How VT-switching works

Having multiple sessions on your system in parallel is a quite handy feature. It allows things like Fast User Switching or running two different DEs at the same time. Especially graphics developers like it, because they can test-run their experimental XServer/weston on the same machine they develop on.

To understand how it works, we need the concept of a session. See my previous introduction into session-management if you’re not familiar with it. I expect the reader to be familiar with basic session-management concepts (i.e., seats, systemd-logind, login-sessions, user-sessions, processes and daemons in a session).

1) Traditional text-mode VT-switching

Virtual terminals were introduced with linux-0.12. It’s the origin of multi-session support on linux. Before this, linux only supported a single TTY session (which was even available in the first tarball of linux-0.01). With virtual terminals, we have /dev/tty<num> devices, where <num> is between 1 and 63. They are always bound to seat0 and every session on seat0 is bound to a single VT. That means, there are at most 63 live sessions on seat0. Only one of them is active at a time (which can be read from /sys/class/tty/tty0/active).

Session management and device access with VTs in text-mode

Session management in text-mode

The kernel listens for keyboard events and switches between VTs on ctrl+alt+Fx shortcuts. Alternatively, you can issue a VT_ACTIVATE ioctl to politely ask the kernel to switch sessions.

In the old days, all sessions ran in text-mode. In text-mode, a process can get keyboard input by reading from a VT and can write onto the screen by writing to a VT. Some rather ugly control-sequences are supported to allow colors or other advanced features. The kernel interprets these and instructs the graphics hardware to print the given text.

Important to note is that in text-mode sessions don’t have direct hardware access. The kernel merges all keyboard events into one stream and a session cannot tell which device it came from. In fact, it cannot even tell how many devices there are. Same for graphics devices. As a VT has only a single output stream, there is only a single screen to write to. Multi-head support is not available. Neither are any advanced graphics-operations. But this allows the kernel to serialize access to hardware devices. Only the active VT gets input events and only the buffer of the active VT is displayed on the screen. No resource-conflicts can occur.

While there are ways to detect when a session is activated/deactivated, in text-mode a session normally doesn’t care. It just stops receiving keyboard input. If the session writes to the VT while deactivated, it will affect the internal buffer of the VT, but not the screen. Only the buffer of the active VT is shown on screen.

2) Session-switching in graphics-mode

System session management and device access with VTs in graphics mode

Session management in gfx-mode

Very soon it became clear that text-mode is not enough. We wanted more! That’s when the VT graphics mode was introduced. Graphics mode doesn’t change the setup, we still have 63 VTs and each session is bound to a VT. But a VT can now be switched from text-mode KD_TEXT into graphics-mode KD_GRAPHICS (via KDSETMODE ioctl). This doesn’t do anything spectacular. Really! The only effect is it disables the kernel-internal graphics routines. As long as a VT is in graphics-mode, the kernel will not instruct the graphics hardware to display the VT on screen. Once it is reset to text-mode and the VT is active, the kernel will display it again.

So the graphics-mode itself is useless. But at the same time, the kernel started providing separate interfaces to input and graphics devices. So while a VT is in graphics-mode, a session can access the graphics devices directly and render whatever they want. It can also ignore input from the VT and instead read input-events directly from the input-event interfaces. This is how the XServer works today.

But it is pretty obvious that this becomes problematic during session switches. If the kernel switches away from a graphics VT, the session needs to release the graphics hardware before the new session can be activated. Otherwise, the new session is active, but you still get the images from the old one. Or worse, it might flicker between the images of both sessions. Without kernel-mode-setting it might even hang your graphics hardware.

(A similar interface to KDSETMODE exists for keyboards with KDSKBMODE.)

Unfortunately, the kernel has no interface to forcibly revoke graphics or input access. So VTs were extended by the VT_SETMODE ioctl. A process can issue VT_SETMODE on a VT and pass two signal-numbers (usually SIGUSR1 and SIGUSR2). If the kernel wants to perform a VT-switch, it sends one such signal to the active VT. This VT can cleanup resources, stop using graphics/input devices and acknowledge the VT-switch via the VT_RELDISP ioctl. If the process dead-locked and doesn’t acknowledge the request, the VT-switch will not happen! This is why a crashed XServer can hang your system. But if it correctly issues the VT_RELDISP ioctl, the kernel will perform the VT-switch. Once the kernel switches back to the given VT it sends the second signal as notification that it is now active again.

However, on every VT (precisely, on every session) only a single process can call VT_SETMODE. This already shows that the concept is flawed. For example, if the XServer takes the VT in posession for graphics and input devices, another audio-server in the session couldn’t do the same for audio-hardware. This applies to all other devices. An alternative involving logind is discussed in a followup article.

3) Seats without VTs

We discussed that VTs are always bound to seat0. So if you run a session on a seat other than seat0 or if you disabled VTs entirely, then the situation becomes pretty simple: no multi-session support is available. This is enforced by systemd-logind so the active session can run without interruptions.

Also important to note is that there is no text-mode. A session must run in graphics mode as the kernel facility to interpret text-commands is bound to VTs.

Single-session setup on seats without VTs

Session management without VTs

4) logind integration

As we discussed in the previous article, today systemd-logind tracks and manages sessions. But how does this integrate with VTs? VTs pre-date systemd by years, so to preserve backwards-compatibility, we need to keep the infrastructure as it is. That’s why logind watches /sys/class/tty/tty0/active for changes. Once a VT switch happens, logind notices it and marks the old session as inactive and the new as active. It also adjusts ACLs in /dev to keep access-restrictions in sync with the active session. However, this cannot be done properly without a race-condition. Therefore, logind provides a new dbus-API to replace the ageing VT API. New session-daemons are advised to use it in favor of VTs.

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5 thoughts on “How VT-switching works

  1. Marcos

    Does recent Hans’ work on X server logind integration still depend on this VT cruft? IOW, can a crashed X sever hang the system?

    Reply
    1. David Herrmann Post author

      Hans made the xserver use the systemd-logind integration, thus, it can be forcibly disabled. However, the xserver may crash in that case as it doesn’t fully support the API, yet (but that seems acceptable in your case, as the xserver already crashed). Hence, it cannot hang the system as it used to. But note that there is currently no fallback that can take over once Xorg crashed (we’re still working on it).

      Reply
      1. Marcos

        I mean, once X is dead (no VT_RELDISP reply), if I press Ctrl+Alt+Fx will logind clean up the mess and give me for sure a terminal at least?

        Oh, and thanks for the amazing work BTW ;)

      2. David Herrmann Post author

        No, because this requires systemd-logind to react to ctrl+alt+Fx. However, if you write your own program which does this and then calls `chvt `, systemd-logind will force the VT switch. That means, the infrastructure to support this is available, we just haven’t figure out yet who should listen for ctrl+alt+Fx (which is a rather philosophical than technical question).

      3. Marcos

        If I have understood correctly, VT switches do not change (VT_SETMODE/VT_RELDISP) and logind just keep track of each switch to after fact react and adjust device permissions and do other bookkeeping tasks. It will not prevent a crashed X from hanging the system. Today, what component listen for Ctrl+Alt+Fx?

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