Builder GTK 4 Porting, Part VII

It’s been another couple weeks of porting, along with various distractions.

The big work this time around has been deep surgery to Builder’s “Foundry”. This is the sub-system that is responsible for build-systems, pipelines, external-devices, SDKs, toolchains, deployments-strategies and more. The sub-system was starting to show it’s age as it was one of the first bits of Builder to organically emerge.

One of the things that become so difficult over the years is dealing with all the container layers we have to poke holes through. Running a command is never just running a command. We have to setup PTYs (and make sure the TTY setup ioctl()s happen in the right place), pass environment variables (but to only the right descendant process), and generally a lot more headaches.

What kicked off this work was my desire to remove a bunch of poorly abstracted bits and we’re almost there. What has helped considerably is creating a couple new objects to help manage the process.

The first is an IdeRunContext. It is sort of like a GSubprocessLauncher but allows you to create layers. At the end you can convert those layers into a subprocess launcher but only after each layer is allowed to rewrite the state as you pop back to the root. In practice this has been working quite well. I finally have control without crazy amounts of argument rewriting and guesswork.

To make that possible, I’ve introduced an IdeUnixFDMap which allows to manage source↔dest FD translations for FDs that will end up in the subprocess. It has a lot of helpers around it to make it fit well into the IdeRunContext world.

All of this has allowed the new IdeRunCommand to really shine. We have various run command providers (e.g. plugins) all of which can seamlessly be used across the sub-systems supporting IdeRunContext. Plugins such as meson can even export unit tests as run commands.

The shellcmd plugin has also been rewritten upon these foundations. You can create custom commands and map them to keyboard shortcuts. The commands, like previous version of Builder, can run in various localities. A subprocess, from the build pipeline, as an app runner, or on the host. What has improved, however, is that they can also be used in surrogate of your projects run command. These two features combined means you can make Builder work for a lot of scenarios it never did before by configuring a few commands.

There aren’t a lot of screenshots for things like this, because ideally it doesn’t look too different. But under the hood it’s faster, more reliable, and far more extensible than it was previously. Hopefully that helps us cover a number of highly requested use-cases.

a screenshot of the debugger

a screenshot of the build menu with debug selected

a screenshot of the run command selection selection dialog

a screenshot showing the location of the select run command menu item

a screenshot editing a command

Builder GTK 4 Porting, Part II

Another week of work towards porting Builder to GTK 4. Since I can’t add to TWIG from IRC, I’ll try harder to drop some occasional updates here.


  • Merged fixes for highlighting unicode literals for C
  • Improved parsing of language values in snippet bundles
  • GtkSourceGutter will not correctly mark prelit and selection quarks within GtkSourceGutterLines.
  • Fixed a bunch of little mouse pointer annoyances when using GtkSourceHover interactive tooltips.
  • GtkSourceGutterRenderers can now opt-out of signal emission for GtkSourceGutterRenderer::query_data(). Signal emission with GObject is rather slow, so avoiding it on every line can be helpful. Just set the virtual method pointer to NULL. The signal was only ever added to make porting easier anyway.


  • Merged fixes to be used as a subproject with static libraries only
  • CSS styling matches recent changes in libadwaita, particularly around making navigation tabs and panel frame headers more unified.
  • PanelWidget no longer uses a GtkBinLayout so that it’s easier for subclasses to integrate with popovers from size_allocate() to call gtk_popover_present().


