How to write a window server

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Raw graphics output in Linux: Part 2


In Part 1 of this series, we’ve set up a command-line Linux in the VirtualBox emulator with support for direct frame buffer access, the git version control system and the clang compiler. Now let’s use this to draw graphics to the screen “by hand”.

Getting the code

The code we’ll be using is on my Github. So check it out, e.g. by doing:

mkdir ~/Programming
cd ~/Programming
git clone ''

Now you’ll have a ‘winner’ folder in a ‘Programming’ folder inside your home folder. Let’s build and run the code:

cd winner
sudo ./winner

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This code just drew a few shapes on the screen and then immediately quit. The Terminal was rather surprised about that, so just prints its last line on top of that.

How to access the screen

It took me a bit of googling, but eventually I found out that, to draw on the screen in Linux, you use the framebuffer. As most things in Linux, the frame buffer is a pseudo-file that you can just open and write to. This pseudo-file resides at /dev/fb0, and is the whole reason for the extra hoops we jumped through in Part 1 because a minimal Ubuntu doesn’t have this file.

So if you look at the file linux/framebuffer.hpp in our winner subversion repository, it simply opens that file and maps it into memory, using the ioctl() function and some selector constants defined in the system header linux/fb.h to find out how large our screen is and how the pixels are laid out.

This is necessary, as at this low level, a screen is simply a long chain of bytes. Third row chained after second row after first row. Each row consists of pixels, which consist of R, G, B and optionally alpha components.

By mapping it into memory, we can use the screen just like any other block of memory and don’t have to resort to seek() and write() to change pixels on the screen.


Since computers are sometimes faster when memory is aligned on certain multiples of numbers, and you also sometimes want to provide a frame buffer that is a subset of a bigger one (e.g. if a windowed operating system wanted to launch a framebuffer-based application and just trick it into thinking that the rectangle occupied by its window was the screen), the frame buffer includes a line length, x-offset and y-offset.

X and Y offset effectively shift all coordinates, so define the upper left corner of your screen inside the larger buffer. They’re usually 0 for our use case.

The line length is the number of bytes in one row of pixels, which may be larger than the number of pixels * number of bytes in one pixel, because it may include additional, unused “filler” bytes that the computer needs to more quickly access the memory (some computers access memory faster if it is e.g. on an even-numbered address).

Actually drawing into the frame buffer

The actual drawing code is in our image class, which doesn’t know about frame buffers. It just knows about a huge block of memory containing pixels, and its layout.

The main method in this class is set_pixel() which calculates a pointer to the first byte of a pixel at a given coordinate, and then, depending on the bit depth of the pixels in the bitmap, composes a 2-byte (16 bit) or 4-byte (32 bit) color value by filing out the given bits of our buffer.

All other drawing methods depend on this one:

Drawing rectangles

If you look at fill_rect, it simply takes a starting point (upper left corner of the rectangle) and then fills rows of pixels with that color.

To draw a frame around a rectangle is almost the same. We simply fill as many top and bottom rows as our line width dictates, and the rows in between get filled with a pixel (or whatever our line width is) at the left and right of our rectangle.

Drawing lines

Drawing one-pixel lines involves a tad of basic maths, but it’s nothing that you couldn’t get from a quick glance at Wikipedia. You take the line equation called the “point-slope-form”.

Then you calculate the line’s slope based on your start and end point. If the line is more horizontal than vertical, you loop over the X coordinate from start to end and use that and the slope to calculate the corresponding Y. If it is more vertical than horizontal, you loop over the Y coordinate to get the X instead.

Now, if you use this naïve approach, you may get small gaps in the line, because lines work with fractional numbers, while our computer screen only has full, integer pixels. This is why this example uses a variation on the same process that was invented by someone named “Bresenham”, which keeps track of the loss of precision and adds pixels in as needed.

Now drawing a line of more than one pixel width is a little harder. You see, lines are really infinitely thin, and don’t have a width. When you draw a line of a certain width, what computers usually do is either draw a rotated rectangle that is centered over the line and is as long as it is, and as wide as your line width, or it simply rubber-stamps a filled square or circle of the line width centered over each point on the line, which gives a similar look.

I essentially go with the latter approach in this example, but since I plan to eventually support different opacity for pixels, I do not want to draw whole boxes each time, because they would overlap and a 10% opaque line would end up 20% opaque in every spot where they overlap. So I just detect whether a line is mainly horizontal or vertical, then draw a horizontal or vertical 1 pixel line of the line width through each point.

This isn’t quite perfect and gives diagonal lines a slanted edge, and makes them a bit too wide, so I eventually plan to at least change the code so the small lines are drawn at a 90° angle to the actual line you’re drawing. But that’s not done yet.

Drawing circles

Again, I just get the equation for circles off Wikipedia. It says that r2 = (x-centerX)2+(y-centerY)2. Where “r” is the radius of the circle you want to draw, x and y are the coordinates of any point which you want to test whether it is on the circle, and centerX and centerY are the center of the circle.

