Engineering Plasma: Extensions and stability — Present and future

This week, we have received a number of inquiries into how Plasma extensions, particularly those found on the KDE Store, relate to the stability and safety of a Plasma system. With an engineering focus, this blog hopes to provide answers.

Crash Resilience By Process Isolation

Present-day Plasma process architecture diagram
Present-day process architecture: Compositor and shell UI are isolated from each other

In Plasma, the shell UI and the compositor are isolated into seperate processes (plasmashell and kwin, respectively). The two exchange information regulated by IPC mechanisms such as the windowing system (Wayland or X11) and DBus, using standard protocols where suitable and custom-created ones where needed.

In a Wayland session, it's kwin that plays host to your application clients and puts them on screen (on X11, both KWin and app are clients to the X Server, providing a further isolation - KWin can crash and restart without impacting apps). Shell UI extension live in the seperate plasmashell process.

In the event that a shell extension crashes the shell, this allows it to be restarted without impacting KWin and therefore without impacting your applications. They continue to run undeterred while the shell takes steps to right itself.

Beyond crash resilience, putting limits on untrusted code run in the compositor process also has a security dimension. Particularly on Wayland, where one of the design goals is not to allow untrusted code to introspect the windowing system globally.

Meanwhile, to make KWin ready to taking over for the X Server in a Wayland session, we significantly upgraded our engineering story - requiring and dramatically raising unit test coverage for KWin and related library code, for one.

Process Isolation: Next Steps

The architecture discussed above shields applications and the compositor from shell UI extensions, but it doesn't shield the shell. We want to fix that next.

Future R&D Plasma process architecture diagram
Next: Isolate shell UI and extensions, too — individual or batch processes for extensions

The always-stunning David Edmundson has been spearheading several engineering efforts to make the shell itself have a multi-process architecture. Some of this has already quietly been shipping in the Plasma 5.12 LTS release: KRunner plugins, which provide search results in our menus/launchers, can now opt into running out-of-process. We've used this to isolate some of the crash chart-topping plugins, preventing them from taking down the shell when performing a search query.

Likewise, for shell UI extensions, he has been working on top off the library stack we initially built for the Wayland transition to allow them to be run out of process and then get composited into the shell UI. In addition to making the shell far more resilient to extension crashes, this would also create additional security domains for untrusted extension code - we can build on this to sandbox and drop privileges for them.

All of this is broadly similar to application architecture improvements pioneered by multi-process web browsers in past years, albeit built squarely to leverage the shared free desktop stack (particularly Wayland and DBus). Unlike what took place in Firefox' project Electrolysis, however, we don't see a need to break extension compatibility in our case. For Plasma's extension API scope, we've always taken a conservative demand-based approach instead of allowing extensions free access to all data and code by default. This is paying dividends now, allowing us new shell architecture options while preserving the known, stable API contract it has with its extensions.

David is set to show off the R&D proof of concept we have working now in his talk at this year's Akademy conference, which I can't wait to attend. Be sure to also keep your eyes peeled on his blog, where he will dive deeper into the details of this project after the conference excitement.

In Summary

Plasma today is architected to prevent shell UI extensions from being able to crash your session and interfere with your apps. We are working to expand on this and prevent extensions from interfering with the shell.

In Context

One of the broad goals of Plasma 5 has been raising quality. This is a user-driven process. Converting feedback we got during the first generation of Plasma into software, we worked hard to bring Plasma users tangible improvements to speed, resource usage and UI polish (this is by no means over, either). We also already implemented a LTS release process to improve our support story.

Dove-tailing with the KDE community's Goals, climbing higher on the ladder of safety and security is one of our immediate next ones. Increasing process isolation in Plasma and achieving state of the art crash resilience and sandboxing, a likely first on the desktop, is a concrete engineering expression of this aim.

Sounds interesting? If you want to be part of a team and a community that keeps pushing the desktop (and not just the desktop) forward in the days to come, join us in one of our channels.

Of course:

I'm going to Akademy promo picture

LibreOffice doesn't start if QT_NO_GLIB is set

That was a surprising find. Libreoffice wouldn't start anymore (just some splash screen with a progressbar, then nothing happens).

After some debugging (comparing my normal zsh session where it wouldn't start, with a clean `sudo -u dfaure bash` session where it worked), I found the culprit. I had QT_NO_GLIB=1 in my environment for some reason, and that's what breaks libreoffice...

Posting this in case it helps someone one day ;)


Upgrading to OpenSUSE Leap 15.0

Upgrading from Leap 42.3 to Leap 15.0... How hard can it be? Well, there was a bit of fighting necessary. One fight due to an encrypted root partition, another one due to NVIDIA and libGL.

I used the zypper upgrade method, from a text virtual terminal (after stopping X), which always seems safer to me than booting on a USB disk and hoping the partition setup is correct.


"Babe" beta

Here's "Babe" beta, but before let me talk to you about what's going on with "Babe" right now.

if you're a student like me and want to start learning new things and work on a exciting open source project the following are some ways you could get involve.