  • Georges did a live coding stream where they ported a bunch of the “buildui” plugin. That is merged to the GTK 4 port now. It brings a number of features back to the UI including the build terminal, run terminal, build panel (with pipeline stages, warnings, and errors), and project information in the omnibar popover.
  • Günther did a bunch of work porting our old snippet files to the new XML-based snippet bundle format upstream in GtkSourceView. Along with that came porting of the snippets plugin for Builder’s new GTK 4-based editor.
  • Workspace windows have a bit better predictability when restoring sizes.
  • The project creation workflow was ported, albeit needs to have the redesign implemented still.
  • Lots of resiliency fixes for clang and symbol-tree plugins to improve life-cycle management.
  • The Valgrind plugin was ported to C. This was also back-ported to main because it fixed a number of oddities (crashes) occurring in PyGObject.
  • Builder’s “omni-gutter” GtkSourceGutterRenderer was ported to GTK 4 and got a lot of cleanups along the way. I believe there is still some outstanding things to fix such as handling rendering for symbolic icons as I’m pretty sure that’s not correct yet.
  • The “debuggerui” plugin has been ported to GTK 4 and appears to be working well now. This plugin is responsible for bridging the internal IdeDebugger interfaces to the UI interface.
  • Style schemes were updated for GtkSourceView 5
  • Tabs are now the default navigation interface for pages. There is likely still a lot to do around how we want empty frames to look and behave though.
  • The project-tree is now most ported, and with some workarounds to allow making GtkPopover work you can actually display popovers and activate menu items.
  • A long-standing plugin ordering issue has been fixed so that gtk/menus.ui embedded in plugin resources have menu-merging in the proper order.
  • Some incremental work landed to support per-project configuration of languages.
  • The “ls” plugin (directory views) supports “humanized” timestamps again and columns are resizable once more.
  • You can place panels in the right-side-bar now.


There are a bunch of foundational things to still get landed before I feel I can get Builder flipped over to our Nightly builds. In particular we need to land support for things like:

  • Keyboard shortcuts using GtkShortcutController. This was all done with libdazzle previously.
  • Allow plugins to define custom keyboard shortcuts and merge them into the controller.
  • Port “shellcmd” plugin and integrate keyboard shortcuts to apply those commands.
  • Finish rewrite of the search popover. I’m trying to delay this until GtkListView with sections is supported, as it would provide us a much greater path for performance.
  • A lot of our problems would be simpler if we could make GtkActionMuxer use an alternate action muxer parent from another (non-descendant) widget.
  • Configuration editing in the project configuration window. This is a new design so the port is not 1:1.

A screenshot of Builder with the project-tree context menu and debugger on display

A screenshot of Builder with various panels moved around to non-standard locations

A GTK 4 based Text Editor

It started as an application for me to verify the correctness of the GtkSourceView 5 API (which targets GTK 4). After that it helped me implement JIT support for GtkSourceView languages. Once that was done it became my test case while I wrote the GTK 4 macOS backend and revamped the GL renderer.

It is a simple and humble text editor. It does not have all the corner cases you’d expect from a text editor yet. It does not have aspirations to be a programmers text editor.

Now that you know this is very much a technology preview release only, you might be tempted to keep your important data away from it.

What it can do

  • Simple interface designed by the GNOME design team. You can find the mockups in the traditional places
  • Search and Replace
  • Typical GtkSourceView features
  • Quick access to recent documents
  • Multiple windows
  • Automatic discovery of .editorconfig and modelines settings
  • Light and dark mode
  • Automatically save files to drafts, restored in case of crash
  • Printing
  • Can be run from within a Flatpak sandbox and uses document portal for access to host files

What it cannot do

  • It doesn’t protect you from trying to open really large files
  • Support your custom GTK 4 theme
  • Auto-completion or snippets
  • Plugins
  • Custom file encodings
  • Spell check
  • Change style schemes beyond light and dark
  • Translations or Help of any kind


Here is a release tarball.

If you’d like to test it out, one way is to clone the repository from GNOME Builder and click Run. Additionally, you can find a Flatpak in the gnome-nightly Flatpak repository.

Rust and GNOME Builder

I still spend most of my day writing C and I doubt that is going to change any time soon. But that doesn’t mean you should have to!

Builder got a number of late arriving improvements around Rust support, so now would be a good time to go test them before the 40 release is out.

