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3. The X Window System Architecture: overview

X was designed with a client-server architecture. The applications themselves are the clients; they communicate with the server and issue requests, also receiving information from the server.

The X server maintains exclusive control of the display and services requests from the clients. At this point, the advantages of using this model are pretty clear. Applications (clients) only need to know how to communicate with the server, and need not be concerned with the details of talking to the actual graphics display device. At the most basic level, a client tells the server stuff like "draw a line from here to here", or "render this string of text, using this font, at this position on-screen".

This would be no different from just using a graphics library to write our application. However the X model goes a step further. It doesn't constrain the client being in the same computer as the server. The protocol used to communicate between clients and server can work over a network, or actually, any "inter-process communication mechanism that provides a reliable octet stream". Of course, the preferred way to do this is by using the TCP/IP protocols. As we can see, the X model is really powerful; the classical example of this is running a processor-intensive application on a Cray computer, a database monitor on a Solaris server, an e-mail application on a small BSD mail server, and a visualization program on an SGI server, and then displaying all those on my Linux workstation's screen.

So far we've seen that the X server is the one handling the actual graphics display. Also, since it's the X server which runs on the physical, actual computer the user is working on, it's the X server's responsibility to perform all actual interactions with the user. This includes reading the mouse and keyboard. All this information is relayed to the client, which of course will have to react to it.

X provides a library, aptly called Xlib, which handles all low-level client-server communication tasks. It sounds obvious that, then, the client has to invoke functions contained within Xlib to get work done.

At this point everything seems to be working fine. We have a server in charge of visual output and data input, client applications, and a way for them to communicate between each other. In picturing a hypothetical interaction between a client and a server, the client could ask the server to assign a rectangular area on the screen. Being the client, I'm not concerned with where i'm being displayed on the screen. I just tell the server "give me an area X by Y pixels in size", and then call functions to perform actions like "draw a line from here to there", "tell me whether the user is moving the mouse in my screen area" and so on.