Home > Articles > Operating Systems, Server

A Look at the Modern X Server

Since its creation in the early '80s, X has evolved considerably through a series of incremental changes. David Chisnall looks at the state of a modern X server and how it differs from its ancestor in a number of ways.
Like this article? We recommend

Like this article? We recommend

When Apple introduced OS X, it chose to use its own proprietary GUI instead of X11. This provoked some criticism from the community. Mike Paquette, who did much of the design work on the system, replied, saying that they could have used X, but if they had they would have had to extend it in so many ways it would have been almost unrecognizable. Since then, Keith Packard and a few others have done exactly that.

The X Window System is conceptually very simple. It provides a mechanism for assigning a region of the screen onto which an application can draw (with a clipping region to prevent it from drawing over other applications’ windows), some inter-window communication systems, and very little else.

As a result, X earns an entire chapter in the UNIX Haters’ Handbook because it has lead to a large number of mostly incompatible extensions. Everyone adds their own widget sets on top of X, and even extended the core protocol in different ways.

At one point, there were three different extensions for providing support to screensavers, for example. At the height of the UNIX wars, each vendor was adding their own extensions to the reference implementation, causing interoperability headaches for everyone. This has largely been resolved now, since most people use the x.org X server.

I Can See Right Through You

One thing that has traditionally been hard for X11 is transparent windows. X is designed for network transparency and it includes a number of optimizations so that windows are not updated when they are not visible. But the problem extended deeper into the drawing model used by X. A system such as OS X’s Quartz gets transparency very easily; every window is drawn to an off-screen buffer, and then composited together to provide the final image.

Any of these buffers can have an alpha (transparency) value associated with it, allowing some very shiny visual effects. This was impossible with X. A lot of hacks were used, such as inspecting the pixel values of all the overlapping windows and then performing the compositing in the application that wanted the translucent window, but this was a lot of effort and not a general solution.

The Composite extension provided part of the solution. Using this extension, it is possible to redirect drawing of a window to an off-screen buffer. This buffer is then drawn to the screen using the RENDER extension. The Composite extension is very simple. Any window (and its children) can be redirected to an off-screen Picture, which is an opaque data type representing the image. It can also be retrieved as a pixmap as of version 0.2 of the standard. After this redirection, drawing the window to the screen is no longer the responsibility of the X server.

The RENDER extension, often known as XRender, is somewhat more complicated. Among other things, RENDER allows a Porter-Duff compositing of the off-screen Pictures created by the Composite extension. This allows translucency in a very general way, since windows with an alpha value will have this used in their compositing operations. This compositing is typically done by a compositing manager.

One of the design goals of X11 was the separation of policy and mechanism. Keith Packard has been an active member of the development community since around 1988, when X was still in its infancy, and so it should come as no surprise that he maintained these principles in his latest modifications. X does not, for example, draw decorations around windows for supporting things like moving and resizing, it relies on a window manager to do this. A compositing manager is conceptually similar; it provides the policy, while the X server provides the mechanism.

When using a composting manager, it is common for all of the windows to be drawn off-screen and then composited onto the root window. During this process, a number of additional effects can be applied. One common example is adding drop shadows to a window, with a larger one on the active window giving a visual clue that it is in the foreground.

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020