# Neovim: input encoding and you

In my guise as a Neovim developer, I was recently looking at how vim handles character encoding. This lead me down a rabbit hole that I haven’t seen the end of yet. This article describes what I’ve learned and what’s left to discover.

Disclaimer: when I talk about Vim I will sometimes refer to Vim as opposed to Neovim, and sometimes to mean both Vim and Neovim. The context should hopefully make clear which one I mean.

## The impetus

It all started when I was reading over the changes of PR #1357 1. I’ve always wanted to know more about how Vim does character encoding, and there was a commit in this PR that started me on the path: input/job: process ctrl+c and do conversion in the read callback. I got curious, what does convert_input() do? Does it have anything to do with encoding? Let’s investigate.

## Input encoding

The function is short enough to paste below. It is pretty unique to Neovim, as it was wrought for its brand new event-oriented nature:

struct rbuffer {
char *data;
size_t capacity, rpos, wpos;
RStream *rstream;
};

typedef struct rbuffer RBuffer;

static void convert_input(void)
{
if (embedded_mode || !rbuffer_available(input_buffer)) {
// No input buffer space
return;
}

bool convert = input_conv.vc_type != CONV_NONE;
// Set unconverted data/length
size_t converted_length = data_length;

if (convert) {
// Perform input conversion according to input_conv
size_t unconverted_length = 0;
data = (char *)string_convert_ext(&input_conv,
(uint8_t *)data,
(int *)&converted_length,
(int *)&unconverted_length);
data_length -= unconverted_length;
}

// The conversion code will be gone eventually, for now assume input_buffer
// always has space for the converted data(it's many times the size of
// read_buffer, so it's hard to imagine a scenario where the converted data
// doesn't fit)
assert(converted_length <= rbuffer_available(input_buffer));
// Write processed data to input buffer.
(void)rbuffer_write(input_buffer, data, converted_length);

if (convert) {
// data points to memory allocated by string_convert_ext, free it.
free(data);
}
}

To summarize, this function copies bytes from the read_buffer to the input_buffer. note: The read_buffer is filled every time there is data available on stdin in another part of the code.

If input_conv.vc_type is CONV_NONE, copying is all it really does (rbuffer_write() is basically memcpy()). The interesting part comes when it isn’t CONV_NONE: string_convert_ext() gets called to supposedly convert the character encoding into the desired format.

What’s the desired format? How does that get decided? For that we have to search to where input_conv is initialized. Before looking at the code, my assumption was that it had to with either the Vim options encoding, termencoding or both. Abridged version of the help:

encoding: Sets the character encoding used inside Vim. It applies to text in the buffers, registers, Strings in expressions, text stored in the viminfo file, etc. It sets the kind of characters which Vim can work with. See |encoding-names| for the possible values.

termencoding: Encoding used for the terminal. This specifies what character encoding the keyboard produces and the display will understand. For the GUI it only applies to the keyboard ( ‘encoding’ is used for the display).

I will refer to encoding as the internal encoding, and to termencoding as the terminal encoding.

Indeed, in option.c we find the most important of only two places where input_conv is set. It’s in did_set_string_option(), which gets called whenever an option is changed. The part that governs the *encoding options reads like this (ignoring printencoding):

/* handle setting 'encoding', 'fileencoding' and 'termecoding' */
else if (varp == &p_enc || gvarp == &p_fenc || varp == &p_tenc) {
if (gvarp == &p_fenc) {
if (!curbuf->b_p_ma && opt_flags != OPT_GLOBAL)
errmsg = e_modifiable;
else if (vim_strchr(*varp, ',') != NULL)
/* No comma allowed in 'fileencoding'; catches confusing it
* with 'fileencodings'. */
errmsg = e_invarg;
else {
/* May show a "+" in the title now. */
redraw_titles();
/* Add 'fileencoding' to the swap file. */
ml_setflags(curbuf);
}
}

if (errmsg == NULL) {
/* canonize the value, so that STRCMP() can be used on it */
p = enc_canonize(*varp);
free(*varp);
*varp = p;
if (varp == &p_enc) {
errmsg = mb_init();
redraw_titles();
}
}

if (errmsg == NULL) {
/* When 'keymap' is used and 'encoding' changes, reload the keymap
* (with another encoding). */
if (varp == &p_enc && *curbuf->b_p_keymap != NUL)
(void)keymap_init();

/* When 'termencoding' is not empty and 'encoding' changes or when
* 'termencoding' changes, need to setup for keyboard input and
* display output conversion. */
if (((varp == &p_enc && *p_tenc != NUL) || varp == &p_tenc)) {
convert_setup(&input_conv, p_tenc, p_enc);
convert_setup(&output_conv, p_enc, p_tenc);
}

}
}

Luckily, the three encoding options are more or less handled in one block, as they’re intertwined. The first part only applies to fileencoding so we can skip it for now. The second part canonizes the name of the encoding via enc_canonize(), and if the option in question was encoding then Vim changes its internal encoding by calling mb_init().

