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GStreamer Internals
Benjamin Otte
Universität Hamburg, Germany
GStreamer is a multimedia streaming framework. It aims to provide developers
with an abstracted view on media files, while still allowing him to do all
modifications necessary for the different types ofmedia handling applications.
The framework is utilizes as a graph-based streaming architecture, which is
implemented in the GStreamer core. Being media agnostic, the Gstreamer core
uses a plugin-based architecture to provide the building blocks for streams
processing. The GStreamer plugins collection provides these building blocks
for multimedia processing.
While there is a good number of high-quality applications available today for
audio and video playback such as MPlayer[1] and Xine[2], none of these provide
a generic media processing backend and a lot of code duplication has been
going on when trying to provide a generic playback backend. On top of this,
most application backends are limited in their abilities and only provide
solutions for the problem space of the application. GStreamer tries to
overcome these issues by providing a generic infrastructure that allows
creating all sorts of applications. The applications show the flexibility of
this approach. Examples are Rhythmbox[3], an audio player, Totem[4], a video
player, Marlin[5], an audio editor, /*FIXME*/[6], an audio synthesis
application and fluendo[7], a video streaming server.
Although the GStreamer framework's focus is multimedia processing, the core
has been used outside the real of multimedia, for example in the gst-sci
package[8] that provides statistical data analysis.
This paper focusses on the GStreamer core and explains the goals of the
framework and how the core tries to achieve these by following a simple
mp3 playback example.
To allow easy extensibility, the complete media processing functionality
inside GStreamer is provided via plugins. Upon initialization a plugin
registeres its different capabilities with the GStreamer library. These
capabilities are schedulers, typefind functions or - most common - elements.
The capabilities of plugins are recorded inside the registry.
The registry
The registry is a cache file that is used to inspect certain plugin capabilities
without the need to load the plugin. As an example those stored capabilites
enabled automatically determining which plugins must be loaded in order to
decode a certain media file.
The gst-register(1) command updates the registry file. The gst-inspect(1)
command allows querying plugins and their capabilities.
[Add: output of gst-inspect gstelements]
Elements are at the main building block inside GStreamer. An element takes
data from 0 to n input sink pads, processes it and produces data for 0 to n
output source pads. Pads are used to enable data flow between elements in
GStreamer. A pad can be viewed as a "place" or "port" on an element where
links may be made with other elements, and through which data can flow to or
from those elements. For the most part, all data in GStreamer flows one way
through a link between elements. Data flows out of one element through one or
more source pads, and elements accept incoming data through one or more sink
pads. Elements are ordered in a tree structure by putting them inside
container elements, called bins. This allows to operate only on the toplevel
element (called the pipeline element) which propagates these operations to the
contained elements.
[Add: gst-editor with a simple mp3 decoder]
There exists a simple command line tool to quickly construct media pipelines,
called gst-launch. It helps to get comfortable with using it when developing
code for or with GStreamer. /* FIXME: write more? */
As an example the pipeline above would be presented by the command gst-launch
filesrc ! mad ! alsasink
The sample program
/* note that the sample program does not do error checking for simplicities
* sake */
main (int argc, char **argv)
GstElement *pipeline;
gst_init (&argc, &argv);
pipeline = gst_parse_launch ("filesrc location=./music.mp3 ! mad ! osssink",
gst_element_set_state (pipeline, GST_STATE_PLAYING);
while (gst_bin_iterate (GST_BIN (pipeline)));
gst_object_unref (GST_OBJECT (pipeline));
Step 1: gst_init
gst_init initializes the GStreamer library. The most important part here is
loading information from the registry. The other important part is preparing
the subsystems that need it. It also processes the command line options and
environment variables specific to GStreamer, like the debugging options.
The debugging subsystem
GStreamer includes a powerful debugging subsystem. The need for such a system
becomes apparent when looking at the way GStreamer works. It is built out of
little independet elements that process unknown data for long times with or
without user intervention, realtime requirements or other factors that can
affect processing. Debugging messages are divided into named categories and 5
levels for importance, ranging from "log" to "error". Desired debugging output
can be specified either on the command line or as environment variable
Step 2: creating the pipeline
A pipeline is set up by creating an element tree, setting options on these
elements and finally linking their pads.
