DRM display resource leasing (kernel side)

So, you've got a fine head-mounted display and want to explore the delights of virtual reality. Right now, on Linux, that means getting the window system to cooperate because the window system is the DRM master and holds sole access to all display resources. So, you plug in your device, play with RandR to get it displaying bits from the window system and then carefully configure your VR application to use the whole monitor area and hope that the desktop will actually grant you the boon of page flipping so that you will get reasonable performance and maybe not even experience tearing. Results so far have been mixed, and depend on a lot of pieces working in ways that aren't exactly how they were designed to work.

We could just hack up the window system(s) and try to let applications reserve the HMD monitors and somehow removing them from the normal display area so that other applications don't randomly pop up in the middle of the screen. That would probably work, and would take advantage of much of the existing window system infrastructure for setting video modes and performing page flips. However, we've got a pretty spiffy standard API in the kernel for both of those, and getting the window system entirely out of the way seems like something worth trying.

I spent a few hours in Hobart chatting with Dave Airlie during LCA and discussed how this might actually work.


  1. Use KMS interfaces directly from the VR application to drive presentation to the HMD.

  2. Make sure the window system clients never see the HMD as a connected monitor.

  3. Maybe let logind (or other service) manage the KMS resources and hand them out to the window system and VR applications.


  1. Don't make KMS resources appear and disappear. It turns out applications get confused when the set of available CRTCs, connectors and encoders changes at runtime.

An Outline for Multiple DRM masters

By the end of our meeting in Hobart, Dave had sketched out a fairly simple set of ideas with me. We'd add support in the kernel to create additional DRM masters. Then, we'd make it possible to 'hide' enough state about the various DRM resources so that each DRM master would automagically use disjoint subsets of resources. In particular, we would.

  1. Pretend that connectors were always disconnected

  2. Mask off crtc and encoder bits so that some of them just didn't seem very useful.

  3. Block access to resources controlled by other DRM masters, just in case someone tried to do the wrong thing.

Refinement with Eric over Swedish Pancakes

A couple of weeks ago, Eric Anholt and I had breakfast at the original pancake house and chatted a bit about this stuff. He suggested that the right interface for controlling these new DRM masters was through the existing DRM master interface, and that we could add new ioctls that the current DRM master could invoke to create and manage them.

Leasing as a Model

I spent some time just thinking about how this might work and came up with a pretty simple metaphor for these new DRM masters. The original DRM master on each VT "owns" the output resources and has final say over their use. However, a DRM master can create another DRM master and "lease" resources it has control over to the new DRM master. Once leased, resources cannot be controlled by the owner unless the owner cancels the lease, or the new DRM master is closed. Here's some terminology:

DRM Master
Any DRM file which can perform mode setting.
The original DRM Master, created by opening /dev/dri/card*
A DRM master which has leased out resources to one or more other DRM masters.
A DRM master which controls resources leased from another DRM master. Each Lessee leases resources from a single Lessor.
Lessee ID
An integer which uniquely identifies a lessee within the tree of DRM masters descending from a single Owner.
The contract between the Lessor and Lessee which identifies which resources which may be controlled by the Lessee. All of the resources must be owned by or leased to the Lessor.

With Eric's input, the interface to create a lease was pretty simple to write down:

int drmModeCreateLease(int fd,
               const uint32_t *objects,
               int num_objects,
               int flags,
               uint32_t *lessee_id);

Given an FD to a DRM master, and a list of objects to lease, a new DRM master FD is returned that holds a lease to those objects. 'flags' can be any combination of O_CLOEXEC and O_NONBLOCK for the newly minted file descriptor.

Of course, the owner might want to take some resources back, or even grant new resources to the lessee. So, I added an interface that rewrites the terms of the lease with a new set of objects:

int drmModeChangeLease(int fd,
               uint32_t lessee_id,
               const uint32_t *objects,
               int num_objects);

Note that nothing here makes any promises about the state of the objects across changes in the lease status; the lessor and lessee are expected to perform whatever modesetting is required for the objects to be useful to them.

Window System Integration

There are two ways to integrate DRM leases into the window system environment:

  1. Have logind "lease" most resources to the window system. When a HMD is connected, it would lease out suitable resources to the VR environment.

  2. Have the window system "own" all of the resources and then add window system interfaces to create new DRM masters leased from its DRM master.

I'll probably go ahead and do 2. in X and see what that looks like.

One trick with any of this will be to hide HMDs from any RandR clients listening in on the window system. You probably don't want the window system to tell the desktop that a new monitor has been connected, have it start reconfiguring things, and then have your VR application create a new DRM master, making the HMD appear to have disconnected to the window system and have that go reconfigure things all over again.

I'm not sure how this might work, but perhaps having the VR application register something like a passive grab on hot plug events might make sense? Essentially, you want it to hear about monitor connect events, go look to see if the new monitor is one it wants, and if not, release that to other X clients for their use. This can be done in stages, with the ability to create a new DRM master over X done first, and then cleaning up the hotplug stuff later on.

Current Status

I hacked up the kernel to support the drmModeCreateLease API, and then hacked up kmscube to run two threads with different sets of KMS resources. That ran for nearly a minute before crashing and requiring a reboot. I think there may be some locking issues with page flips from two threads to the same device.

I think I also made the wrong decision about how to handle lessors closing down. I tried to let the lessors get deleted and then 'orphan' the lessees. I've rewritten that so that lessees hold a reference on their lessor, keeping the lessor in place until the lessee shuts down. I've also written the kernel parts of the drmModeChangeLease support.


  • What should happen when a Lessor is closed? Should all access to controlled resources be revoked from all descendant Lessees?

    Proposed answer -- lessees hold a reference to their lessor so that the entire tree remains in place. A Lessor can clean up before exiting by revoking lessee access if it chooses.

  • How about when a Lessee is closed? Should the Lessor be notified in some way?

  • CRTCs and Encoders have properties. Should these properties be automatically included in the lease?

    Proposed answer -- no, userspace is responsible for constructing the entire lease.