Monday, January 30, 2017

How libinput opens device nodes

In order to read events and modify devices, libinput needs a file descriptor to the /dev/input/event node. But those files are only accessible by the root user. If libinput were to open these directly, we would force any process that uses libinput to have sufficient privileges to open those files. But these days everyone tries to reduce a processes privileges wherever possible, so libinput simply delegates opening and closing the file descriptors to the caller.

The functions to create a libinput context take a parameter of type struct libinput_interface. This is an non-opaque struct with two function pointers: "open_restricted" and "close_restricted". Whenever libinput needs to open or close a file, it calls the respective function. For open_restricted() libinput expects the caller to return an fd with the given flags.

In the simplest case, a caller can merely call open() and close(). This is what the debugging tools do (and the test suite). But obviously this means you have to run those as root. The main wayland compositors (weston, mutter, kwin, ...) instead forward the request to systemd-logind. That then opens the event node and returns the fd which is passed to libinput. And voila, the compositors don't need to run as root, libinput doesn't have to know how the fd is opened and everybody wins. Plus, logind will mute the fd on VT-switch, so we can't leak keyboard events.

In the case it's a combination of the two. When the server runs with systemd-logind enabled, it will open the fd before the driver initialises the device. During the init stage, libinput asks the xf86-input-libinput driver to open the device node. The driver forwards the request to the server which simply returns the already-open fd. When the server runs without systemd-logind, the server opens the file normally with a standard open() call.

So in summary: you can easily run libinput without systemd-logind but you'll have to figure out how to get the required privileges to open device nodes. For anything more than a test or debugging program, I recommend using systemd-logind.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

libinput and wheel tilt events

We're in the middle of the 1.7 development cycle and one of the features merged already is support for "wheel tilt", i.e. support for devices that don't have a separate horizontal wheel but instead rely on a tilt motion for horizontal event. Now, the way this is handled in the kernel is that the events are sent via REL_WHEEL (or REL_DIAL) so we don't actually need special code in libinput to handle tilt. But libinput tries to to make sense of input devices so the upper layers have a reliable base to build on - and that's why we need tilt-wheels to be handled.

For 'pointer axis' events (i.e. scroll events) libinput provides scroll sources. These specify how the scroll event was generated, allowing a caller to handle things accordingly. A finger-based scroll for example can trigger kinetic scrolling while a mouse wheel would not usually do so. The value for a pointer axis is also dependent on the scroll source - for continuous/finger based scrolling the value is in pixels. For a mouse wheel, the value is in degrees. This obviously doesn't work for a tilt event because degrees don't make sense in this context. So the new axis source is just that, an indicator that the event was caused by a wheel tilt rather than a rotation. Its value matches the default wheel rotation (i.e. 15 degrees) just to make use of it easier.

Of course, a device won't tell us whether it provides a proper wheel or just tilt. So we need a hwdb property and I've added that to systemd's repo. To make this work, set the MOUSE_WHEEL_TILT_HORIZONTAL and/or MOUSE_WHEEL_TILT_VERTICAL property on your hardware and you're off. Yay.

Patches for the wayland protocol have been merged as well, so this is/will be available to wayland clients.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

The definitive guide to synclient

This post describes the synclient tool, part of the xf86-input-synaptics package. It does not describe the various options, that's what the synclient(1) and synaptics(4) man pages are for. This post describes what synclient is, where it came from and how it works on a high level. Think of it as a anti-bus-factor post.

Maintenance status

The most important thing first: synclient is part of the synaptics X.Org driver which is in maintenance mode, and superseded by libinput and the xf86-input-libinput driver. In general, you should not be using synaptics anymore anyway, switch to libinput instead (and report bugs where the behaviour is not correct). It is unlikely that significant additional features will be added to synclient or synaptics and bugfixes are rare too.

The interface

synclient's interface is extremely simple: it's a list of key/value pairs that would all be set at the same time. For example, the following command sets two options, TapButton1 and TapButton2:

synclient TapButton1=1 TapButton2=2
The -l switch lists the current values in one big list:
$ synclient -l
Parameter settings:
    LeftEdge                = 1310
    RightEdge               = 4826
    TopEdge                 = 2220
    BottomEdge              = 4636
    FingerLow               = 25
    FingerHigh              = 30
    MaxTapTime              = 180
The commandline interface is effectively a mapping of the various xorg.conf options. As said above, look at the synaptics(4) man page for details to each option.


