Chapter 5. X11 Application Support

Table of Contents

Two Modes for Foreign Windows
X Window Manager (XWM)


Being able to run existing X11 applications is crucial for the adoption of Wayland, especially on desktops, as there will always be X11 applications that have not been or cannot be converted into Wayland applications, and throwing them all away would be prohibitive. Therefore a Wayland compositor often needs to support running X11 applications.

X11 and Wayland are different enough that there is no "simple" way to translate between them. Most of X11 is uninteresting to a Wayland compositor. That, combined with the gigantic implementation effort needed to support X11, makes it intractable to just write X11 support directly in a Wayland compositor. The implementation would be nothing short of a real X11 server.

Therefore, Wayland compositors should use Xwayland, the X11 server that lives in the Xorg server source code repository and shares most of the implementation with the Xorg server. Xwayland is a complete X11 server, just like Xorg is, but instead of driving the displays and opening input devices, it acts as a Wayland client. The rest of this chapter talks about how Xwayland works.

For integration and architecture reasons, while Xwayland is a Wayland client of the Wayland compositor, the Wayland compositor is an X11 client of Xwayland. This circular dependency requires special care from the Wayland compositor.

Two Modes for Foreign Windows

In general, windows from a foreign window system can be presented in one of two ways: rootless and rootful (not rootless).

In rootful mode, the foreign window system as a whole is represented as a window (or more) of its own. You have a native window, inside which all the foreign windows are. The advantage of this approach in Xwayland's case is that you can run your favourite X11 window manager to manage your X11 applications. The disadvantage is that the foreign windows do not integrate with the native desktop. Therefore this mode is not usually used.

In rootless mode, each foreign window is a first-class resident among the native windows. Foreign windows are not confined inside a native window but act as if they were native windows. The advantage is that one can freely stack and mix native and foreign windows, which is not possible in rootful mode. The disadvantage is that this mode is harder to implement and fundamental differences in window systems may prevent some things from working. With rootless Xwayland, the Wayland compositor must take the role as the X11 window manager, and one cannot use any other X11 window manager in its place.

This chapter concentrates on the rootless mode, and ignores the rootful mode.


A Wayland compositor usually takes care of launching Xwayland. Xwayland works in cooperation with a Wayland compositor as follows:

Figure 5.1. Xwayland architecture diagram

Xwayland architecture diagram

An X11 application connects to Xwayland just like it would connect to any X server. Xwayland processes all the X11 requests. On the other end, Xwayland is a Wayland client that connects to the Wayland compositor.

The X11 window manager (XWM) is an integral part of the Wayland compositor. XWM uses the usual X11 window management protocol to manage all X11 windows in Xwayland. Most importantly, XWM acts as a bridge between Xwayland window state and the Wayland compositor's window manager (WWM). This way WWM can manage all windows, both native Wayland and X11 (Xwayland) windows. This is very important for a coherent user experience.

Since Xwayland uses Wayland for input and output, it does not have any use for the device drivers that Xorg uses. None of the xf86-video-* or xf86-input-* modules are used. There also is no configuration file for the Xwayland server. For optional hardware accelerated rendering, Xwayland uses GLAMOR.

A Wayland compositor usually spawns only one Xwayland instance. This is because many X11 applications assume they can communicate with other X11 applications through the X server, and this requires a shared X server instance. This also means that Xwayland does not protect nor isolate X11 clients from each other, unless the Wayland compositor specifically chooses to break the X11 client intercommunications by spawning application specific Xwayland instances. X11 clients are naturally isolated from Wayland clients.

Xwayland compatibility compared to a native X server will probably never reach 100%. Desktop environment (DE) components, specifically X11 window managers, are practically never supported. An X11 window manager would not know about native Wayland windows, so it could manage only X11 windows. On the other hand, there must be an XWM that reserves the exclusive window manager role so that the Wayland compositor could show the X11 windows appropriately. For other DE components, like pagers and panels, adding the necessary interfaces to support them in WWM through XWM is often considered not worthwhile.

X Window Manager (XWM)

From the X11 point of view, the X window manager (XWM) living inside a Wayland compositor is just like any other window manager. The difference is mostly in which process it resides in, and the few extra conventions in the X11 protocol to support Wayland window management (WWM) specifically.

There are two separate asynchronous communication channels between Xwayland and a Wayland compositor: one uses the Wayland protocol, and the other one, solely for XWM, uses X11 protocol. This setting demands great care from the XWM implementation to avoid (random) deadlocks with Xwayland. It is often nearly impossible to prove that synchronous or blocking X11 calls from XWM cannot cause a deadlock, and therefore it is strongly recommended to make all X11 communications asynchronous. All Wayland communications are already asynchonous by design.

Window identification

In Xwayland, an X11 window may have a corresponding wl_surface object in Wayland. The wl_surface object is used for input and output: it is referenced by input events and used to provide the X11 window content to the Wayland compositor. The X11 window and the wl_surface live in different protocol streams, and they need to be matched for XWM to do its job.

When Xwayland creates a wl_surface on Wayland, it will also send an X11 ClientMessage of type atom "WL_SURFACE_ID" to the X11 window carrying the wl_surface Wayland object ID as the first 32-bit data element. This is how XWM can associate a wl_surface with an X11 window. Note that the request to create a wl_surface and the ID message may arrive in any order in the Wayland compositor.