Once you know that, you can draw a circle like you draw a rectangle. You calculate the enclosing rectangle of our circle (by subtracting/adding the radius from/to the center point) and then, instead of just drawing the rectangle, you insert each point into the circle equation. If the right-hand-side equates to r2 or less, the point is in the circle, and you can draw it, otherwise you skip this point.

Drawing the outline of a circle is just a specialized version of filling it here. Instead of checking whether the equation comes up as < r2, you also check whether it is greater than (r -lineWidth)2. So essentially you’re checking whether a point lies between two circles, the inner edge of your outline, and the outer edge of it.

This is probably not the optimal way to draw a circle, but it looks decent and is easy enough to understand. There are many tricks. For example, you could calculate only the upper right quarter of the circle, then flip the coordinate horizontally and vertically around the center and thus draw 4 points with every calculation. Bresenham even came with an algorithm where you only calculate 1/8th of a circle’s pixels.


The library doesn’t do ovals yet, but I think they could be implemented by using the circle equation and multiplying the coordinate of the longer side of the surrounding rectangle by the ratio between width and height. That way, your coordinates are “projected onto a square”, in which you can use the circle equation.

There are probably more efficient ways to do this.

Drawing bitmaps and text

To draw a bitmap (or rather, a pixel map) is basically a special case of rect drawing again. You take a buffer that already contains the raw pixels (like letterA in our example main.cpp). For simplicity, the code currently assumes that all images that you want to draw to the screen use 32-bit pixels. That also allows us to have a transparency value in the last 8 bits.

It simply draws a rectangle that is the size of the image, but instead of calling set_pixel() with a fixed color, it reads the color from the corresponding pixel in the pixel buffer we are supposed to draw. It also only draws pixels that are 100% opaque.

Text drawing is now simply a special case of this. You create a bitmap for every letter, then when asked to draw a certain character, load the corresponding bitmap and draw that. Of course, serious text processing would be more complex than that, but that is the foundational process as far as a drawing engine is concerned.

You’d of course need a text layout engine on top of that to handle wrapping, and other code to e.g. combine decomposed characters. Also, if you wanted to support the full Unicode character set (or even just all Chinese glyphs), you’d probably want to make your look-up happen in a way that you don’t need to load all bitmaps immediately, but can rather lazy-load them as they are used.


When we later implement our own window manager, we will need to be able to have windows overlap. To do that, we need to be able to designate areas as “covered” and have set_pixel() just not draw when asked to draw into those.

This is not yet implemented. The general approach is to have a bitmap (i.e. a pixel buffer whose pixels only occupy 1 bit, on or off) of the same size as our pixel buffer that indicates which pixels may be drawn into (usually that’s called a “mask”).

There are of course various optimizations you can apply to this. The original Macintosh’s QuickDraw engine used a compressed form of a bitmap called a “Region”, which simply contained entries for pixels in each line indicating the length of each color. I.e. “5 pixels off, 10 pixels full”. Some graphics engines simply only allow to clip to rectangles (which can be described by 4 coordinates). If all your windows are rectangular, that is sufficient.

The only clipping the image class currently implements is that circles that fall off any of the edges get clipped, and that rectangles and bitmaps that fall off the bottom or right edges get clipped. The way rectangles are currently specified, it is impossible to have them fall off the left or top, as that would require negative coordinates.

If you currently try to draw outside the image’s defined area using set_pixel(), you will corrupt memory. For a shipping drawing system you’d want to avoid this, and we’ll get to this once we implement a higher-level drawing system on top of this one that deals with clipping, coordinate systems and transformations.

Raw graphics output on Linux: Part 1


In my quest to understand better how my computer works, I decided I want to write a very minimal window server. The first step in that is to create something that performs raw graphics output to the screen, directly to its back buffer.

So, as a test bed, I decided to grab the VirtualBox emulator and install Ubuntu Minimal on it. Ubuntu Minimal is a (comparatively) small Linux that is still easy to install, and will provide the graphics drivers we’ll be talking to, and a file system and a loader to load the code to run.

If you just want to know how drawing itself works, feel free to skip to Part 2 in this blog series.

Setting up the virtual machine

Setting up a VM is fairly self-explanatory with the setup assistant in VirtualBox. It has presets for Linux and even for various Ubuntus, and most of the time the defaults are fine for us:

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I’m choosing to name the VM “Winner”, short for window server, but you can choose whatever name you like:

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Now you have a nice emulated empty computer

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Now, we need to tell it to pretend that the mini.iso Linux disk image file we downloaded from Ubuntu was a CD inserted in its optical drive by selecting the “Empty” entry under the CD, then clicking the little disc icon next to the popup on the right to select a file:

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Note that you would have to use the “Choose Virtual Optical Disk File…” item, I have the mini.iso entry in here already because I previously selected the file.

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Now you can close the window using the “OK” button and click the green “Start” arrow toolbar icon to boot the emulated computer.