Changing encoding means Vim handles all internal text buffers differently. mb_init() does not change the encoding of text already loaded into Vim, it merely makes Vim interpret it differently. This is also why the Vim help advises to set it only during startup as setting it after loading files could have strange effects. Especially when going from a more capable encoding like UTF-8 to a less capable one like latin-1, expect a lot of very strange symbols. Quoting the Vim help:

encoding: … Changing this option will not change the encoding of the existing text in Vim. It may cause non-ASCII text to become invalid. It should normally be kept at its default value, or set when Vim starts up. See |multibyte|. To reload the menus see |:menutrans|.

The last part of the code in options.c is the one I was originally looking for, as it pertains to input encoding. To repeat the most interesting part:

/* When 'termencoding' is not empty and 'encoding' changes or when
* 'termencoding' changes, need to setup for keyboard input and
* display output conversion. */
if (((varp == &p_enc && *p_tenc != NUL) || varp == &p_tenc)) {
convert_setup(&input_conv, p_tenc, p_enc);
convert_setup(&output_conv, p_enc, p_tenc);
}

So, if encoding has changed and termencoding is non-empty, OR the termencoding has changed, the conversion structures input_conv and output_conv are set up.

• On the input side, i.e. what you type on the keyboard, a conversion from the terminal encoding to the internal encoding is done.
• On the output side, i.e. what you see in the terminal, a conversion from the internal encoding to the terminal encoding is done.

That makes perfect sense, of course. It would appear that convert_setup() is a pretty important function, let’s have a look.

/*
* Setup "vcp" for conversion from "from" to "to".
* The names must have been made canonical with enc_canonize().
* vcp->vc_type must have been initialized to CONV_NONE.
* Note: cannot be used for conversion from/to ucs-2 and ucs-4 (will use utf-8
* Afterwards invoke with "from" and "to" equal to NULL to cleanup.
* Return FAIL when conversion is not supported, OK otherwise.
*/
int convert_setup(vimconv_T *vcp, char_u *from, char_u *to)
{
return convert_setup_ext(vcp, from, true, to, true);
}

/*
* As convert_setup(), but only when from_unicode_is_utf8 is TRUE will all
* "from" unicode charsets be considered utf-8.  Same for "to".
*/
int convert_setup_ext(vimconv_T *vcp, char_u *from, bool from_unicode_is_utf8,
char_u *to, bool to_unicode_is_utf8)
{
int from_prop;
int to_prop;
int from_is_utf8;
int to_is_utf8;

/* Reset to no conversion. */
# ifdef USE_ICONV
if (vcp->vc_type == CONV_ICONV && vcp->vc_fd != (iconv_t)-1)
iconv_close(vcp->vc_fd);
# endif
vcp->vc_type = CONV_NONE;
vcp->vc_factor = 1;
vcp->vc_fail = false;

/* No conversion when one of the names is empty or they are equal. */
if (from == NULL || *from == NUL || to == NULL || *to == NUL
|| STRCMP(from, to) == 0)
return OK;

from_prop = enc_canon_props(from);
to_prop = enc_canon_props(to);
if (from_unicode_is_utf8)
from_is_utf8 = from_prop & ENC_UNICODE;
else
from_is_utf8 = from_prop == ENC_UNICODE;
if (to_unicode_is_utf8)
to_is_utf8 = to_prop & ENC_UNICODE;
else
to_is_utf8 = to_prop == ENC_UNICODE;

if ((from_prop & ENC_LATIN1) && to_is_utf8) {
/* Internal latin1 -> utf-8 conversion. */
vcp->vc_type = CONV_TO_UTF8;
vcp->vc_factor = 2;         /* up to twice as long */
} else if ((from_prop & ENC_LATIN9) && to_is_utf8) {
/* Internal latin9 -> utf-8 conversion. */
vcp->vc_type = CONV_9_TO_UTF8;
vcp->vc_factor = 3;         /* up to three as long (euro sign) */
} else if (from_is_utf8 && (to_prop & ENC_LATIN1)) {
/* Internal utf-8 -> latin1 conversion. */
vcp->vc_type = CONV_TO_LATIN1;
} else if (from_is_utf8 && (to_prop & ENC_LATIN9)) {
/* Internal utf-8 -> latin9 conversion. */
vcp->vc_type = CONV_TO_LATIN9;
}
# ifdef USE_ICONV
else {
/* Use iconv() for conversion. */
vcp->vc_fd = (iconv_t)my_iconv_open(
to_is_utf8 ? (char_u *)"utf-8" : to,
from_is_utf8 ? (char_u *)"utf-8" : from);
if (vcp->vc_fd != (iconv_t)-1) {
vcp->vc_type = CONV_ICONV;
vcp->vc_factor = 4;       /* could be longer too... */
}
}
# endif
if (vcp->vc_type == CONV_NONE)
return FAIL;

return OK;
}

So, convert_setup() redirects to convert_setup_ex(). That reminds me of my Windows days where I often encountered ‘*Ex’ functions that were more challenging to understand.

