kak-tree-sitter v0.4.0 announcement and reflections

Currently, Kakoune doesn’t support writing to files with a timeout, which could help. kak-tree-sitter is a UNIX server bridging Kakoune with tree-sitter, supporting semantic highlighting, text-objects, indent guidelines and more!

I want to use the opportunity of releasing kak-tree-sitter in version v0.4.0 to talk about what’s new but also explain a bit the new protocol used to make Kakoune communicate with the server and vice versa. I think it’s a pretty fun (and efficient!) way of making things, and it can give people ideas.

What’s new?

This new version adds a bunch of things to kak-tree-sitter. Among the interesting things:

Full changelog here.

Additionnaly, you get v0.4.1, which also brings some interesting changes:

New protocol?

So yes, the big improvement is the introduction of a new communication protocol between Kakoune and kak-tree-sitter. Before v0.4.0, the way things worked was:

  1. The user typically starts the server from their kakrc, with a line such as eval %sh{ kak-tree-sitter --kakoune --daemon --session $kak_session }.
  2. This blocks the editor while the server is starting. Because --daemon is passed, once the server is ready, it’s going to daemonize so that its main process exits and Kakoune gets control back.
  3. The --kakoune argument does one important thing: it asks the server to send some data back to the editor, once the server is initialized. The data is sent back via the UNIX socket of Kakoune (kak -p). The session is known via --session $kak_session.
  4. The data is basically a bunch of options, commands and hooks that automatically call back to the server when a buffer is opened with a supported filetype. Each command are wrapped in a %sh{} block, and uses the kak-tree-sitter -r interface to format requests as JSON.
  5. For highlighting requests, the FIFO interface of Kakoune (i.e. kak_command_fifo and kak_response_fifo) is used to stream buffer content via write.

What was the issue with that? Well, all those %sh{} implied to open a shell everytime we wanted to perform a request to the server. And for highlighting, that happens very often (by default, the trigger hook runs for NormalIdle and InsertIdle, but you can easily imagine that it runs almost on all keypresses modifying the window or the buffer). That’s a lot. I quickly came to the realization that I wanted something… faster and with less layers.

See, this kak_command_fifo and kak_response_fifo are pretty interesting FIFO files. The idea is that Kakoune handles their lifetimes, and they work when you do shell expansions (i.e. %sh{}). You can write to the $kak_command_fifo Kakoune commands to be executed. This allows to execute Kakoune commands interleaved with shell commands. You can then use $kak_response_fifo to write back results from Kakoune. I used to write the content of buffers to $kak_response_fifo and pass the path to this FIFO in the highlight requests so that the server just had to read from the FIFO and provide the highlights back to Kakoune asynchronously, via kak -p.

FIFOs are wonderful because you can think about them as a 1-1 blocking rendez-vous point between a producer and a consumer. If a consumer arrives, it blocks until a writer arrives and starts writing, and a writer won’t write until a consumer arrives. FIFOs do not live on your disk, so writing to them (i.e. write syscall) is super fast and can be tought as memory-to-memory communication. It’s honestly pretty good.

However, we still have to open a shell to send the requests to the server with this approach… so I needed something else.


The idea is actually pretty simple: we can use FIFOs to send requests, in the end. If we have one FIFO for each Kakoune session, we know that we should only have one writer (i.e. the Kakoune session), and we have a single consumer (the KTS server). Inside Kakoune, writing to files can be done with the echo -to-file and write command, and we don’t need a shell for that!

Now the important thing is that Kakoune doesn’t know the path to the FIFO to write requests to, so we still need a way to get that information. I had two different ideas:

  1. We could standardize the place by using the session name. For instance, $XDG_RUNTIME_DIR/kak-tree-sitter/commands/$kak_session.
  2. Or we could let the server send the path asynchronously, since a Kakoune starting session doesn’t know anything about the server initially.

Currently, this is done with the --kakoune flag. The data that is sent back to the editor contains options (e.g. %opt{kts_cmd_fifo_path}) so that we know where to write requests.

In the future, I might actually just standardize the location, since it’s not a random temporary directory.

The installed hooks, in the kak-tree-sitter group, will contain only a few options, mostly set in the global scope. The main hook is run whenever a new window is open on a given buffer. A FIFO request is made to KTS with the filetype (to be more correct, %opt{kts_lang}) and if KTS has the runtime files for this language (grammar, queries, etc.), it will send back more data to Kakoune, that will be set for the buffer scope. This code will contain the actual interesting hooks (e.g. NormalIdle and InsertIdle) that will make more FIFO requests to, for instance, highlightthe buffer.

The content of the buffer is streamed via a FIFO, too — %opt{kts_buf_fifo_path}. Using this pair of FIFOs, we can send requests to the server and stream buffer content by just using echo -to-file and write Kakoune commands. No more shell expansions on the hot path!

Note: currently, buffers must be entirely read by kak-tree-sitter because the diffing algorithm is done by tree-sitter-highlight, which was great as a PoC, but not ideal now. Partial updates using %val{history} and %val{uncommitted_modifications} are planned for a future release.

The only drawback of this approach is that, because we are writing to FIFO files… if one side of the channel is not there, the other side will block and hang. That could lead to Kakoune freezing (for instance, if you kill the server before trying to quit the editor). However, this is unlikely to happen and is an acceptable tradeoff to me.

Currently, Kakoune doesn’t support writing to files with a timeout, which could help.


This new release is exciting to me. I have learned many things, especially regarding mio vs. tokio (all of those FIFOs requires a lot of IO synchronization) and optimizing. This new pair of FIFO per session made me realize that, besides the initial “setup” that requires a shell, we can perfectly communicate with the external world by only writing to files. In UNIX, everything is, indeed, a file!

The next releases will focus on two main topics:

  1. Optimizing even further highlighting, by streaming buffer updates instead of streaming its content. That will massively increase performance for large buffers.
  2. New features! I plan on adding theming (the current situation is weird); semantic selections (of course) and… indent guidelines!

If you would like to know more about kak-tree-sitter, head over to the wiki, which is up to date with v0.4.1.

Have fun and keep the vibes!

↑ kak-tree-sitter v0.4 and reflections
editors, productivity-platforms
Tue Aug 29 10:35:00 2023 UTC