Servo design

28 March 2012

Yesterday we had a hackathon/meeting to discuss the overarching design of Servo, the project to build a next-generation rendering engine. We didn’t ultimately do much hacking (though we did a little), but mostly we tried to hammer out the big picture so that we can actually get to writing code. I wanted to try and write up what I understood as the consensus (for the moment, anyway).

The big picture

There will be (at least) three large components. Each is basically operating in independent tasks and the various stages are therefore largely isolated from one another and able to execute independently (with certain exceptions, as we shall see):

  • JS
  • Layout
  • Painting

There are several data structures that will be maintained by these different stages:

  • The DOM
  • The “Layout Tree” (CSS boxes corresponding to each DOM element)
  • The “Display Tree” (what to draw at each location)
  • Various other structures:
    • backing store(s) for canvas etc.

I’ll go over each in turn.

The DOM and Layout Tree

The most interesting—and complex—part of the design centers around the representation of the DOM. We want the ability for layout to execute in parallel with the JS itself. However, both layout and JS require access to the DOM; and, of course, the JS may choose to modify the DOM at any time, and those changes should eventually be reflected in the layout. Initially the plan was to overcome this by having two DOMs: the main DOM, accessible to JS, and the shadow DOM, accessible to layout. The shadow DOM would be kept up-to-date by messages from the JS. The problem with this plan is simply overhead: based on our own experiments as well as feedback from Ben Lerner, we decided this is not the best approach.

An alternative that we are considering instead is what we call the RCU approach. The name derives from the read-copy-update pattern used extensively in the Linux kernel. The idea itself was also inspired by the work on Concurrent Revisions by Burckhardt et al. at MSR.

In a nutshell, the idea of the RCU plan is that when the JS node kicks off a layout task, it will preserve the version of the DOM that the layout is reading. So any changes that occur while layout is active must take place on a copy of the DOM. Of course, it would be too expensive to do a deep copy of the DOM when layout activates, and traditional persistent data structures like maps and vectors are are not much help either.

One key ingredient for any RCU-like plan is that it must be possible to know when readers are active. It turns out that we should be able to track this for layout and JS. Basically, the JS task is the “driver”: it decides when to start layout and may, in some cases, have to block waiting for layout to terminate.

You can think of the main JS task as operating in a loop something like this:

layout_active = false;
dirty_nodes = NULL;
loop {

   if (dirty_nodes) {
       if (layout_active) {
       layout_active = true;

It can also happen that the JS requests the computed style information or layout. In this case, then JS must first join the layout task (and, if the tree is dirty, it may have to spawn the task too!).

Our plan instead is to replace each pointer to a DOM node (node*) with a handle (rcu<node>*). This handle will be a structure like the following:

struct rcu<T> {
    T *wr_ptr;
    T *rd_ptr;
    rcu<T> *next_dirty;

The wr_ptr points at the current version of the node, whereas the rd_ptr points at the version of the node that layout is operating on. At the moment when a layout task is spawned, rd_ptr and wr_ptr are always the same. Whenever JS wishes to make modifications and layout is active, it follow an algorithm something like this:

void dirty(rcu<T> *handle) {
    if (handle->wr_ptr != handle->rd_ptr)
        return; // already dirty
    if (!layout_active)
        return; // doesn't matter
    handle->wr_ptr = new T(*handle->rd_ptr); // copy rd data
    handle->next_dirty = dirty_nodes;
    dirty_nodes = handle;

After this, it is safe for the code to make changes to the contents of handle->wr_ptr.

The final step is to reset the rd_ptr to the wr_ptr. This occurs once layout is completed. For example, we might implement the join_layout() routine like so:

void join_layout() {
    // Reset read and write pointers:
    rcu<T> *p = dirty_nodes, *pn;
    while (p != NULL) {
        pn = p->next_dirty;
        p->rd_ptr = p->wr_ptr;
        p->next_dirty = NULL;
        p = pn;
    dirty_nodes = NULL;

Note: the small details of this implementation will probably change. For example, it might be better to store the dirty_nodes in a vector instead of a linked list, or at least pull the next field out somewhere else (this would for example make sense if the proportion of dirty to clean nodes is small, as expected). But you get the idea (I hope, anyway).