Despite the spaghetti-like qualities of the code, there’s only 3 major phases:

1. If one either the source or destination encoding are blank, or they are identical, then assign the no-op encoding and exit.
2. Determine the properties of the encodings and do a few tests to see if any of the natively provided encodings can be used: latin-1 to UTF-8 (+ reversed) and latin-9 to UTF-8 (+ reversed). These encodings can apparently be used without outside help. If that fails, go to the next step.
3. Check if USE_ICONV has been defined, and if so, open an iconv handle for the requested encoding pair. It’s quite likely that iconv is capable of translating the exotic requests of the user. Iconv thus acts as a fallback if it’s available.

The fact that Vim provides some native encodings is probably why no Neovim user has complained up until now (iconv is temporarily disabled in Neovim, this is being fixed 2). Apparently, not many use an exotic encoding for input. I surmise that UTF-8 is good enough for most. Point 1 also implies that the *p_tenc != NUL check in did_set_string_option() is likely redundant.

NOTE: interestingly the vc_factor member of the vimconv_T struct structure is written to in convert_setup_ext() but never read anywhere else in the codebase. More about that later.

So that explains how the input_conv variable is set up. Let’s pick up where we left off: how it is used. The relevant part of convert_input() is shown below:

if (convert) {
// Perform input conversion according to input_conv
size_t unconverted_length = 0;
data = (char *)string_convert_ext(&input_conv,
(uint8_t *)data,
(int *)&converted_length,
(int *)&unconverted_length);
data_length -= unconverted_length;
}

Looking into string_convert_ext(), we find a function that looks daunting but really isn’t:

/*
* Like string_convert(), but when "unconvlenp" is not NULL and there are is
* an incomplete sequence at the end it is not converted and "*unconvlenp" is
* set to the number of remaining bytes.
*/
char_u * string_convert_ext(vimconv_T *vcp, char_u *ptr, int *lenp,
int *unconvlenp)
{
char_u      *retval = NULL;
char_u      *d;
int len;
int i;
int l;
int c;

if (lenp == NULL)
len = (int)STRLEN(ptr);
else
len = *lenp;
if (len == 0)
return vim_strsave((char_u *)"");

switch (vcp->vc_type) {
case CONV_TO_UTF8:            /* latin1 to utf-8 conversion */
retval = xmalloc(len * 2 + 1);
d = retval;
for (i = 0; i < len; ++i) {
c = ptr[i];
if (c < 0x80)
*d++ = c;
else {
*d++ = 0xc0 + ((unsigned)c >> 6);
*d++ = 0x80 + (c & 0x3f);
}
}
*d = NUL;
if (lenp != NULL)
*lenp = (int)(d - retval);
break;

case CONV_9_TO_UTF8:          /* latin9 to utf-8 conversion */
retval = xmalloc(len * 3 + 1);
d = retval;
for (i = 0; i < len; ++i) {
c = ptr[i];
switch (c) {
case 0xa4: c = 0x20ac; break;                 /* euro */
case 0xa6: c = 0x0160; break;                 /* S hat */
case 0xa8: c = 0x0161; break;                 /* S -hat */
case 0xb4: c = 0x017d; break;                 /* Z hat */
case 0xb8: c = 0x017e; break;                 /* Z -hat */
case 0xbc: c = 0x0152; break;                 /* OE */
case 0xbd: c = 0x0153; break;                 /* oe */
case 0xbe: c = 0x0178; break;                 /* Y */
}
d += utf_char2bytes(c, d);
}
*d = NUL;
if (lenp != NULL)
*lenp = (int)(d - retval);
break;

case CONV_TO_LATIN1:          /* utf-8 to latin1 conversion */
case CONV_TO_LATIN9:          /* utf-8 to latin9 conversion */
retval = xmalloc(len + 1);
d = retval;
for (i = 0; i < len; ++i) {
l = utf_ptr2len_len(ptr + i, len - i);
if (l == 0)
*d++ = NUL;
else if (l == 1) {
int l_w = utf8len_tab_zero[ptr[i]];

