Friday, September 4, 2020

No user-specific XKB configuration in X

This is the continuation from these posts: part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4.

In the posts linked above, I describe how it's possible to have custom keyboard layouts in $HOME or /etc/xkb that will get picked up by libxkbcommon. This only works for the Wayland stack, the X stack doesn't use libxkbcommon. In this post I'll explain why it's unlikely this will ever happen in X.

As described in the previous posts, users configure with rules, models, layouts, variants and options (RMLVO). What XKB uses internally though are keycodes, compat, geometry, symbols types (KcCGST) [1].

There are, effectively, two KcCGST keymap compilers: libxkbcommon and xkbcomp. libxkbcommon can go from RMLVO to a full keymap, xkbcomp relies on other tools (e.g. setxkbmap) which in turn use a utility library called libxkbfile to can parse rules files. The X server has a copy of the libxkbfile code. It doesn't use libxkbfile itself but it relies on the header files provided by it for some structs.

Wayland's keyboard configuration works like this:

  • the compositor decides on the RMLVO keybard layout, through an out-of-band channel (e.g. gsettings, weston.ini, etc.)
  • the compositor invokes libxkbcommon to generate a KcCGST keymap and passes that full keymap to the client
  • the client compiles that keymap with libxkbcommon and feeds any key events into libxkbcommon's state tracker to get the right keysyms
The advantage we have here is that only the full keymap is passed between entities. Changing how that keymap is generated does not affect the client. This, coincidentally [2], is also how Xwayland gets the keymap passed to it and why Xwayland works with user-specific layouts.

X works differently. Notably, KcCGST can come in two forms, the partial form specifying names only and the full keymap. The partial form looks like this:

$ setxkbmap -print -layout fr -variant azerty -option ctrl:nocaps
xkb_keymap {
 xkb_keycodes  { include "evdev+aliases(azerty)" };
 xkb_types     { include "complete" };
 xkb_compat    { include "complete" };
 xkb_symbols   { include "pc+fr(azerty)+inet(evdev)+ctrl(nocaps)" };
 xkb_geometry  { include "pc(pc105)" };
This defines the component names but not the actual keymap, punting that to the next part in the stack. This will turn out to be the achilles heel. Keymap handling in the server has two distinct aproaches:
  • During keyboard device init, the input driver passes RMLVO to the server, based on defaults or xorg.conf options
  • The server has its own rules file parser and creates the KcCGST component names (as above)
  • The server forks off xkbcomp and passes the component names to stdin
  • xkbcomp generates a keymap based on the components and writes it out as XKM file format
  • the server reads in the XKM format and updates its internal structs
This has been the approach for decades. To give you an indication of how fast-moving this part of the server is: XKM caching was the latest feature added... in 2009.

Driver initialisation is nice, but barely used these days. You set your keyboard layout in e.g. GNOME or KDE and that will apply it in the running session. Or run setxkbmap, for those with a higher affinity to neckbeards. setxkbmap works like this:

  • setkxkbmap parses the rules file to convert RMLVO to KcCGST component names
  • setkxkbmap calls XkbGetKeyboardByName and hands those component names to the server
  • The server forks off xkbcomp and passes the component names to stdin
  • xkbcomp generates a keymap based on the components and writes it out as XKM file format
  • the server reads in the XKM format and updates its internal structs
Notably, the RMLVO to KcCGST conversion is done on the client side, not the server side. And the only way to send a keymap to the server is that XkbGetKeyboardByName request - which only takes KcCGST, you can't even pass it a full keymap. This is also a long-standing potential issue with XKB: if your client tools uses different XKB data files than the server, you don't get the keymap you expected.

Other parts of the stack do basically the same as setxkbmap which is just a thin wrapper around libxkbfile anyway.

Now, you can use xkbcomp on the client side to generate a keymap, but you can't hand it as-is to the server. xkbcomp can do this (using libxkbfile) by updating the XKB state one-by-one (XkbSetMap, XkbSetCompatMap, XkbSetNames, etc.). But at this point you're at the stage where you ask the server to knowingly compile a wrong keymap before updating the parts of it.

So, realistically, the only way to get user-specific XKB layouts into the X server would require updating libxkbfile to provide the same behavior as libxkbcommon, update the server to actually use libxkbfile instead of its own copy, and updating xkbcomp to support the changes in part 2, part 3. All while ensuring no regressions in code that's decades old, barely maintained, has no tests, and, let's be honest, not particularly pretty to look at. User-specific XKB layouts are somewhat a niche case to begin with, so I don't expect anyone to ever volunteer and do this work [3], much less find the resources to review and merge that code. The X server is unlikely to see another real release and this is definitely not something you want to sneak in in a minor update.

The other option would be to extend XKB-the-protocol with a request to take a full keymap so the server. Given the inertia involved and that the server won't see more full releases, this is not going to happen.

