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A display server or window server is a program whose primary task is to coordinate the input and output of its clients to and from the rest of the operating system, the hardware, and each other. The display server communicates with its clients over the display server protocol, a communications protocol, which can be network-transparent or simply network-capable.
Available display server communications protocols
One example of a display server is the X.Org Server, which runs on top of the kernel (usually a Unix-based kernel, such as Linux or BSD). It receives user input data (e.g. from evdev on Linux) and passes it to one of its clients. The display server also receives data from its clients; it processes the data, it does the compositing and on Linux it passes the data to one of three kernel components – DRM, gem or KMS driver. The component writes the data into the framebuffer and content of the framebuffer is transmitted to the connected screen and displayed. X relies on GLX.
One of the implementations of display server concept is X Window System, in particular its actually used version – X.Org Server and Xlib and XCB client libraries. The X.Org Server is a display server, but in its current implementation it relies on a second program, the compositing window manager, to do the compositing. Examples are Mutter or KWin.
Notable examples of display servers implementing the X11 display server protocol are X.Org Server, XFree86, XQuartz and Cygwin/X, while client libraries implementing the X11 display server protocol are Xlib and XCB.
One tool called xev is a Unix command which creates a window and then asks the display server to send information of events every time something happens to the window (like if it's resized, if any keys are pushed, if it's clicked it etc.) to the console.
Display servers that implement the Wayland display server protocol, are called Wayland compositors. Like any display server, a Wayland compositor is responsible for handling input and output for its clients and – in contrast to X11 – additionally for the compositing. Examples are Weston, Mutter, KWin or Enlightenment.
Wayland compositors communicate with Wayland clients over the Wayland display server protocol. This protocol defines that clients can directly write data into the framebuffer using the EGL rendering API. The display server still gets to decide which window is on top and thus visible to the user and also still is responsible for passing data regarding to input devices from evdev to its clients.
Wayland is used to a certain degree in some Linux desktop distributions, such as Fedora. It is also well suited for mobile computing and has been adopted, for example, by the smartphone- and tablet-focused projects Tizen and Sailfish OS.
The Mir display server comes with its own Mir display server protocol which is different from those used by X11 and Wayland. Mir additionally supports the X11 protocol. It was developed by Canonical and was intended to be the display server of choice for Ubuntu. As of 2017, it has been replaced with the Wayland display server for desktop editions of Ubuntu.
There are implementations of the Mir display server, the libmir-server and the libmir-client libraries available under the GPLv3.
Yet another Android-specific solution is "Gralloc". Gralloc handles device memory i.e. it does allocation, arbitration, it handles synchronization via Android/Linux fence file descriptors (FDs). Gralloc competes with other solutions like e.g. Mesa's Generic Buffer Management (GBM) or Nvidia's EGLStreams. The gralloc hardware abstraction layer (HAL) is used to allocate the buffers that underlie "surfaces".
For compositing in Android, Surfaces are sent to SurfaceFlinger, which uses OpenGL ES to do the compositing.
Hardware Composer HAL (HWC) was introduced in Android 3.0 and has evolved steadily over the years. Its primary purpose is to determine the most efficient way to composite buffers with the available hardware. As a HAL, its implementation is device-specific and usually done by the display hardware OEM.
Desktop Window Manager
For Microsoft Windows, from Windows Vista onward, Desktop Window Manager enables the use of hardware acceleration to render the graphical user interface. It was originally created to enable portions of the new "Windows Aero" user experience, which allowed for effects such as transparency, 3D window switching and more. It is also included with Windows Server 2008, but requires the "Desktop Experience" feature and compatible graphics drivers to be installed.
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