If you feel like contributing and getting involve there are a lot of things you could start with:


Off and On Again: The story of KDE Plasma's desktop icons; 5.12 improvements

Desktop icons in Plasma 5.12 LTS Beta
Desktop icons in Plasma 5.12 LTS Beta (Click to enlarge)

Recent news in the Linux desktop community recall an interesting time in Plasma's history: Release 4.1 in 2008, Plasma's second release ever, that time we (in)famously abandoned desktop icons (sneak preview: they came back).

Of course we never really abandoned them. Instead, in 4.1 we initially debuted the Folder View technology, which powers most of the ways to browse file locations on a Plasma desktop. Folder View gives you folder widgets on the desktop, folder popups on your panels - and yes, desktop icons, which always remained a supported option. An option we, crucially, did decide to tick default-off at the time. Instead we chose to place a folder widget on the default desktop, in part to reinforce the then-new widget-oriented ways of doing things in Plasma, things older KDE desktops just couldn't do.

The Awkward Years

A telling sign in hindsight, many distributions reneged on our decision and turned icons on for their users anyway. And yet we had decided to throw the switch upstream; what next?

A period of research and experimentation followed. With all that newly freed-up screen real estate and a new modular architecture, we looked into alternatives for what a device homescreen could be. The PC during this time was in a mood to diversify as well, with new form factors popping up in stores. Some of our experiments took off - the Search and Launch interface we debuted alongside the Plasma Netbook spin in 4.5 directly inspired the popular Application Dashboard fullscreen overlay we introduced in Plasma 5.4. Others, like the Newspaper view, failed to find much of an audience.

Application Dashboard in Plasma 5.12 LTS Beta
The Application Dashboard overlay has its origins in the icons-off adventure (Click to enlarge)

Ultimately, though this period was productive in many ways, we didn't hit upon a clearly-better new homescreen. Elsewhere meanwhile, on a parallel track, the icon homescreen UI metaphor unexpectedly bounced back and grew stronger. Touchscreen handsets introduced a whole new generation of computer users to - essentially - desktop icons. In the following years we saw user numbers and familiarity with homescreen icons increase, not decrease.

The Lights are Back on and the Doors are Open

During the Plasma 5.10 dev cycle, we did a lot of polish work on the desktop icons experience. We then decided that it was time to stop hiding desktop icons support behind a config option: All things considered, the previous default was just not serving the majority of our users well. It had to change.

We still don't place any icons on the desktop by default. (Many distributions do - but they always did for all that time.) Those who enjoy the calm and tranquility of an empty desktop or don't want icons to get in the way of widgets were not impacted by this move. But drop a file or add an app to the desktop, and you now get an icon again, with full support for all of the powerful features KDE's desktops have always offered when dealing in files and links. For the many users who rely on desktop icons, this is a welcome reprieve from having to fiddle around post-install.

Icons of the Future

In the upcoming Plasma 5.12 LTS release, desktop icons are getting even better. We've done a truckload of work on improving the experience with multiple monitors, across which icons can be moved freely again, along with gracefully handling monitor hot plug/unplug. Performance and latency improvements, the key theme to 5.12 in general, have continued where 5.10+ left off, with the desktop reflecting file operations now faster than before.

We've worked though many of the most-reported feature requests and pain points for desktop icons throughout 2017, but we're not done yet. Folder View development continues in 2018 with more outstanding user requests on the horizon, so feel free to get in touch.

Check out the beta now and let us know what else you want out of desktop icons after 5.12!


About Babe

I've been working on a small music player named Babe for a while now, it started as an idea of a bare simple music player, and as the time has passed it has become a project I hope to expand beyond a simple music player.



Fun (?) with symbol visibility...

In the last days I had to deal with loading plugins via dlopen.
I learned so far already a lot about symbols on Linux.


Community goal: Modern and Global Text Input For Every User

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to give a talk on Input Methods in Plasma 5 at Akademy 2017 in lovely Almería in Spain. If you were interest in my talk but were unable to attend, there's now video (complementary slides) available courtesy of the Akademy conference team. Yay!

A big part of my talk was a long laundry list of issues we need to tackle in Plasma, other KDE software and the wider free desktop ecosystem. It's now time to take the next step and get started.

I've submitted the project under Modern and Global Text Input For Every User as part of the KDE community's new community goals initiative, a new thing we're trying exactly for challenges like this - goals that need community-wide, cross-project collaboration over a longer time period to achieve.

If you're interested in this work, make sure to read the proposal and add yourself at the bottom!


Come dine with the KDE e.V. board in Berlin in October!

As has become tradition in recent years, the KDE e.V. board will have an open dinner alongside its in-person meeting in Berlin, Germany on October 14th, at 7 PM.

We know there will be a lot of cool people in town next month, thanks to a KDE Edu development sprint, Qt World Summit, the GNOME Foundation hackfest and probably other events, and you're all invited to drop by and have a chat with us and amongst yourselves - and enjoy good food.


Konversation 2.x in 2018: New user interface, Matrix support, mobile version

It's time to talk about exciting new things in store for the Konversation project!

