leaking buffers in wayland

February 1, 2016

So in my last blog post I mentioned Matthias was getting SIGBUS when using wayland for a while. You may remember that I guessed the problem was that his /tmp was filling up, and so I produced a patch to stop using /tmp and use memfd_create instead. This resolved the SIGBUS problem for him, but there was something gnawing at me: why was his /tmp filling up? I know gnome-terminal stores its unlimited scrollback buffer in an unlinked file in /tmp so that was one theory. I also have seen, in some cases firefox downloading files to /tmp. Neither explanation sat well with me. scrollback buffers don’t get that large very quickly and Matthias was seeing the problem several times a day. I also doubted he was downloading large files in firefox several times a day. Nonetheless, I shrugged, and moved on to other things…

…until Thursday. Kevin Fenzi mentioned on IRC that he was experiencing a 12GB leak in gnome-shell. That piqued my interest and seemed pretty serious, so I started to troubleshoot with him. My first question was “Are you using the proprietary nvidia driver?”. I asked this because I know the nvidia driver has in the past had issues with leaking memory and gnome-shell. When Kevin responded that he was on intel hardware I then asked him to post the output of /proc/$(pidof gnome-shell)/maps so we could see the make up of the lost memory. Was it the heap? or some other memory mapped regions? To my surprise it was the memfd_create’d shared memory segments from my last post ! So window pixel data was getting leaked. This explains why /tmp was getting filled up for Matthias before, too. Previously, the shared memory segments resided in /tmp after all, so it wouldn’t have taken long for them to use up /tmp.

Of course, the compositor doesn’t create the leaked segments, the clients do, and then those clients share them with the compositor. So we probed a little deeper and found the origin of the leaking segments; they were coming from gnome-terminal. My next thought was to try to reproduce. After a few minutes I found out that typing:


$ while true; do echo; done

into my terminal and then switching focus to and from the terminal window made it leak a segment every time focus changed. So I had a reproducer and just needed to spend some time to debug it. Unfortunately, it was the end of the day and I had to get my daughter from daycare, so I shelved it for the evening. I did notice before I left, though, one oddity in the gtk+ wayland code: it was calling a function named _gdk_wayland_shm_surface_set_busy that contained a call to cairo_surface_reference. You would expect a function called set_something to be idempotent. That is to say, if you call it multiple times it shouldn’t add a new reference to a cairo surface each time. Could it be the surface was getting set “busy” when it was already set busy, causing it to leak a reference to the cairo surface associated with the shared memory, keeping it from getting cleaned up later?

I found out the next day, that indeed, was the case. That’s when I came up with a patch to make sure we never call set_busy when the surface was already busy. Sure enough, it fixed the leak. I wasn’t fully confident in it, though. I didn’t have a full big picture understanding of the whole workflow between compositor and gtk+, and it wasn’t clear to me if set_busy was supposed to ever get called when the surface was busy. I got in contact with the original author of the code, Jasper St. Pierre, to get his take. He thought the patch was okay (modulo some small style changes), but also said that part of the existing code needed to be redone.

The point of the busy flag was to mark a shared memory region as currently being read by the compositor. If the buffer was busy, then the gtk+ couldn’t draw to it without risking stepping on the compositors toes. If gtk+ needed to draw to a busy surface, it instead allocated a temporary buffer to do the drawing and then composited that temporary buffer back to the shared buffer at a later time. The problem was, as written, the “later time” wasn’t necessarily when the shared buffer was available again. The temporary buffer was created right before the toolkit staged some pixel updates, and copied back to the shared buffer after the toolkit was done with that one draw operation. The temporary buffer was scoped to the drawing operation, but the shared buffer wouldn’t be available for new contents until the next frame event some milliseconds later.

So my plan, after conferring with Matthias, was to change the code to not rely on getting the shared buffer back. We’d allocate a “staging” buffer, do all draw operations to it, hand it off to the compositor when we’re done doing updates and forget about it. If we needed to do new drawing we’d allocate a new staging buffer, and so on. One downside of this approach is the new staging buffer has to be initialized with the contents of the previously handed off buffer. This is because, the next drawing operation may only update a small part of the window (say to blink a cursor), and we need the rest of the window to properly get drawn in that. This read back operation isn’t ideal, since it means copying around megabytes of pixel data. Thankfully, the wayland protocol has a mechanism in place to avoid the costly copy in most cases:


→ If a client receives a release event before the frame callback
→ requested in the same wl_surface.commit that attaches this
→ wl_buffer to a surface, then the client is immediately free to
→ re-use the buffer and its backing storage, and does not need a
→ second buffer for the next surface content update.

So that’s our out. If we get a release event on the buffer before the next frame event, the compositor is giving us the buffer back and we can reuse it as the next staging buffer directly. We would only need to allocate a new staging buffer if the compositor was tardy in returning the buffer to us. Alright, I had plan and hammered out a patch on friday. It didn’t leak, and from playing with the machine for while, everything seemed to function, but there was one hiccup: i set a breakpoint in gdb to see if the buffer release event was coming in and it wasn’t. That meant we were always doing the expensive copy operation. Again, I had to go, so I posted the patch to bugzilla and didn’t look at it again until the weekend. That’s when I discovered mutter wasn’t sending the release event for one buffer until it got replaced by another. I fixed mutter to send the release event as soon as it uploaded the pixel data to the gpu and then everything started working great, so I posted the finalized version of the gtk+ patch with a proper commit message, etc.

There’s still some optimization that could be done for compositors that don’t handle early buffer release. Rather than initializing the staging buffer using cairo, we could get away with doing a lone memcpy() call. We know the buffer is linear and each row is right next to the previous in memory, so memcpy might be faster than going through all the cairo/pixman machinery. Alternatively, rather than initializing the staging buffer up front with the contents of the old buffer, we could wait until drawing is complete, and then only draw the parts of the buffer that haven’t been overwritten. Hard to say what the right way to go is without profiling, but both weston on gl and mutter support the early release feature now, so maybe not worth spending too much time on anyway.

One Response to “leaking buffers in wayland”


  1. What an interesting story! Now that I’m using Wayland full-time, and I did notice this issue, I barely can’t wait for GNOME 3.20 stack release :)


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