Installing Ubuntu Minimal

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Ubuntu will boot up. Choose “Command-Line install” and use the arrow and return keys to navigate through the set-up. Pick your language, country and keyboard layout (if you’re on a Mac, choose to tell it instead of having it detect, and pick the “Macintosh” variant they offer):

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It will then churn a bit:

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And then it will ask you to name your computer:

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You can pick pretty much any name for your emulated home computer, it doesn’t really matter for what we are doing. I picked “winner”.

Then it will ask you to choose the country you are currently in, so it can pick the closest server for downloading additional components:

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And if they have several servers in your country, they’ll offer a choice. Just pick whatever it offers you, it’ll be fine.

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Then it will ask you if you need to use a proxy. Unless you’re in a weird restrictive company or university network or trying to get around an oppressive government’s firewall, you can just leave the field empty and press return here to indicate no proxy is needed:

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Then it will churn some more, downloading stuff off the internet etc.:

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Now it’s time to set up your user account, password (twice) etc.:

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In this emulator, we don’t need an encrypted hard disk (If you need it, your computer’s hard disk is probably already encrypted, and your emulated computer’s files are all stored on that anyway).

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Then it will ask you about some system clock settings (the defaults should all be fine here:

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Then it will ask how to partition and format the hard disk. You’re not dual-booting anything, the emulated computer is for Linux only, so just let it use the entire disk:

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And don’t worry about selecting the wrong disk, it will only offer the emulated hard disk we created. Tell it to create whatever partitions it thinks are right:

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And it will churn and download some more:

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Since we may want to keep using this for a while, let’s play it safe and tell it to apply any important updates automatically:

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And when it asks if it is OK to install the boot loader in the MBR, just say yes:

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Again, there is no other operating system inside this emulation, they’re just being overly cautious because so many linux users have weird setups.

For the same reason, you can just let it run the emulator with a UTC system clock as it suggests:

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That’s pretty much all. Tell it to restart, and quickly eject the CD disk image by un-checking it from your “Devices” menu:

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Setting up Ubuntu

Ubuntu is pretty much ready to go. You’ll have a neat command line OS. However, for our purposes, we want to have graphics card drivers. Since this is the minimal Ubuntu, a lot is turned off, so let’s turn that back on again and install some missing parts that we want for our experiments. Log in with your username and password and edit the configuration file /etc/default/grub which tells the bootloader what to do:

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If you’re unfamiliar with the Unix Terminal, just type sudo nano /etc/default/grub and enter your password once it asks. sudo means pretend you’re the computer’s administrator (as we’re changing basic system settings, that’s why it wants your password). nano is a small but fairly easy to use text editor. It shows you all the commands you can use at the bottom in little white boxes, with the keyboard shortcuts used to trigger them right in them (“^” stands for the control key there):

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Most of the lines in this file are deactivated (commented out) using the “#” character. Remove the one in front of GRUB_GFXMODE to tell it we want it to use a graphical display of that size, not the usual text mode that we’re currently using.

Save and close the file (WriteOut and Exit, i.e. Ctrl+O, Ctrl+X in nano).

Now usually this would be enough, but Ubuntu Minimal is missing a few components. So now type sudo apt-get install v86d. This tells Ubuntu to install the v86d package that does … something. If you left out this step, you would get an error message telling you that v86d doesn’t work on the next step. Confirm that you want to install these whopping 370kb of code by pressing “y” when asked. It will churn a bit.

Type in sudo modprobe uvesafb. The graphics drivers on Linux all implement the so-called “framebuffer” commands. That’s what “fb” here stands for. VirtualBox emulates a “VESA” display, and “uvesafb” is the modern version of the “vesafb” graphics driver you’d want for that. So we’re telling our Kernel to load that module now.

If all works, all that you should see is that your screen resizes to 640×480, i.e. becomes more square-ish:

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Now we don’t want to manually have to activate the frame buffer every time, so let’s add it to the list of modules the Kernel loads automatically at startup. Type sudo nano /etc/initramfs-tools/modules to edit the module list and add “uvesafb” to the end of the list (in my case, that list is empty):

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The professionals also suggest that you check the file /etc/modprobe.d/blacklist-framebuffer.conf to make sure it doesn’t list “uvesafb” as one of the modules not to load. If it does, just put a “#” in front of it to deactivate it.

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Now run sudo update-initramfs -u which tells the system to re-generate some of the startup files that are affected by us adding a new module to the list. It will churn for a moment.

Now we need a nice compiler to compile our code with. There’s probably a copy of GCC already on here, but just for kicks, let’s use clang instead, which gives nicer error messages. Enter sudo apt-get install clang:

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Finally, we need a way to get our source code on this machine, so let’s install the git version control system:

sudo apt-get install git

OK, now pretty much everything we need is set up. Part 2 in this series will get us to actually running some code against this graphics card driver.

You can shut down your virtual Linux box until you’re ready to try Part 2 by typing sudo poweroff.