I want to talk about Kakoune in this blog article, and more specifically, its UNIX design. See, in my previous blog post, I explained why I love Helix, and why I love Kakoune. The design philosophy of Kakoune really is excellent, but I want to put more relief now. Especially, I will write this blog article along the line of kak-tree-sitter, which is a UNIX server and daemon I’ve been writing to add support of tree-sitter.

Kakoune and the shell

Because Kakoune doesn’t have a plugin interface, you are limited to what is called kakspeak, which is basically what you can type in the command line (the : line). Contrary to other editors like Vim, everything you type in that : line can be laid out in a file (a .kak) and be interpreted directly. Another cool aspect about that is that you can just select some part of a .kak file, and simply type :^r.<cr> – in Kakoune, the . is the selection register. That will execute the Kakoune command.

This property is really good, but still, you are limited in what you can do. Among the command you will be running:

There is nothing to write plugins… except one thing.

String expansions

Kakoune has this concept of expanding strings. It’s the same feature as in any other editor: some strings can contain special keywords and identifiers to replace their content with what they hold. For instance, in your shell, it’s very likely that this string will contain your username: "$USER", or this will be the current year "$(date +%Y)". However, this will remain verbatim: '$(date +%Y)'. The reason is that, in a shell, " expands while ' doesn’t.

Kakoune has the same mechanism, but the syntax is different, and Kakoune has different source of expansions. For instance, %opt{foo} will be replaced why the foo option, that can be set with set-option. %val{timestamp} contains the current timestamp of the buffer, etc. etc.

There is one interesting expansion that Kakoune has: %sh{}. This is shell expansion. It will execute its content inside a thin shell. For instance, try open Kakoune and enter in the command line, something like :echo %sh{date +%Y}. You can see where we are going here. We can use that to run arbitrary shell commands.

Kakoune is monothreaded, so when you run a command in a shell, it blocks until the shell command finishes. On its own, it’s not that bad. It forces us to call short-living shell commands.

This mechanism allows us to run external programs, but it doesn’t tell us how we can call back Kakoune.

Kakoune and UNIX sockets

Kakoune is monothreaded, but it’s concurrent. It listens on a UNIX socket Kakoune commands that any external programs can send, via the kak -p interface.

I initially tried to send content to the UNIX socket programmatically, but it wasn’t planned for that, and hence hit issues while doing so. It hurts to say that but you have to spawn a programm running kak -p; forget about writing directly into the UNIX socket for now.

So, with this mechanism, we can:

  1. Run a short-living program via %sh{} expansion to talk to, for instance, a server, quickly accepting our request and treating asynchronously.
  2. Then, once the request is handled, send back the response to Kakoune by running a kak -p program, using the UNIX socket.

The cool thing is that Kakoune follows a server/client architecture and has a session identifier (you must pass it to kak -p). You can retrieve that value with %val{session} — and inside %sh{} expansion, it’s available as an environment variable $kak_session.

And here you have it. The formula I’ve been using successfully to add tree-sitter support to Kakoune. Whenever we need to highlight the buffer again, simply craft a small request to send to the kak-tree-sitter local server and immediately get control back (so that the UI doesn’t freeze). Then, at some point, the highlight request is computed and arrives via kak -p in Kakoune.

But you might have a question… how do I deal with the buffer content? Indeed, the only thing we can do with with %sh{} is starting a program in a shell. We could do something like laying the buffer content on the shell invocation but that’s seriously limiting (especially on giant buffers). We could put the content of the buffer in an environment variable, but it would suffer from the same problem (and damn it’s so dirty). What else?

The final part of the recipe: FIFOs

UNIX systems have this incredible thing called FIFOs. I FIFO — also named pipe — is a special kind of file. It lives on your filesystem (so it’s located at a given path), a bit like UNIX socket. However:

So it implements a rendez-vous buffer between a single reader and a single writer. And yes, the | in your shell is using something that behind the scene. The thing is: you can create your own, and you don’t even need to write any code. Enter the mkfifo program. For instance, you can try it out on your own by creating a FIFO (let’s call it rdv), reading its content with cat first (you’ll see the cat process freeze, so you will need another terminal session!) and then write content to it, for instance with echo:

mkfifo /tmp/rdv

# in shell 1
cat /tmp/rdv

# in shell 2
echo "Hello, world!" > /tmp/rdv

As seen as the echo starts writing, you can see cat return the result.

Now replace cat with tail -f 😏.

Anyway, Kakoune has a mechanism where it scans %sh{} blocks and it sees $kak_command_fifo and/or $kak_response_fifo, it will create those FIFOs for us (and manage their lifetimes). Because we are in the shell, we can write Kakoune commands to execute in $kak_command_fifo, which will be executed as soon as you’re done writing to the FIFO, and you can read $kak_response_fifo from, for instance, an external program, to get more data from Kakoune.