Yesterday I landed a long awaited feature that will find the common Flatpak SDK ancestors. This was needed to resolve the branch name for SDK extensions like org.freedesktop.Sdk.Extension.rust-stable. Your project might use org.gnome.Sdk//3.38 but the branch for rust-stable is 20.08 (coming from org.freedesktop.Sdk//20.08). Terribly annoying, but hey, now it’s fixed.

Furthermore, Builder can use rust-analyzer¹ as bundled by the org.freedesktop.Sdk.Extension.rust-stable SDK so that is one less thing you need to install or manage. It will pick up all the same dependencies as your project because it will run from within your projects build container. It will see everything your build system does, and in the same way.

Just create a new project using the “GNOME Application” template, select “Rust” as the language, and Run.

¹ rust-analyzer provides diagnostics, auto-completion, and more.

Improving the Container Workflow

As I mentioned in my talk at Scale 17x, if you aren’t using containers for building your application yet, it’s likely you will in the not-so-distant future. Moving towards an immutable base OS is a very likely future because the security advantages are so compelling. With that, comes a need for a mutable playground, and containers generally fit the bill. This is something I saw coming when I started making Builder so we have had a number of container abstractions for some time.

With growing distributions, like Fedora’s freshly released Silverblue, it becomes even more necessary to push those container boundaries soon.

This week I started playing with some new ideas for a terminal workspace in Builder. The goal is to be a bit of a swiss-army knife for container oriented development. I think there is a lot we can offer by building on the rest of Builder, even if you’re primary programming workhorse is a terminal and the IDE experience is not for you. Plumbing is plumbing is plumbing.

I’m interested in getting feedback on how developers are using containers to do their development. If that is something that you’re interested in sharing with me, send me an email (details here) that is as concise as possible. It will help me find the common denominators for good abstractions.

What I find neat, is that using the abstractions in Builder, you can make a container-focused terminal in a couple of hours of tinkering.

I also started looking into Vagrant integration and now the basics work. But we’ll have to introduce a few hooks into the build pipeline based on how projects want to be compiled. In most cases, it seems the VMs are used to push the app (and less about compiling) with dynamic languages, but I have no idea how pervasive that is. I’m curious how projects that are compiling in the VM/container deal with synchronizing code.

Another refactor that needs to be done is to give plugins insight into whether or not they can pass file-descriptors to the target. Passing a FD over SSH is not possible (although in some cases can be emulated) so plugins like gdb will have to come up with alternate mechanisms in that scenario.

I will say that trying out vagrant has been a fairly disappointing experience compared to our Flatpak workflow in Builder. The number of ways it can break is underwhelming and the performance reminds me of my days working on virtualization technology. It makes me feel even more confident in the Flatpak architecture for desktop developer tooling.

Flatpaking Terminals

One thing Builder has done for a long time is make terminals work seamlessly even if distributed using container technologies. Because pseudo-terminals are steeped in esoteric UNIX history, it can be non-obvious how to make this work.

I’m in a place to help you not have to deal with that pain because I’ve already gone through it. So I created some utility code and a demo application that can be packaged with Flatpak. If it detects it’s running under Flatpak it will use a few techniques to get a user-preferred shell executed on the host with a PTY controlled by application.

Check out the code.

Edit: The flatterm repository has been updated to use the brand new VTE_PTY_NO_CTTY flag that was added in response to this blog post. Users of Vte from git (what will be 0.58) get to enjoy writing even less code.

Podman Support in Builder

For years now, Builder has had rich abstractions for containers built right into the core of the IDE. Builder even knows the difference between build and runtime containers which naturally maps with Flatpak SDKs like org.gnome.Sdk vs org.gnome.Platform.

With the advent of operating systems focused on immutability, like Fedora Silverblue, developers are going to be increasingly developing in containers.

The technology underlying projects like Toolbox is podman. It provides a command-line tool to manage containers without a daemon by using the various container APIs afforded to us in modern Linux.

