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Alex Saveau

Alex Saveau

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Gnome Clipboard History

Technical and performance overview

Published Feb 24, 2022 • Last updated Jan 23, 2024 • 6 min read

Gnome Clipboard History (GCH) is a Gnome extension that saves what you’ve copied into an easily accessible, searchable history panel. The primary innovation over existing clipboard managers is the use of a compacting log for persistent storage.

Design constraints and choices

GCH is a rewrite of Clipboard Indicator and had the original goal of upstreaming any changes. This meant GCH needed feature parity with Clipboard Indicator:

  • Any history changes (including newly copied entries) are immediately written to disk to prevent data loss if your computer unexpectedly shuts down.
  • Previously copied items are resurfaced instead of creating duplicates (implying the need to search through the history to know if what has just been copied is a new or existing entry).
  • Entries anywhere in the list can be modified or deleted.
  • You can cycle through entries.
  • The clipboard history is searchable.

Given those features’ performance implications, several data structure choices naturally emerged:

  • An append-only persistent storage structure (i.e. a log) is used to enable a single disk write operation (amortized) on copy or modification of the history.
  • A linked list to store in-memory entries is used to make deleting and moving arbitrary entries fast.
  • A reverse lookup index from clipboard contents to entries makes to finding out if the copied entry is new or existing O(1), in which case the existing item would be moved up.

Search is still an open problem, but I discuss that later.

The compacting log

GCH uses a relatively simple binary encoding to store copied entries:

[op type][ data  ]
[1 byte ][N bytes]

The first byte of an operation is always its type while the succeeding bytes are whatever an operation desires. For example, an add operation looks like this:

             UTF-8 data bytes
00000000  01 49 20 77 61 73 20 63  6f 70 69 65 64 21 00     |.I was copied!.|
          ∧                                          ∧
          Add op type                   NUL terminator

It would be preferable to store the length of the text instead of a NUL terminator, but no Gnome API exists to read N bytes. Now let’s see what happens when you favorite that entry, delete it, and then copy and favorite another entry:

                                         Favorite op type
00000000  01 49 20 77 61 73 20 63  6f 70 69 65 64 21 00 03  |.I was copied!..|
          4-byte Little Endian ID (=1)
00000010  01 00 00 00 02 01 00 00  00 01 4d 65 20 74 6f 6f  |..........Me too|
                      ∧  ∧
         Delete op type  4-byte Little Endian ID (=1)
00000020  00 03 02 00 00 00                                 |......|
             ∧  ∧
   Favorite op  4-byte Little Endian ID (=2)

There’s a lot going on, so let’s break it down.

First, you’ll notice the implicit creation of IDs for the two items. Since the log is append-only and always read in its entirety on start, globally unique IDs can be inferred based the position of added entries.

Furthermore, because the log is append-only, deleting entries doesn’t actually delete anything (that’s where compaction comes in). Instead, entries are simply marked as having been deleted — in the exact same way an entry is marked as being favorited. When parsing the log, deleted items are appended to the in-memory linked list and later deleted when the delete operation is reached.

The IDs are monotonically increasing and stored in Little Endian because I expect most people to be using x86, thus saving some bit manipulation. I could have gotten a little fancier by using varints instead, but fighting JavaScript didn’t seem worth it.

Future research: using mmap (or seek) to start reading somewhere near the end of the file. Supporting arbitrary starting decoding positions would require self-synchronization, but lets the decoder only read the last N entries (until the user requests more).

That’s about it! There are a few other operations, but they all work similarly.


This is arguably the most interesting part of the log: compaction is what allows it to stay append-only. On compaction, the entire log is deleted and recreated from scratch with inverting operations removed. Inverting operations are those that cancel each other out. For example, adding and deleting an item can be replaced with doing nothing.

After compaction, the example from above looks like this:

00000000  01 4d 65 20 74 6f 6f 00  03 01 00 00 00           |.Me too......|

All traces of the I was copied! entry have been removed and Me too’s ID has been shifted down. IDs are therefore globally unique only between compaction intervals, meaning in-memory data structures must be updated after each compaction.

Upon reflection, I probably should have stored the ID with the add operation to minimize the work done on compaction. The only issue would be ID overflow, but that can be handled by keeping the set of active IDs to know if one has already been used. In any case, the current approach has the benefit of minimizing wasted space since add is the primary operation.

When to perform compaction?

Since compaction is expensive and requires rewriting the entire history, we’d ideally like to perform compaction… well, never! Unfortunately, never compacting means your on-disk history will grow forever and parsing the log will become increasingly slow due to the number of inverting operations. On the other hand, we could perform compaction anytime something changes, thereby resulting in the minimal log size and no inverting operations.

Thus, the goal is to strike a balance between the number of compactions and the number of wasted (i.e. inverting) operations. Surprisingly, it’s very easy to keep track of wasted operations: if you delete something, then you’ve wasted two operations (one for the add and one for the delete). Similar logic follows for other operations.

Next, pick some threshold for the number of wasted operations and perform compaction if the threshold is exceeded. Easy!

The linked list

In memory, the clipboard history is stored in a doubly linked list, allowing for instant deletion and easy pagination. Pagination is important for GCH because Gnome does not have a UI list API (like a RecyclerView) that is capable of scaling to the history sizes I wanted to support.

The biggest challenge is in trying to minimize iteration since linked lists have such terrible memory access patterns.

The reverse lookup index

The index (from text to entry ID) is implemented as a fairly standard chaining hash table. To maximize hashing performance while minimizing collisions, a special hashing function is used that takes advantage of assumptions about our corpus. Notably, long strings are unlikely to have length collisions (e.g. why would someone copy two different strings that are exactly 30224 characters long?) whereas short strings are (e.g. someone copies “abc” and “123”). We therefore arrive at the following hash function:

  • When the text is very long, its length is used as the hash.
  • When the text is short, a proper hash function is used.

Search uses regex queries and returns paginated results sorted by recency to try and perform the minimal number of matches. While ok, this is clearly suboptimal as a proper index should be used instead. That said, I found performance to be adequate and decided to let it be.

Developer experience musings

GCH is written in JavaScript because it is the only language supported by Gnome extensions. As a performance-minded individual, I’ve found the Gnome extension developer experience to be deeply dissatisfactory: the language choice makes it impossible to do certain things. Of note (non-exhaustive):

  • The linked list could have been optimized to store nodes as cache-line-sized blocks.
  • A proper map implementation could have been used instead of my poorly optimized version, but the JS Map does not support custom hash functions.
  • A proper serialization library could have been used (like Serde) which would have made the initial implementation much easier.
  • Anything to do with multi-threading (such as running search in a background thread) is impossible.
  • The log uses an op queue to ensure serializability — this would have been trivial to implement in a language that supports single-threaded executors.
  • Powerful programming patterns like RAII don’t exist.

In brief, while I’m pleased with what I have been able to do given present limitations, I’m very excited to see what APIs Pop!_OS will offer in their COSMIC DE.

Happy copying! Oh, and of course: RiiR.