This is the exact mechanism that is used to stream buffer content between Kakoune and kak-tree-sitter. Here’s the Kakoune commands used to highlight a buffer:

# Send a single request to highlight the current buffer.
define-command kak-tree-sitter-highlight-buffer -docstring 'Highlight the current buffer' %{
  nop %sh{
    echo "evaluate-commands -no-hooks -verbatim write $kak_response_fifo" > $kak_command_fifo
    kak-tree-sitter -s $kak_session -c $kak_client -r "{\"type\":\"highlight\",\"buffer\":\"$kak_bufname\",\"lang\":\"$kak_opt_filetype\",\"timestamp\":$kak_timestamp,\"payload\":\"$kak_response_fifo\"}"

I won’t explain the protocol into two much details, but the important part is that I start a shell to run kak-tree-sitter … -r, format the request (it’s just plain JSON), and ask kak-tree-sitter -r to read from $kak_response_fifo. You can see in the previous line that we write to it (the write $kak_response_fifo basically means to write the content of the current buffer to $kak_response_fifo, which is a file — everything is a file in UNIX!).

kak-tree-sitter -r is made in a way so that it exits quickly. It will read from the FIFO file and forward the request to the kak-tree-sitter server, which, in turn, will move the request to a different thread so that it can quickly mark the request done. The whole thing is then synchronous, but extremely fast. The only bottleneck we have here (and mind it, it’s important) is that we must read from the FIFO synchronously in the shell kak-tree-sitter -r.

How’s it going?

I’ve been running with this setup for weeks now, since I started kak-tree-sitter around the end of April, 2023. The code you read above runs in a couple of Kakoune hooks (the same kak-lsp is using or very similar), which waits for a idle time after the buffer is edited (in practice, 50ms after the last edit operation). And it’s already fast enough.

However, there is a nice optimization that we could do here. See, the only reason to start a shell is to format the request to send to kak-tree-sitter, the server. We can completely by-pass it. Instead, we could:

This on its own should greatly enhance performance, which is already pretty good, even with the shell. I plan on working on this enhancement in the upcoming days.

Alright, but what’s wrong then?

Well, there is one thing. See, in order to support tree-sitter, I had to write this kak-tree-sitter server, and write buffer contents to FIFO files. kak-lsp is doing the same. All of that is synchronous, and even if it’s fast, it’s still two sequential locks of the buffer, copy of the buffer, etc. On my side, I’m currently exploring the %val{history} expanded variable, which contains the textedit operations (so that I don’t have to stream a full buffer and diff in kak-tree-sitter anymore, but instead just small chunks of updates).

However, the problem still holds. The design of Kakoune is nice when you’re working alone with your small integration, but when you have two big ones (LSP and tree-sitter are not small environments), I think Kakoune shows its limit.

We – @krobelus and I – discussed that matter. A middleware program or a change in how Kakoune interfaces with external programs, especially for buffer streaming, would be greatly appreciated. But it’s not currently the case. And even if we decide to come up with a middleware – that could act as a buffer cache / map, for instance – we would still be writing buffer contents to different FIFOs.

Another thing that I’ve been thinking about a lot is… is this the right approach? Something like tree-sitter seems to be ideal as an embedded library, directly inside the code of your editor. Especially since Kakoune is all about selections, being able to have semantic selections by default seems like something pretty good. tree-sitter requires some runtime resources (relocatable objects like .so / .dylib, queries, etc.)… and it’s the same thing with the regular Kakoune highlighters (by default, Kakoune doesn’t have any; they come bundled up with your distribution).

I’m not entirely sure the approach scales very well. Of course, I still think the design is excellent, and it prevents too much maintenance on Kakoune, which is also a good thing. For instance, this runtime resource problem is something I’m solving in kak-tree-sitter (and easing with a controller tool called ktsctl, which can download, compile and install grammars and queries for you), but still. The current version of kak-tree-sitter only supports semantic highlighting, not text-objects just yet (but it shouldn’t be too hard to add). The state of the project is not completly ready for people to jump in (the wiki is not written), but if you tag along on Matrix, I can help you get started.

Please consider kak-tree-sitter as an experimental project, because I’m not sure this is the right approach, even though it’s probably the only one for Kakoune for now (I don’t think @mawww plans on integrating it into the core of Kakoune).

Keep the vibes!

↑ Kakoune design analysis with kak-tree-sitter
editors, productivity-platforms
Fri Jun 9 19:20:00 2023 UTC