So now that we’ve explained the basics, let’s look at a few variations.

Separating layout into phases

I described layout as one monolithic entity. But in fact it can be useful to separate it into multiple parts. For example, some JS calls require that style computation be completed, but do not require that the actual layout boxes be computed nor that the geometry is complete. Therefore, we can break the layout task into multiple tasks, allowing the JS to join just the phase that it requires (as well as allowing it to spawn a task which will only perform the style computation and so forth.

Triggering layout at other times

For things like CSS animations, we would like to be able to trigger an animation even while the JS is active. We can do this without great difficulty thanks to the periodic callback which the JS makes every N operations or so. Basically, when the animation is ready to begin the next layout step, it will asynchronously set a flag (animation_requires_layout). During the JS callback, if layout is inactive but animation_requires_layout is true, then it will spawn off a layout task. Any writes which occur after that point will have to be RCU’d.

One issue with this which I can see: the layout task will see whatever DOM modifications had occurred up until the point of the interrupt. This doesn’t seem immediately desirable to me. It could be circumvented by tracking dirty nodes even when layout is inactive, and just resetting the rd_ptrs every turn of the JS event loop.

Other stuff

We have to be careful around the backing buffers for Canvas layers and other such data structures. This doesn’t seem especially hard but we’ll want to think about it. Most likely Canvas will need to be double-buffered and we’ll just swap the buffers at the same point we adjust the rd_ptr (when you think about, the RCU scheme is basically double-buffering for the DOM).

Memory management

Writing this up has brought some questions to mind. Primarily my concerns center around memory management. Garbage collection operating in the JS task while layout is active will have to be quite careful. It can safely trace through both the rd and wr ptrs for DOM nodes, but if there are links from the DOM nodes to the computed style and layout information (which we had thought to have), then it is not safe for the GC in the JS task to look at those. The layout may be concurrently modifying them after all. There is also the matter of managing the memory for the layout data structures.

One solution is for GC to simply join the layout task before it begins execution. Or, similarly, to distinguish small collections—in which we ignore layout data structures—from large collections, in which case layout must be joined. This is probably good enough.


When layout finishes, it can perform a paint by building up what is now called a display tree—basically a list of rectangles to draw and their contents—and send this off to the display task. The display task is then charged with walking this tree, rasterizing its contents, and blitting the data to the screen. This process can be done in a very parallel way using rather simple techniques (blit any non-overlapping rectangles in parallel, etc). It can also use simple caching to avoid expensive rasterizations, as Gecko does today. In short, it seems fairly straightforward.

The plan

We hope to quickly build up a fairly rudimentary form of Servo based on this architecture. The layout algorithms themselves will probably be initially implemented in a sequential fashion. We can still get quite a lot of simple parallelism from various pieces of low-hanging fruit: selector matching, painting, etc. And we get quite a bit of pipeline parallelism and responsiveness by separating the various tasks. But eventually of course we hope to parallelize the layout pipeline itself.

One important point which bz raised is that sometimes the raw performance of layout is not terribly important—but it is important that the browser stay responsive. The fact that Gecko must do layout on the main thread harms responsiveness, something which we should be able to avoid.

A final note

One disappointing aspect of this plan is that the existing static data-race verification techniques are so inadequate to the problem. Actor-based solutions require total separation of the DOM trees, leading to unacceptable overhead. Simple parallelism like that offered by painting will likely never be analyzable by any simple static regimen: it would have to be able to reason about the fact that painting two rectangles which do not overlap is a commutative operation. The RCU-like plan would of course be very hard to statically analyze, though if you build something like that into your language as a base abstraction—as with the Concurrent Revisions work—that might work out well.

In general though I believe that a balanced approach to race detection is best: statically verify where you can, accept the limited use of dynamic schemes otherwise. And we should be able to statically verify simpler subproblems, for example, ensuring that layout only reads data that is reachable via the rd_ptr and that JS only writes to data reachable via the wr_ptr (this can be solved by a simple ADT which only grants access via one pointer or the other).