementations.

After startup the VT is automatically activated and switched to (this can be prevented with –no-switchvt). You can use the standard linux keyboard shortcuts ctrl+alt+F1 to ctrl+alt+F12 to switch between your VTs. KMSCON integrates seamlessly into existing setups and can be used in parallel with X-Servers, Wayland-Compositors or the linux-console. Only one VT is occupied by KMSCON, so you can still use the linux-console on all other VTs. But you can also run a KMSCON process on each VT replacing the linux-console everywhere.

By default, KMSCON spawns /bin/login on the new terminal session. You can change this with the –login option. However, for security reasons it is recommended to keep the default. If a session exits, it is automatically restarted. To terminate KMSCON send SIGTERM to the main process or use a daemon manager like systemd.

KMSCON tries to be backwards-compatible in terms of user-interaction to the linux-console. However, the internal terminal-emulator is developed to be compatible with xterm. This is because the linux-console‘s terminal-emulation layer is very limited and incompatible to many other terminal-emulators. On the other hand, xterm is the de-facto standard in terminal-emulation under linux and provides many enhanced control-sequences. Therefore, KMSCON tries to behave exactly like xterm does. This isn’t always as easy as it sounds so please file bug-reports if you encounter any incompatibilities.

With this knowledge we can now replace agetty. So instead of:

  /sbin/agetty --noclear tty5 38400 linux

we now run:

  /usr/bin/kmscon --vt=tty5 --no-switchvt

to replace the linux-console with KMSCON on VT-5.  KMSCON also ships optional systemd service files in ./kmscon/docs/*.service

Keyboard Input

KMSCON uses libxkbcommon for keyboard control. This library implements huge parts of the X11 Keyboard Specification without any dependencies to X11 source-code. It was developed to allow other applications than X-Server to provide internationalized keyboard handling. It recently saw its first release after several years of development but is currently not available in all major linux distributions. However, many distributions already provide experimental packages for it.

With XKB support on board, KMSCON can provide the same keyboard handling as the X-Server does. That is, keyboards are configured via the RMLVO options (Rules Model Layout Variant Options). The most commonly used option is probably –xkb-layout=<language> to change the keyboard layout. All other options are mostly unused.

Any keyboard setups that can be used with X11 can also be used with xkbcommon. Simply create your X11 keyboard layouts or use one of the many existing ones and configure KMSCON to use it.

Video Devices

KMSCON got its name from the linux kernel Direct Rendering Manager (DRM) subsystem (not to be confused with DRM: Digital Rights Management). DRM drivers provide a common set of APIs to perform Mode-Setting, called Kernel Mode-Setting (KMS). This is the API that is used by X-Server to program video output. KMSCON uses the same API and thus provides mostly the same compatibility to GPU drivers as X-Server does.

But KMSCON also supports linux fbdev devices for backwards-compatibility. In fact, the modular interface allows to provide drivers for all kinds of video hardware. However, it is recommended to write DRM drivers for your video-hardware instead of writing user-space drivers for KMSCON or X-Server. Because this allows all user-space programs to use the DRM API to access any type of video output device without extra user-space support for each driver.

Right from the beginning KMSCON provided multiple-GPU support. This means, KMSCON automatically picks up all connected GPUs and provides a system console on them. You can even hotplug new DisplayLink GPUs and KMSCON detects them during runtime and instantly provides a console on them. Unfortunately, GPU detection isn’t as straightforward as one would think. On some systems there are GPUs that shouldn’t be touched by KMSCON. That’s why KMSCON provides the –gpu switch to change the GPU selection algorithm. A GPU blacklist configuration file or option is also on its way.

On fbdev and dumb-DRM devices, KMSCON uses 2D rendering without any hardware acceleration. But if KMSCON is compiled with full DRM video backends, it can use mesa3D’s OpenGLESv2 implementation to provide hardware-accelerated rendering. Use –hwaccel to enable this during runtime. It can speed up rendering by multiple orders of magnitude. However, on older systems it might even slow down rendering. It is disabled by default and needs to be explicitly enabled with –hwaccel.

Seat Selection

By default, KMSCON runs on the seat that it was started on. At most times, this is the default seat seat0. However, you can run KMSCON on other seats with the –seats option. It takes a list of seat names that KMSCON will run on. Each seat is independent and you can either run one KMSCON process for each seat or you can even run a single KMSCON process on multiple seats. The latter will allow sharing of system-resources like font glyph-caches. However, if 3D-hardware-acceleration is enabled, unexpected latencies may occur in the DRM drivers and you shouldn’t share a single KMSCON process across multiple seats for decent user-experience.

