Sysmem overview

Sysmem is a FIDL service that allocates shared memory for use by multiple applications and hardware blocks. This document gives an overview of its major features and what it provides to the system.


Modern systems have specialized hardware blocks that can perform operations on data. Some examples of these blocks:

  • Rendering computer graphics with a GPU.
  • Encoding or decoding video with a hardware codec.
  • Capturing high-quality photographs with a camera and DSP.
  • Compositing images to a display using the display controller’s overlay engine.
  • Evaluating neural networks with a TPU.

Often, we want to create pipelines passing data between those separate hardware blocks. Some examples:

  • Decoding video with a hardware codec and compositing it to the display together with user interface content rendered on the GPU.
  • Applying a neural network to a live camera feed.

To do this efficiently and avoid copying, drivers and applications must agree on the format data is in and where the data is located in memory. This agreement allows the output of one unit to be used directly by the next. Hardware units have strict constraints on these properties and also preferences about which data layout will give the best performance.

Sysmem is a global service that can be fed constraints by applications and allocate buffers such that all the constraints are met. If multiple formats are supported, it can choose between them based on the expected performance.

Sysmem buffers are often used to represent images and sysmem has special support for negotiating image formats. However the sysmem interface can also be used for audio or any other type of data.

Sysmem does not manage the flow of data once buffers have been allocated. Applications in a pipeline are responsible for coordinating between each other to ensure synchronization.

Allocation process (simplified)

  1. Participants connect to the fuchsia.sysmem.Allocator service
  2. One participant (called the initiator) creates an initial buffer collection token.
  3. That participant duplicates the token and sends the duplicate to other participants.
  4. Those participants can also duplicate and send tokens, recursively, until all participants have received a token.
  5. Each participant binds its token to get a buffer collection.
  6. Each participant sets constraints on the buffer collection
  7. Sysmem chooses a format that can satisfy all the constraints. This can only happen after every participant has bound its token and set constraints on the collection.
  8. Sysmem allocates a number of buffers using that format.
  9. Participants retrieve the buffers from sysmem, as well as information about the allocated format.

The information returned by sysmem is the set of constraints the image formats in that buffer must satisfy.

At this point participants can use the buffers with the allocated format, subject to pipeline-specific constraints on the flow of data between participants. Since multiple image sizes may be usable from a buffer, participants must work together to choose an image size before they can determine the precise image format. This allows a pipeline to switch image sizes on the fly without needing to reallocate buffers.

If a new participant needs to be added to an existing collection which has already undergone constraint negotiation and allocation, a new token can be attached to the buffer collection. The new participant's constraints must be satisfied using the already-allocated buffer collection, or the logical allocation (from the point of view of the new participant) fails. To increase the chances that the new participant can be added successfully, one of the participants present during initial allocation can mark a token dispensable. This allows the token to be used to specify stand-in constraints so that the buffer collection will be able to later accommodate a new participant with the same constraints.

Buffer destruction

All references to a buffer must be removed before sysmem will destroy it and allow the memory to be reused. These include:



A buffer represents a single image or other piece of memory an application will work with. Sysmem currently uses one VMO per buffer. Clients can map the memory onto the CPU or pin it to use it with a hardware block.


A participant is any application or driver that wants to access a buffer. All participants must connect to sysmem to negotiate memory formats.

Image formats

An image format is the entire set of properties needed for a client to interpret the memory as a set of pixels. For example, it includes the pixel format, size in width and height, row pitch in bytes between rows, and color space.

Buffer settings

Buffer settings are a complete description of the properties of a buffer. These include the caching information, and other properties that participants may need to access the memory. For images the buffer settings will also have an image format.

Buffer settings do not include the specific memory address, so multiple different buffers may have the same buffer settings.


A heap represents one specific type of memory on a system. A system may have multiple heaps with different performance characteristics from each other. Some heaps may only be usable from a subset of hardware devices on a system.

Some heaps may not be accessible from the CPU. For those heaps, the VMO representing a buffer cannot be used directly but is instead used as a key. An application wishing to use the buffer must send its VMO handle to the heap driver and the heap driver can return information about what memory to use.

Example heaps:

  • Main system memory.
  • VRAM on a discrete GPU.
  • A carved-out area of system memory that's only usable by some pieces of hardware.


Constraints specify the set of BufferSettings that a participant is able to use. Participants often specify multiple potential buffer settings in a single set of constraints, which gives sysmem the flexibility to pick any of them and reduces the risk that there are no settings that can satisfy the constraints from all participants.


Negotiation is the process where sysmem looks at all the constraints from participants and chooses buffer settings that work for all of them. If multiple settings could work, sysmem can use information about how clients will use the buffer and the architecture of the system to choose the optimal settings.

Buffer collection

A buffer collection is a set of multiple buffers with all the same buffer settings. Sysmem allocates an entire buffer collection at once. Multiple participants may have FIDL channels open to the same buffer collection.

Buffer collection token

A token is used in the initial stages of the negotiation process before memory is allocated. Tokens can be duplicated and passed between processes before finally being bound to a buffer collection.