Experiencing the Mir client API

July 27, 2013

Now that XBMC has display, mouse and keyboard support on Mir, I feel somewhat qualified to write about using the Mir client API, from the perspective of porting an existing application.

From a high level, the Mir client API (affectionately known as mirtoolkit in libmirclient) follows some of the basic constructs that you would find in Wayland. Namely, you have a _MirConnection which is responsible for application-level communication with the display server, and a MirSurface which is responsible for managing some remote surface, drawing into it and handling events. Aside from MirWaitHandle, those are the only two objects that you’ll be concerned with, so its a little unlike Wayland which splits its “Surface” concept up into separate interfaces like wl_surface, wl_shell_surface and wl_egl_window(*) and its “Connection” concept up into wl_displaywl_registrywl_compositorwl_shell etc.

(*) Technically, wl_egl_window is not an interface but just a wrapper around wl_surface and wl_buffer which uses wl_drm under the hood.

Synchronously opening a connection and creating an OpenGL(ES)-renderable surface in Mir is a simple-enough affair:

MirConnection *connection =
  mir_connect_sync (path_to_socket, app_name);

MirSurfaceParameters parameters =

MirSurface *surface =
  mir_connection_create_surface_sync(connection, &parameters);

EGLNativeDisplayType nativeDisplay =
EGLNativeWindowType nativeWindow =

From there, all you need to do is just initialize EGL, create an EGLDisplay with eglGetDisplay, create an EGLContext with eglCreateContext, create an EGLSurface with eglCreateWindowSurface, and then call eglMakeCurrent and start using OpenGL(ES) to render to your surface.

Usually Asynchronous

Earlier I mentioned that a MirConnection and MirSurface can be created synchronously, but they can also be created asynchronously too. A callback can be registered on mir_connect and mir_connection_create_surface which will be called as soon as the connection or surface is ready. Your application can do other initialization tasks which don’t depend on a MirConnection or MirSurface while it waits for the server to return them.

Pervasively Multithreaded

One of the really interesting things about these callbacks and other callbacks, for example, the callback provided through MirEventDelegate to mir_surface_set_event_handler, is that your callback gets called in a completely independent thread. This means that there’s no main loop to spin or poll on - the display server will wake up the thread that’s interested in the particular data that its sending.

I believe that Mir is unique here in that no other display server has been designed to work this way. Doing it this way has some immediate benefits - handling input in applications can be somewhat expensive, because your application will often need to go through some complicated process to look up what to do in response to some particular combination of input. Instead of blocking the main thread, all this can happen in a worker thread which then tells the main thread what to do.

Unfortunately for legacy applications, the vast majority of which are single threaded and pretty much all of which do input and display handling in one thread, it means that the author of the application needs to lock a queue, push the incoming data on to that queue and then unlock the queue (and vice-versa in the main-thread) in order to preserve compatibility with other windowing system backends. The client library’s documentation provides that you as the author are responsible for thread-safety.

 * Set the event handler to be called when events arrive for a surface.
 * \warning event_handler could be called from another thread. You must do
 * and locking appropriate to protect your data accessed in the
 * callback. There is also a chance that different events will be
 * called back in different threads, for the same surface,
 * simultaneously.
 * \param [in] surface The surface
 * \param [in] event_handler The event handler to call
void mir_surface_set_event_handler(MirSurface *surface,
 MirEventDelegate const *event_handler);

Thankfully, there aren’t going to be too many consumers of mir_toolkit other than application toolkits or other special-case cross platform applications like XBMC. This design also opens up some interesting future possibilities. I’m looking into doing some of the (somewhat time-consuming) keysym-to-internal-keysym processing inside of the worker thread before handing it off to the XBMC main thread as a kind of demonstration of how that would work.

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Written by Sam Spilsbury an Australian PhD student living in Helsinki.