A decade ago, the X server had no capabilities to change driver settings at runtime. Changing a device's configuration required rewriting an xorg.conf file and restarting the server. To avoid this, the synaptics X.Org touchpad driver exposed a shared memory (SHM) segment. Anyone with knowledge of the memory layout (an internal struct) and permission to write to that segment could change driver options at runtime. This is how synclient came to be, it was the tool that knew that memory layout. A synclient command would thus set the correct bits in the SHM segment and the driver would use the newly updated options. For obvious reasons, synclient and synaptics had to be the same version to work.

Atoms are 32-bit unsigned integers and created for each property name at runtime. They represent a unique string (the property name) and can be created by applications too. Property name to Atom mappings are global. Once any driver initialises a property by its name (e.g. "Synaptics Tap Actions"), that property and the corresponding Atom will exist globally until the server resets. Atoms unknown to a driver are simply ignored.

8 or so years ago, the X server got support for input device properties, a generic key/value store attached to each input device. The keys are the properties, identified by an "Atom" (see box on the side). The values are driver-specific. All drivers make use of this now, being able to change a property at runtime is the result of changing a property that the driver knows of.

synclient was converted to use properties instead of the SHM segment and eventually the SHM support was removed from both synclient and the driver itself. The backend to synclient is thus identical to the one used by the xinput tool or tools used by other drivers (e.g. the xsetwacom tool). synclient's killer feature was that it was the only tool that knew how to configure the driver, these days it's merely a commandline argument to property mapping tool. xinput, GNOME, KDE, they all do the same thing in the backend.

How synclient works

The driver has properties of a specific name, format and value range. For example, the "Synaptics Tap Action" property contains 7 8-bit values, each representing a button mapping for a specific tap action. If you change the fifth value of that property, you change the button mapping for a single-finger tap. Another property "Synaptics Off" is a single 8-bit value with an allowed range of 0, 1 or 2. The properties are described in the synaptics(4) man page. There is no functional difference between this synclient command:

synclient SynapticsOff=1
and this xinput command
xinput set-prop "SynPS/2 Synaptics TouchPad" "Synaptics Off" 1
Both set the same property with the same calls. synclient uses XI 1.x's XChangeDeviceProperty() and xinput uses XI 2.x's XIChangeProperty() if available but that doesn't really matter. They both fetch the property, overwrite the respective value and send it back to the server.

Pitfalls and quirks

synclient is a simple tool. If multiple touchpads are present it will simply pick the first one. This is a common issue for users with a i2c touchpad and will be even more common once the RMI4/SMBus support is in a released kernel. In both cases, the kernel creates the i2c/SMBus device and an additional PS/2 touchpad device that never sends events. So if synclient picks that device, all the settings are changed on a device that doesn't actually send events. This depends on the order the devices were added to the X server and can vary between reboots. You can work around that by disabling or ignoring the PS/2 device.

synclient is a one-shot tool, it does not monitor devices. If a device is added at runtime, the user must run the command to change settings. If a device is disabled and re-enabled (VT-switch, suspend/resume, ...), the user must run synclient to change settings. This is a major reason we recommend against using synclient, the desktop environment should take care of this. synclient will also conflict with the desktop environment in that it isn't aware when something else changes things. If synclient runs before the DE's init scripts (e.g. through xinitrc), its settings may be overwritten by the DE. If it runs later, it overwrites the DE's settings.

synclient exclusively supports synaptics driver properties. It cannot change any other driver's properties and it cannot change the properties created by the X server on each device. That's another reason we recommend against it, because you have to mix multiple tools to configure all devices instead of using e.g. the xinput tool for all property changes. Or, as above, letting the desktop environment take care of it.

The interface of synclient is IMO not significantly more obvious than setting the input properties directly. One has to look up what TapButton1 does anyway, so looking up how to set the property with the more generic xinput is the same amount of effort. A wrong value won't give the user anything more useful than the equivalent of a "this didn't work".


If you're TL;DR'ing an article labelled "the definitive guide to" you're kinda missing the point...