Asynchronous Requests from Emacs Dynamic Modules

A few months ago I had a discussion with Vladimir Kazanov about his Orgfuse project: a Python script that exposes an Emacs Org-mode document as a FUSE filesystem. It permits other programs to navigate the structure of an Org-mode document through the standard filesystem APIs. I suggested that, with the new dynamic modules in Emacs 25, Emacs itself could serve a FUSE filesystem. In fact, support for FUSE services in general could be an package of his own.

So that’s what he did: Elfuse. It’s an old joke that Emacs is an operating system, and here it is handling system calls.

However, there’s a tricky problem to solve, an issue also present my joystick module. Both modules handle asynchronous events — filesystem requests or joystick events — but Emacs runs the event loop and owns the main thread. The external events somehow need to feed into the main event loop. It’s even more difficult with FUSE because FUSE also wants control of its own thread for its own event loop. This requires Elfuse to spawn a dedicated FUSE thread and negotiate a request/response hand-off.

When a filesystem request or joystick event arrives, how does Emacs know to handle it? The simple and obvious solution is to poll the module from a timer.

struct queue requests;

Frequest_next(emacs_env *env, ptrdiff_t n, emacs_value *args, void *p)
    emacs_value next = Qnil;
    if (queue_length(requests) > 0) {
        void *request = queue_pop(requests, env);
        next = env->make_user_ptr(env, fin_empty, request);
    return next;

And then ask Emacs to check the module every, say, 10ms:

(defun request--poll ()
  (let ((next (request-next)))
    (when next
      (request-handle next))))

(run-at-time 0 0.01 #'request--poll)

Blocking directly on the module’s event pump with Emacs’ thread would prevent Emacs from doing important things like, you know, being a text editor. The timer allows it to handle its own events uninterrupted. It gets the job done, but it’s far from perfect:

  1. It imposes an arbitrary latency to handling requests. Up to the poll period could pass before a request is handled.

  2. Polling the module 100 times per second is inefficient. Unless you really enjoy recharging your laptop, that’s no good.

The poll period is a sliding trade-off between latency and battery life. If only there was some mechanism to, ahem, signal the Emacs thread, informing it that a request is waiting…


Emacs Lisp programs can handle the POSIX SIGUSR1 and SIGUSR2 signals, which is exactly the mechanism we need. The interface is a “key” binding on special-event-map, the keymap that handles these kinds of events. When the signal arrives, Emacs queues it up for the main event loop.

(define-key special-event-map [sigusr1]
  (lambda ()
    (request-handle (request-next))))

The module blocks on its own thread on its own event pump. When a request arrives, it queues the request, rings the bell for Emacs to come handle it (raise()), and waits on a semaphore. For illustration purposes, assume the module reads requests from and writes responses to a file descriptor, like a socket.

int event_fd = /* ... */;
struct request request;
sem_init(&request.sem, 0, 0);

for (;;) {
    /* Blocking read for request event */
    read(event_fd, &request.event, sizeof(request.event));

    /* Put request on the queue */
    queue_push(requests, &request);
    raise(SIGUSR1);  // TODO: Should raise() go inside the lock?

    /* Wait for Emacs */
    while (sem_wait(&request.sem))

    /* Reply with Emacs' response */
    write(event_fd, &request.response, sizeof(request.response));

The sem_wait() is in a loop because signals will wake it up prematurely. In fact, it may even wake up due to its own signal on the line before. This is the only way this particular use of sem_wait() might fail, so there’s no need to check errno.

If there are multiple module threads making requests to the same global queue, the lock is necessary to protect the queue. The semaphore is only for blocking the thread until Emacs has finished writing its particular response. Each thread has its own semaphore.

When Emacs is done writing the response, it releases the module thread by incrementing the semaphore. It might look something like this:

Frequest_complete(emacs_env *env, ptrdiff_t n, emacs_value *args, void *p)
    struct request *request = env->get_user_ptr(env, args[0]);
    if (request)
    return Qnil;

The top-level handler dispatches to the specific request handler, calling request-complete above when it’s done.

(defun request-handle (next)
  (condition-case e
      (cl-ecase (request-type next)
        (:open  (request-handle-open  next))
        (:close (request-handle-close next))
        (:read  (request-handle-read  next)))
    (error (request-respond-as-error next e)))

This SIGUSR1+semaphore mechanism is roughly how Elfuse currently processes requests.


Windows doesn’t have signals. This isn’t a problem for Elfuse since Windows doesn’t have FUSE either. Nor does it matter for Joymacs since XInput isn’t event-driven and always requires polling. But someday someone will need this mechanism for a dynamic module on Windows.

Fortunately there’s a solution: input language change events, WM_INPUTLANGCHANGE. It’s also on special-event-map:

(define-key special-event-map [language-change]
  (lambda ()
    (request-process (request-next))))

Instead of raise() (or pthread_kill()), broadcast the window event with PostMessage(). Outside of invoking the language-change key binding, Emacs will ignore the event because WPARAM is 0 — it doesn’t belong to any particular window. We don’t really want to change the input language, after all.


Naturally you’ll also need to replace the POSIX threading primitives with the Windows versions (CreateThread(), CreateSemaphore(), etc.). With a bit of abstraction in the right places, it should be pretty easy to support both POSIX and Windows in these asynchronous dynamic module events.

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Chris Wellons