Bridging Builder’s container APIs to support podman was pretty painless on my part. A couple hours to choose the right abstractions and implementing them led me to a missing piece in podman; passing FDs to the container.

The reason that Builder requires this is that we often need to communicate across containers. An easy way to do that is over a pair of pipe() since it is anonymous. By anonymous, I mean we don’t need to share any file-system hierarchy, IPC or network namespaces, or even PTY namespace.

The most important piece that requires this in Builder is our GDB-based debugger. We use GDB inside the container so it has native access to things like build sources, libraries, symbols, and more. This is all orchestrated using GDB’s mi2 interface over a PTY, with a second PTY for the target process. When GDB lands on a breakpoint, we know how to translate paths between Builder’s container (usually Flatpak) and the target container (in this case, podman). Doing so ensures that we open the right file and line number to the user. Fundamentals, of course.

So a couple weeks later and podman exec has gained the --preserve-fds=N option, available on Rawhide and Fedora 30 (currently in updates-testing). If you have all the necessary bits in place, Builder will allow you to select a podman container from Build Preferences, and you’re off to the races.

Furthermore, you can even seamlessly get a terminal in the build environment with Control+Alt+Shift+T which can prove useful if you have to install dependencies.

Since we don’t know much about the container, we don’t have the ability to install dependencies on your behalf. But if someone were to work on Dockerfile support, I don’t see that as an intractable problem.

Here is a quick test command-line program debugging in Builder using the GDB backend to prove it all works.

Designing for Sandboxes

One of the things I talked about in my talk at Scale 17x is that there are a number of platform features coming that are enevitable.

One of those is application sandboxing.

But not every component within an application is created equal or deserves equal access to user data and system configuration. Building the next big application is increasingly requiring thinking about how you segment applications into security domains.

Given the constraints of our current operating systems, that generally means processes. Google’s Chrome was one of the first major applications to do this. The Chrome team had created a series of processes focused on different features. Each of those processes had capabilities removed (such as network, or GPU access) from the process space to reduce the damage of an attack.

Recently Google released sandboxed-api, which is an interesting idea around automatically sandboxing libraries on Linux. While interesting, limiting myself to designs that are Linux only is not currently realistic for my projects.

Since I happen to work on an IDE, one of the technologies I’ve had to become familiar with is Microsoft’s Language Server Protocol. It’s a design for worker processes to provide language-specific features.

It usually works like this:

  • Spawn a worker process, with a set of pipe()s for stdin/stdout you control
  • Use JSONRPC over the pipe()s with some well-formatted JSON commands

This design can be good for sandboxing because it allows you to spawn subprocesses that have reduced system capabilities, easily clean up after them, and provides an IPC format. Despite having written jsonrpc-glib and a number of helpers to make writing JSON from C rather clean, I’m still unhappy with it for a number of reasons. Those reasons range from everything from performance to correctness to brittleness of nonconforming implementations.

I’d like to use this design in more than just Builder but those applications are more demanding. They require passing FDs across the process boundary. (Also I’m sick of hand writing JSON RPCs and I don’t want to do that anymore).

Thankfully, we’ve had this great RPC system for years that fits the bill if you reuse the serialization format: DBus.

  • No ties to a DBus daemon
  • GDBus in GLib has a full implementation that plays well with async/sync code
  • gdbus-codegen can generate our RPC stubs and proxies
  • Well defined interfaces in XML files
  • Generated code does type enforcement to ensure contracts
  • We can easily pass FDs across the process boundary, useful for memfd/tmpfs/shm

To setup the sandboxes, we can use tools like flatpak-spawn or bwrap on Linux to restrict process capabilities before launching the target process. Stdin/stdout is left untouched so that we can communicate with the subprocess even after capabilities are dropped.

Before I (re)settled on DBus, I tried a number of other prototypes. That included writing an interface language/codegen for JSONRPC, using libvarlink, Thrift’s c_glib compiler and protobufs. I’m actually surprised I was happiest with the DBus implementation, but that’s how it goes sometimes.

