Aaron Klotz at Mozilla

My adventures as a member of Mozilla’s GeckoView Team

2018 Roundup: Q2, Part 2 - Implementing a Skeletal Launcher Process

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This is the third post in my “2018 Roundup” series. For an index of all entries, please see my blog entry for Q1.

Yes, you are reading the dates correctly: I am posting this nearly two years after I began this series. I am trying to get caught up on documenting my past work!

One of the things I added to Firefox for Windows was a new process called the “launcher process.” “Bootstrap process” would be a better name, but we already used the term “bootstrap” for our XPCOM initialization code. Instead of overloading that term and adding potential confusion, I opted for using “launcher process” instead.

The launcher process is intended to be the first process that runs when the user starts Firefox. Its sole purpose is to create the “real” browser process in a suspended state, set various attributes on the browser process, resume the browser process, and then self-terminate.

In bug 1454745 I implemented an initial skeletal (and opt-in) implementation of the launcher process.

This seems like pretty straightforward code, right? Naïvely, one could just rip a CreateProcess sample off of MSDN and call it day. The actual launcher process implementation is more complicated than that, for reasons that I will outline in the following sections.

Built into firefox.exe

I wanted the launcher process to exist as a special “mode” of firefox.exe, as opposed to a distinct executable.


By definition, the launcher process lies on the critical path to browser startup. I needed to be very conscious of how we affect overall browser startup time.

Since the launcher process is built into firefox.exe, I needed to examine that executable’s existing dependencies to ensure that it is not loading any dependent libraries that are not actually needed by the launcher process. Other than the essential Win32 DLLs kernel32.dll and advapi32.dll (and their dependencies), I did not want anything else to load. In particular, I wanted to avoid loading user32.dll and/or gdi32.dll, as this would trigger the initialization of Windows’ GUI facilities, which would be a huge performance killer. For that reason, most browser-mode library dependencies of firefox.exe are either delay-loaded or are explicitly loaded via LoadLibrary.

Safe Mode

We wanted the launcher process to both respect Firefox’s safe mode, as well as alter its behaviour as necessary when safe mode is requested.

There are multiple mechanisms used by Firefox to detect safe mode. The launcher process detects all of them except for one: Testing whether the user is holding the shift key. Retrieving keyboard state would trigger loading of user32.dll, which would harm performance as I described above.

This is not too severe an issue in practice: The browser process itself would still detect the shift key. Furthermore, while the launcher process may in theory alter its behaviour depending on whether or not safe mode is requested, none of its behaviour changes are significant enough to materially affect the browser’s ability to start in safe mode.

Also note that, for serious cases where the browser is repeatedly unable to start, the browser triggers a restart in safe mode via environment variable, which is a mechanism that the launcher process honours.

Testing and Automation

We wanted the launcher process to behave well with respect to automated testing.

The skeletal launcher process that I landed in Q2 included code to pass its console handles on to the browser process, but there was more work necessary to completely handle this case. These capabilities were not yet an issue because the launcher process was opt-in at the time.

Error Recovery

We wanted the launcher process to gracefully handle failures even though, also by definition, it does not have access to facilities that internal Gecko code has, such as preferences and the crash reporter.

The skeletal launcher process that I landed in Q2 did not yet utilize any special error handling code, but this was also not yet an issue because the launcher process was opt-in at this point.

Next Time

Thanks for reading! Coming up in Q2, Part 3: Fleshing Out the Launcher Process