On seat0 KMSCON can make use of VTs. However, on seats other than seat0 (or even on seat0 if VTs are disabled) linux does not provide VTs. Therefore, KMSCON has to run without them. This means, KMSCON will automatically activate itself and run unconditionally on this seat. Unfortunately this has the side-effect that no other graphics-server (like X-Server) can run on this seat. Without the synchronization API of VTs there is no way to dispatch the graphics/input devices between multiple graphics servers. Therefore, most users will prefer running an X-Server on those seats. However, if no X11 is needed, KMSCON runs perfectly fine on those seats, too.

Listen-Mode

In default-mode KMSCON runs only on seats that are available during startup and terminates after all seats it runs on are either gone or their controlling VT hung up. This is perfect for VTs on seat0 but it requires another process to start KMSCON for each new seat showing up.

In listen-mode KMSCON runs as daemon waiting for new seats to show up. It automatically spawns a new terminal session on each seat matching the –seats option. KMSCON will not exit until SIGTERM is caught. Note that KMSCON ignores seats with VTs (normally only seat0) in this mode as you should run KMSCON in default-mode on those seats.

VT Replacement

The linux-kernel-console and VTs are tightly bound to each other. There is only one kernel configuration option to control them both: CONFIG_VT. KMSCON can already replace the linux-kernel-console but to disable CONFIG_VT, we also need a proper replacement for virtual terminals. As previously noted, KMSCON can run smoothly without VTs, however, this means that you can only run a single graphics-server on a seat and most users will probably choose X-Server here (and I would do so, too).

Fortunately, KMSCON already provides a solution to this. The –cdev-session option provides fake VTs for all seats that do not have real VTs. This allows to run X-Server, KMSCON, a Wayland Compositor and any other graphics-server simultaneously without changing a single line of code. However, this is beyond the scope of this introduction. Stay tuned for a follow-up post that introduces KMSCON session support and cdev-sessions in more detail.

Current State

KMSCON works! No special setup, no special system requirements and no weird dependencies are needed. You can check out KMSCON on any major linux distribution. Right now. What you need is:

  • libxkbcommon: This library has no external dependencies and can easily be installed on any distribution. Many distributions even provide experimental packages for it. See xkbcommon.org.
  • libudev: Udev is used for hotplugging and device detection. Every major distribution provides it.
  • kmscon: You can get KMSCON from github.

Everything else is optional! For proper font-rendering you also need pango or freetype2. For DRM video output you need libdrm. For 3D-hardware-acceleration mesa3D is needed. For multi-seat support systemd-logind is used.

However, please note that KMSCON is still experimental. I do my best to keep backwards-compatibility and fix all bugs that are reported. But I am unable to test KMSCON on all imaginable setups. So please report all bugs to github.com/dvdhrm/kmscon and I promise to have a look at it.

Furthermore, the TODO list grows steadily and I still have lots of ideas how to improve KMSCON. New ideas are very welcome, but please bear with me if it takes more time than expected to implement them. There is probably lots of stuff with higher priority on my list. But patches are highly appreciated even if they implement low-priority features.

There is a man-page kmscon(1) that explains many concepts and command-line arguments right-away. But do not hesitate to contact me personally if you have any questions about KMSCON. And for all developers I am doing a presentation about deprecating CONFIG_VT and KMSCON during FOSDEM-13 in Brussels next year. Hope to see you there!

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2 thoughts on “KMSCON Introduction

  1. Ron

    How will this integrate with the nvidia (which many people use since nouveau is too slow for many purposes) and catalyst drivers?

    Reply
    1. David Herrmann Post author

      If the linux-console works, then kmscon works, too. KMSCON can make use of fbdev devices (like the linux-console does) and I think both nvidia und radeon provide fbdev nodes with their proprietary drivers.
      If not, you can also use vesafb/efifb.

      I’m not aware of a stable modesetting API of the nvidia or catalyst drivers. But if there is one, you could easily write a uterm-video backend for them so kmscon can use the binary drivers.

      I only use Intel cards at home, but I know some people who run kmscon on nvidia binary drivers. However, I cannot test it myself, sorry.
      Any feedback on this is welcome.

      Reply

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