Before drawing any visuals on screen, the compositor must ensure it owns the screen it wishes to draw on. If it doesn’t, the results won’t look good, as multiple processes or the kernel may draw over the compositor’s output1.

In Linux, VT subsystem draws terminals across multiple screens attached to computer2, so the compositor needs to cooperate with it. The VT subsystem emulates multiple physical consoles on a single display, providing functionality to add, destroy and switch between these consoles.

Consoles are numbered beginning from 1 and represented as character devices /dev/ttyN. Only one of them is active at a time. /dev/tty0 is an alias for the currently active console.

Text/graphics mode

Every console can be in text or graphics mode. In text mode, the VT subsystem manages text rendering, cursor display and idle blanking. In graphics mode, the VT subsystem does not do anything. To draw anything on the screen, the compositor must pick a console and switch it to graphics mode. On exit, it must restore the previous mode; otherwise the text console will not be redrawn3.

The text/graphic mode is selected by ioctl KDSETMODE.

VT switching

Switching between consoles begins by pressing a special key4 (managed by the kernel itself), or by issuing ioctl VT_ACTIVATE5.

The kernel manages the saving and restoring of content for consoles in text mode. For graphics consoles, the kernel expects applications to self-redraw.

Auto/process-controlled VT switching

Every console can be in one of two modes:

  • automatic VT switching,
  • process-controlled VT switching.

The mode is selected by ioctl VT_SETMODE that takes three parameters:

  • the mode: auto or process-controlled6,
  • the signal sent on console deactivation (release signal)
  • the signal sent on console activation (acquire signal).

The process that called this ioctl becomes the console owner.

If the console is in auto mode, nothing happens when it is activated (switched to) or deactivated (swiched from).

If the console is in process-controlled mode, both its activation and deactivation are coordinated with the owning process:

  • on deactivation, the kernel sends the release signal to the owning process. The kernel then waits for that process to call ioctl VT_RELDISP, marking the console as released.
  • The same procedure occurs on console activation: the acquire signal is sent to the owner of the console being switched to.


  • console_ioctl(4)
  • seatd source code
  • Xfree86 source code


  1. For instance, if compositor is started from the virtual console, using it directly instead of switching to a new one, and without compositor telling VT to stop drawing, its own stdout and stderr will overwrite its output. ↩︎

  2. If it is not compiled with CONFIG_VT=n↩︎

  3. Actually, Linux includes a kludge for this situation: whenever console switch occurs, it checks whether the owning process has died. If it did, Linux switches the console back to text mode. ↩︎

  4. The Linux console input map provides actions “switch to console N”, “switch to next console” and “switch to previous console”. Typcially, these actions are bound to key combinations [Ctrl+]Alt+FnX, [Ctrl+]Alt+{Left,Right}. ↩︎

  5. That’s how X server and Wayland compositors implement switching to another VT. They disable the VT console input, so they must handle the keys themselves. ↩︎

  6. ioctl_console(2) manpage also mentions VT_ACKACQ, but it’s not a mode; instead, it’s an argument for VT_RELDISP↩︎