Aaron Klotz at Mozilla

My adventures as a member of Mozilla’s Platform Integration Team

Asynchronous Plugin Initialization: Requiem

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My colleague bsmedberg njn is going to be removing asynchronous plugin initialization in bug 1352575. Sadly the feature never became solid enough to remain enabled on release, so we cut our losses and cancelled the project early in 2016. Now that code is just a bunch of dead weight. With the deprecation of non-Flash NPAPI plugins in Firefox 52, our developers are now working on simplifying the remaining NPAPI code as much as possible.

Obviously the removal of that code does not prevent me from discussing some of the more interesting facets of that work.

Today I am going to talk about how async plugin init worked when web content attempted to access a property on a plugin’s scriptable object, when that plugin had not yet completed its asynchronous initialization.

As described on MDN, the DOM queries a plugin for scriptability by calling NPP_GetValue with the NPPVpluginScriptableNPObject constant. With async plugin init, we did not return the true NPAPI scriptable object back to the DOM. Instead we returned a surrogate object. This meant that we did not need to synchronously wait for the plugin to initialize before returning a result back to the DOM.

If the DOM subsequently called into that surrogate object, the surrogate would be forced to synchronize with the plugin. There was a limit on how much fakery the async surrogate could do once the DOM needed a definitive answer – after all, the NPAPI itself is entirely synchronous. While you may question whether the asynchronous surrogate actually bought us any responsiveness, performance profiles and measurements that I took at the time did indeed demonstrate that the asynchronous surrogate did buy us enough additional concurrency to make it worthwhile. A good number of plugin instantiations were able to complete in time before the DOM had made a single invocation on the surrogate.

Once the surrogate object had synchronized with the plugin, it would then mostly act as a pass-through to the plugin’s real NPAPI scriptable object, with one notable exception: property accesses.

The reason for this is not necessarily obvious, so allow me to elaborate:

The DOM usually sets up a scriptable object as follows:


this.__proto__.__proto__.__proto__
  • Where this is the WebIDL object (ie, content’s <embed> element);
  • Whose prototype is the NPAPI scriptable object;
  • Whose prototype is the shared WebIDL prototype;
  • Whose prototype is Object.prototype.

NPAPI is reentrant (some might say insanely reentrant). It is possible (and indeed common) for a plugin to set properties on the WebIDL object from within the plugin’s NPP_New.

Suppose that the DOM tries to access a property on the plugin’s WebIDL object that is normally set by the plugin’s NPP_New. In the asynchronous case, the plugin’s initialization might still be in progress, so that property might not yet exist.

In the case where the property does not yet exist on the WebIDL object, JavaScript fails to retrieve an “own” property. It then moves on to the first prototype and attempts to resolve the property on that. As outlined above, this prototype would actually be the async surrogate. The async surrogate would then be in a situation where it must absolutely produce a definitive result, so this would trigger synchronization with the plugin. At this point the plugin would be guaranteed to have finished initializing.

Now we have a problem: JS was already examining the NPAPI scriptable object when it blocked to synchronize with the plugin. Meanwhile, the plugin went ahead and set properties (including the one that we’re interested in) on the WebIDL object. By the time that JS execution resumes, it would already be looking too far up the prototype chain to see those new properties!

The surrogate needed to be aware of this when it synchronized with the plugin during a property access. If the plugin had already completed its initialization (thus rendering synchronization unnecessary), the surrogate would simply pass the property access on to the real NPAPI scriptable object. On the other hand, if a synchronization was performed, the surrogate would first retry the WebIDL object by querying for the WebIDL object’s “own” properties, and return the own property if it now existed. If no own property existed on the WebIDL object, then the surrogate would revert to its “pass through all the things” behaviour.

If I hadn’t made the asynchronous surrogate scriptable object do that, we would have ended up with a strange situation where the DOM’s initial property access on an embed could fail non-deterministically during page load.

That’s enough chatter for today. I enjoy blogging about my crazy hacks that make the impossible, umm… possible, so maybe I’ll write some more of these in the future.

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