Elements are created from their element factories. Element factories contain
information about elements loaded from the registry. Getting the right element
factory is done by either knowing its name (in the example "filesrc" is such a
name) or querying the features of element factories and then deciding which
one to use. Upon requesting an element, the element factory automatically
loads the required plugin and returns a newly created element.
Setting options on elements can be achieved in 2 ways. Either by knowing the
GObject properties of the element and setting the property directly (the
location property of filesrc is set in the example pipeline) or by using
interfaces. Interfaces are used when there is a set of elements that allows the
same features in a different context. For example there is an interface for
setting tags that is implemented by different encoding plugins that support
tag writing as well as tag changing plugins. Another example would be the
mixer interface that allows changing the volume of an audio element. It is
implemented by different audio sinks (oss, alsa) as well as the generic volume
changing element. There is a set of interfaces included in the GStreamer
Plugins plugin set, but people are of course free to add interfaces and
elements implementing them.
The last step in creating a pipeline is linking pads. When attempting to link
two pads, GStreamer checks that a link is possible and if so, links them. After
they are linked data may pass through this link. Most of the time (just like
in this example) convenience funtions are used that automatically select the
right elements to connect inside a GStreamer pipeline.
Step 3: setting the state
GStreamer elements know of four different states: NULL, READY, PAUSED and
PLAYING. Each state and more important each state transition allows and
requires different things from elements. State transitions are done step by
step internally. (Note that in the following description state transitions in
opposite directions can be assumed to do exactly the reverse thing.) Every
transition may fail to succeed. In that case the gst_element_set_state
function will return an error.
GST_STATE_NULL is the 'uninitialized' state. Since it is always possible to
create an element, nothing that might require interaction or can fail is done
while creating the element. During the state transition elements are supposed
to initialize external ressources. A file source opens its file, X elements
open connections to the X server etc. This ensures that all elements can
provide the best possible information about their capabilities during future
interactions. The GStreamer core essentially does nothing. After this
transition all external dependencies are initialized and supposed to work and
the element is ready to start.
During this state change all internal dependencies are resolved. The GStreamer
core tries to resolve links between pads by negotiating capabilites of pads.
(See below for an explanation.) The schedulers will prepare the elements for
playback and the elements will prepare their internal data structures. After
this state change is successful, nearly all elements are done with their setup.
The major difference between these two states is that in the playing state
data is processed. Therefore the two major things happening here are the
schedulers finishing their setup and readying their elements to run and the
clocking subsystem starting the clocks. After this state change succeeded
elements' processing function may finally be called.
capabilities (or short: caps) and negotiation
"Caps" are the format descriptions of the data passed. A caps is a list of
structures. Each structure describes one "mime type" by n properties and its
name. Note that "mime type" is used escaped because there is no 1:1 mapping
between GStreamer caps names and real world mime types though GStreamer tries
to orient itself at those. Properties are either fixed values, ranges or lists
of values. There's also two special caps: any and empty.
The mathematicians reading this should think of caps as a mathematical set of
formats that is a union of the formats described in every structure. The
GStreamer core provides functions to union, intersect and subtract caps or
test them for various conditions (subsets, equality, etc).
The negotiation phase works as follows: Both pads figure out all possible caps
for themselves - most of the time depending on caps on other pads in the
element. The core then takes those, intersects them and if the intersection
isn't empty fixates them. Fixation is a process that selects the best possible
fixed caps from a caps. A fixed caps is a caps that describes only one format
and cannot be reduced further. After both pads accepted the fixed caps, its
format is then used to describe the contents of the buffers that are passed on
this link. Caps can be serialized and deserialized to a string representation.
[Add: a medium complex caps description (audioconvert?)]
1. Mplayer media player -
2. Xine media player -
3. Rhythmbox audio player -
4. Totem video player - /* FIXME? */
5. Marlin sample editor -
6. /* FIXME */
7. Fluendo -
8. gst-sci - /*FIXME */