if (l_w == 0) {
/* Illegal utf-8 byte cannot be converted */
free(retval);
return NULL;
}
if (unconvlenp != NULL && l_w > len - i) {
/* Incomplete sequence at the end. */
*unconvlenp = len - i;
break;
}
*d++ = ptr[i];
} else {
c = utf_ptr2char(ptr + i);
if (vcp->vc_type == CONV_TO_LATIN9)
switch (c) {
case 0x20ac: c = 0xa4; break;                     /* euro */
case 0x0160: c = 0xa6; break;                     /* S hat */
case 0x0161: c = 0xa8; break;                     /* S -hat */
case 0x017d: c = 0xb4; break;                     /* Z hat */
case 0x017e: c = 0xb8; break;                     /* Z -hat */
case 0x0152: c = 0xbc; break;                     /* OE */
case 0x0153: c = 0xbd; break;                     /* oe */
case 0x0178: c = 0xbe; break;                     /* Y */
case 0xa4:
case 0xa6:
case 0xa8:
case 0xb4:
case 0xb8:
case 0xbc:
case 0xbd:
case 0xbe: c = 0x100; break;                   /* not in latin9 */
}
if (!utf_iscomposing(c)) {              /* skip composing chars */
if (c < 0x100)
*d++ = c;
else if (vcp->vc_fail) {
free(retval);
return NULL;
} else {
*d++ = 0xbf;
if (utf_char2cells(c) > 1)
*d++ = '?';
}
}
i += l - 1;
}
}
*d = NUL;
if (lenp != NULL)
*lenp = (int)(d - retval);
break;

# ifdef USE_ICONV
case CONV_ICONV:              /* conversion with output_conv.vc_fd */
retval = iconv_string(vcp, ptr, len, unconvlenp, lenp);
break;
# endif
}

return retval;
}

In the end it’s just a switch that looks up a conversion method by looking at the vc_type member that was set up earlier in convert_setup(). Apparently Bram decided that it was simpler to have the conversion code inline in the switch. I must say, they are wonderfully compact (and quite simple, if you read up on the encodings). Still, I think it would be better if these various converters were extracted into their own little functions (I’m working on that).

On success, the function returns allocated memory with the converted bytes in it. This is neat, but it would be nice of the function allowed to pass an output buffer. To avoid allocations when they’re not necessary. Case in point, the snippet that started this entire article could make use of this. Data from read_buffer is converted (read: allocated), and then copied to input_buffer. It would be more elegant if the data could just be written to input_buffer by string_convert_ext().

That raises a question though: how should the caller determine how large the output buffer should be? It turns out iconv has this exact same problem:

size_t iconv (iconv_t cd,
char **restrict inbuf, size_t *restrict inbytesleft,
char **restrict outbuf, size_t *restrict outbytesleft);

It has basically the interface I just described for a hypothetically improved string_convert_ext(). The solution iconv uses is to return -1 with errno set to E2BIG. After which you’re supposed to enlarge your buffer and try again. This is a decent strategy, and we could make it even better.

As mentioned above, vimconv_T has a seemingly unused field called vc_expand which records a factor by which a byte stream can expand if converted with said parameters. Check it out in convert_setup()’s code above. Example: for latin-1 to UTF-8 this factor is 2. Meaning that by allocating a buffer twice as large as the input buffer, there would be no risk of receiving E2BIG. This is incidentally also the size passed to xmalloc() in the current incarnation of string_convert_ext():

case CONV_TO_UTF8:            /* latin1 to utf-8 conversion */
retval = xmalloc(len * 2 + 1);

When Vim uses iconv, the situation is more difficult since the expansion factor is a potential unknown. The user could choose any number of exotic variants, including one that expands to 8 times the original size. Vim assigns 4 by default, but notes in the comments that it could possibly be larger. In conclusion, vc_factor is a nice yardstick by which to scale the output buffer, but it’s not conclusive for all cases. Multiplying the input buffer by vc_factor would ensure that we’re not likely to encounter E2BIG.

That about wraps up input encoding the keyboard. Something tells me that this is not the end of the story. For the next installment, I will discuss file encoding.

1. Code review is not only massively important for a rapidly changing project like Neovim, it also helps me get to grips with some internals that I haven’t had the pleasure to alter myself.

Recently there have been too few reviewers and some changes were perhaps merged prematurely. Luckily this is all quickly rectified by the combination of swift bug reports and coverity scans. On second thought, perhaps “premature” is not right. In a quickly moving project like Neovim it might be very useful to jumpstart a discussion after a lull. After all, we’re only in alpha. I’m also guilty of reviewing after the fact (read: merge), but for now it’s not causing the world to implode.

2. After seeing all the USE_ICONV conditional parts in the source, I started to wonder when libiconv was actually activated and used.

A short investigation revealed that iconv was never enabled for Neovim, even though most of the code was perfectly functional. Supposedly, something happened during the migration from autoconf (Vim) to cmake (Neovim) and USE_ICONV was never set. I submitted PR #1370 to rectify this. The relevant source hadn’t diverged that much and no USE_ICONV block had been removed by the unifdeffening so that was a piece of cake.

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