While I don’t expect a lot of sandboxing around our Git support in Builder, I did use it as an opportunity to prototype what this multi-process design looks like. If you’re interested in checking it out, you can find the worker sources here.

What excites me about the future is how this type of design could be used to sandbox image loaders like GdkPixbuf. One could quite trivially have an RPC that passes a sealed memfd for compressed image contents and returns a memfd for the decoded framebuffer or pre-compressed GPU textures. Keep that process around a little while to avoid fork()/exec() overhead, and we gain a bit of robustness with very little performance drawbacks.

Builder 3.32 Sightings

We just landed the largest refactor to Builder since it’s inception. Somewhere around 100,000 lines of code where touched which is substantial for a single development cycle. I wrote a few tools to help us do that work, because that’s really the only way to do such a large refactor.

Not only does the refactor make things easier for us to maintain but it will make things easier for contributors to write new plugins. In a future blog post I’ll cover some of the new design that makes it possible.

Let’s take a look at some of the changes in Builder for 3.32 as users will see them.

First we have the greeter. It looks similar as before, although with a design refresh. But from a code standpoint, it no longer shares it’s windowing with the project workspace. Taking this approach allowed us to simplify Builder’s code and allows for a new feature you’ll see later.

Builder now gives some feedback about what files were removed when cleaning up old projects.

Builder gained support for more command-line options which can prove useful in simplifying your applications setup procedure. For example, you can run gnome-builder --clone to be taken directly to the clone dialog for a given URL.

The clone activity provides various messaging in case you need to debug some issues during the transfer. I may hide this behind a revealer by default, I haven’t decided yet.

Creating a new project allows specifying an application-id, which is good form for desktop applications.

We also moved the “Continue” button out of the header bar and placed it alongside content since a number of users had difficulty there.

The “omni-bar” (center of header bar) has gained support for moving through notifications when multiple are present. It can also display buttons and operational progress for rich notifications.

Completion hasn’t changed much since last cycle. Still there, still works.

Notifications that support progress can also be viewed from our progress popover similar to Nautilus and Epiphany. Getting that circle-pause-button aligned correctly was far more troublesome than you’d imagine.

The command-bar has been extracted from the bottom of the screen into a more prominent position. I do expect some iteration on design over the next cycle. I’ve also considered merging it into the global search, but I’m still undecided.

Also on display is the new project-less mode. If you open Builder for a specific file via Nautilus or gnome-builder foo.c you’ll get this mode. It doesn’t have access to the foundry, however. (The foundry contains build management and other project-based features).

The refactoring not only allowed for project-less mode but also basic multi-monitor support. You can now open a new workspace window and place it on another monitor. This can be helpful for headers, documentation, or other references.

The project tree has support for unit tests and build targets in addition to files.

Build Preferences has been rebuilt to allow plugins to extend the view. That means we’ll be able to add features like toggle buttons for meson_options.txt or toggling various clang/gcc sanitizers from the Meson plugin.

The debugger has gone through a number of improvements for resilience with modern gdb.

When Builder is full-screen, the header bar slides in more reliably now thanks to a fix I merged in gtk-3-24.

As previewed earlier in the cycle, we have rudimentary glade integration.

Also displayed here, you can select a Build Target from the project tree and run it using a registered IdeRunHandler.

Files with diagnostics registered can have that information displayed in the project tree.

The document preferences have been simplified and extracted from the side panel.

The terminal now can highlight filename:line:column patterns and allow you to ctrl+click to open just like URLs.

In a future post, we’ll cover some of what went into the refactoring. I’d like to discuss how the source tree is organized into a series of static libraries and how internal plugins are used to bridge subsystems to avoid layering violations. We also have a number of simplified interfaces for plugin authors and are beginning to have a story around ABI promises to allow for external plugins.

If you just can’t wait, you can play around with it now (and report bugs).

flatpak install

Until next time, Happy Hacking!