Konversation is KDE's chat application for communities. No matter whether someone is a newcomer seeking community, a seasoned participant in one, or a community administrator: our mission is to bring groups of people together, allow them to delight in each other's company, and support their pursuit of shared interests and goals.

One of the communities we monitor for changes to your needs is our own: KDE. Few things make a Konversation hacker happier than journeying to an event like Akademy in Almería, Spain and seeing our app run on many screens all around.

The KDE community has recently made progress defining what it wants out of a chat solution in the near future. To us, those initial results align very strongly with Konversation's mission and display a lot of overlap with the things it does well. However, they also highlight trends where the current generation of Konversation falls short, e.g. support for persistence across network jumps, mobile device support and better media/file handling.

This evolution in KDE's needs matches what we're seeing in other communities we cater to. Recently we've started a new development effort to try and answer those needs.

Enter Konversation 2.x

Konversation 2.x R&D mockup screenshot
Obligatory tantilizing sneak preview (click to enlarge)

Konversation 2.x will be deserving of the version bump, revamping the user interface and bringing the application to new platforms. Here's a rundown of our goals:

  • A more modern, cleaner user interface, built using Qt Quick and KDE's Kirigami technology
    • Adopting a responsive window layout, supporting more varied desktop use cases and putting us on a path towards becoming a desktop/mobile convergent application
    • Scaling to more groups with an improved tab switcher featuring better-integrated notifications and mentions
    • Redesigned and thoroughly cleaned-up settings, including often-requested per-tab settings
    • Richer theming, including a night mode and a small selection of popular chat text layouts for different needs
  • Improved media/file handling, including image sharing, a per-tab media gallery, and link previews
  • A reduced resource footprint, using less memory and battery power
  • Support for the Matrix protocol
  • Supporting a KDE-wide Global and Modern Text Input initiative, in particular for emoji input
  • Versions for Plasma Mobile and Android
  • Updating Konversation's web presence

Let's briefly expand on a few of those:


KDE's Kirigami user interface technology helps developers make applications that run well on both desktop and mobile form factors. While still a young project, too, it's already being put to good use in projects such as Peruse, Calligra Gemini, Gwenview, and others. When we tried it out Kirigami quickly proved useful to us as well. We've been enjoying a great working relationship with the Kirigami team, with code flowing both ways. Check it out!

Design process

To craft the new user interface, we're collaborating with KDE's Visual Design Group. Within the KDE community, the VDG itself is a driver of new requirements for chat applications (as their collaboration workflows differ substantially from coding contributors). We've been combining our experience listening to many years of user feedback with their design chops, and this has lead to an array of design mockups we've been working from so far. This is just the beginning, with many, many details left to hammer out together - we're really grateful for the help! :)


Currently we're focused on bringing more of the new UI online, proving it on top of our robust IRC backend. However, Matrix support will come next. While we have no plans to drop support for IRC, we feel the Matrix protocol has emerged as a credible alternative that retains many of IRC's best qualities while better supporting modern needs (and bridging to IRC). We're excited about what it will let us do and want to become your Matrix client of choice next year!

Work done so far

The screenshot shown above is sort of a functional R&D mockup of where we're headed with the new interface. It runs, it chats - more on how to try it out in a moment - but it's quite incomplete, wonky, and in a state of flux. Here's a few more demonstrations and explorations of what it can do:

Repsonsive window layout
Responsive window layout: Front-and-center vs. small-and-in-a-corner (click for smoother HD/YouTube)

Toggling settings mode
Friction-free switching to and from settings mode (click for smoother HD/YouTube

Overlay context sidebar
Overlay context sidebar: Tab settings and media gallery will go here (click to enlarge)

See a gallery with an additional screenshot of the settings mode.

Trying it out

The work is being carried out on the wip/qtquick branch of konversation.git. It needs Qt 5.9 and the master branch of kirigami.git to build and run, respectively. We also have a Flatpak nightly package soon on the way, pending sorting out some dependency issues.

Be sure to check out this wiki page with build and testing instructions. You'll learn how to retrieve either the sources or the Flatpak, as well as a number of command line arguments that are key when test-driving.

Sneak preview of great neat-ness: It's possible to toggle between the old and new Konversation UIs at any time using the F10 key. This makes dogfooding at this early stage much more palatable!

Joining the fun

We're just starting out to use this workboard on KDE's Phabricator instance to track and coordinate tasks. Subscribe and participate! Phabricator is also the platform of choice to submit code contributions.

As noted above, Konversation relies on Kirigami and the VDG. Both projects welcome new contributors. Helping them out helps Konversation!

To chat with us, you can stop by the #konversation and #kde-vdg channels on freenode (using IRC or the Matrix bridge). Hop on and introduce yourself!

Side note: The Kirigami team plans to show up in force at the KDE Randa meeting this fall to hack on things the Konversation team is very much interested in, including expanding support for keyboard navigation in Kirigami UI. Check out the Randa fundraising campaign which e.g. enables KDE to bring more devs along, it's really appreciated!