So as a summary: if you want custom keymaps on your machine, switch to Wayland (and/or fix any remaining issues preventing you from doing so) instead of hoping this will ever work on X. xmodmap will remain your only solution for X.

[1] Geometry is so pointless that libxkbcommon doesn't even implement this. It is a complex format to allow rendering a picture of your keyboard but it'd be a per-model thing and with evdev everyone is using the same model, so ...
[2] totally not coincidental btw
[3] libxkbcommon has been around for a decade now and no-one has volunteered to do this in the years since, so...

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

User-specific XKB configuration - putting it all together

This is the continuation from these posts: part 1, part 2, part 3

This is the part where it all comes together, with (BYO) fireworks and confetti, champagne and hoorays. Or rather, this is where I'll describe how to actually set everything up. It's a bit complicated because while libxkbcommon does the parsing legwork now, we haven't actually changed other APIs and the file formats which are still 1990s-style nerd cool and requires significant experience in CS [1] to understand what goes where.

The below relies on software using libxkbcommon and libxkbregistry. At the time of writing, libxkbcommon is used by all mainstream Wayland compositors but not by the X server. libxkbregistry is not yet used because I'm typing this before we had a release for it. But at least now I have a link to point people to.

libxkbcommon has a xkbcli-scaffold-new-layout tool that The xkblayout tool creates the template files as shown below. At the time of writing, this tool must be run from the git repo build directory, it is not installed.

I'll explain here how to add the us(banana) variant and the custom:foo option, and I will optimise for simplicity and brevity.

Directory structure

First, create the following directory layout:

$ tree $XDG_CONFIG_HOME/xkb
├── compat
├── keycodes
├── rules
│   ├── evdev
│   └── evdev.xml
├── symbols
│   ├── custom
│   └── us
└── types
If $XDG_CONFIG_HOME is unset, fall back to $HOME/.config.

Rules files

Create the rules file and add an entry to map our custom:foo option to a section in the symbols/custom file.

$ cat $XDG_CONFIG_HOME/xkb/rules/evdev
! option = symbols
  custom:foo = +custom(foo)

// Include the system 'evdev' file
! include %S/evdev
Note that no entry is needed for the variant, that is handled by wildcards in the system rules file. If you only want a variant and no options, you technically don't need this rules file.

Second, create the xml file used by libxkbregistry to display your new entries in the configuration GUIs:

$ cat $XDG_CONFIG_HOME/xkb/rules/evdev.xml
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<!DOCTYPE xkbConfigRegistry SYSTEM "xkb.dtd">
<xkbConfigRegistry version="1.1">
    <group allowMultipleSelection="true">
        <description>custom options</description>
          <description>This option does something great</description>
Our variant needs to be added as a layoutList/layout/variantList/variant, the option to the optionList/group/option. libxkbregistry will combine this with the system-wide evdev.xml file in /usr/share/X11/xkb/rules/evdev.xml.

Overriding and adding symbols

Now to the actual mapping. Add a section to each of the symbols files that matches the variant or option name:

$ cat $XDG_CONFIG_HOME/xkb/symbols/us
partial alphanumeric_keys modifier_keys
xkb_symbols "banana" {
    name[Group1]= "Banana (us)";

    include "us(basic)"

    key <CAPS> { [ Escape ] };
with this, the us(banana) layout will be a US keyboard layout but with the CapsLock key mapped to Escape. What about our option? Mostly the same, let's map the tilde key to nothing:
$ cat $XDG_CONFIG_HOME/xkb/symbols/custom
partial alphanumeric_keys modifier_keys
xkb_symbols "foo" {
    key <TLDE> { [ VoidSymbol ] };
A note here: NoSymbol means "don't overwrite it" whereas VoidSymbol is "map to nothing".


You may notice that the variant and option sections are almost identical. XKB doesn't care about variants vs options, it only cares about components to combine. So the sections do what we expect of them: variants include enough other components to make them a full keyboard layout, options merely define a few keys so they can be combined with layouts(variants). Due to how the lookups work, you could load the option template as layout custom(foo).

For the actual documentation of keyboard configuration, you'll need to google around, there are quite a few posts on how to map keys. All that has changed is where from and how things are loaded but not the actual data formats.

If you wanted to install this as system-wide custom rules, replace $XDG_CONFIG_HOME with /etc.

The above is a replacement for xmodmap. It does not require a script to be run manually to apply the config, the existing XKB integration will take care of it. It will work in Wayland (but as said above not in X, at least not for now).

A final word

Now, I fully agree that this is cumbersome, clunky and feels outdated. This is easy to fix, all that is needed is for someone to develop a better file format, make sure it's backwards compatible with the full spec of the XKB parser (the above is a fraction of what it can do), that you can generate the old files from the new format to reduce maintenance, and then maintain backwards compatibility with the current format for the next ten or so years. Should be a good Google Decade of Code beginner project.

[1] Cursing and Swearing