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Architectural Overview

kasparsd edited this page Jan 21, 2013 · 4 revisions


The Brackets application shell is built using the [Chromium Embedded Framework (CEF)] ( CEF is an open source web browser control based on Google Chromium.

The Brackets app is based on the cefclient sample application provided by CEF. The app itself is really quite simple -- it hosts the CEF control to display the HTML/CSS/JavaScript for Brackets, and provides some extensions required for Brackets to work. These extensions include filesystem access, file dialogs, and code for launching and connecting to the Live Development browser.

CEF vs. Chromium Content Shell

CEF3 (the version of CEF used by Brackets) is based on the new [Chromium Content API] ( The Chromium project also includes a [Content Shell] ( project, which is a minimal application that embeds the Chromium Content API.

We looked at both of these for Brackets. At first glance, the cefclient app and the Content Shell app look very similar. However, when you dig a bit deeper, the differences become apparent. Content Shell is a very thin layer on top of the content API. It is intended to be the simplest possible app that uses the Content API. CEF, on the other hand, is designed to be a robust embeddable control. CEF provides a high-level API that insulates clients from API churn in the Content API. CEF also provides some key high-level functionality like context menus and support for opening the Developer Tools window from within the application.

Processes and Threads

Chromium (and CEF3) use a [multi-process architecture] ( The browser process is the main process that runs the UI. The render process is responsible for doing all layout, rendering and JavaScript execution. There are additional processes for plugins, GPU, and Utilities. The majority of the work happens in the browser and render processes.

Within each process there are a number of threads. If you are doing UI work, you must make sure you are on the UI thread. See the [CEF Architecture Document] ( for more details on processes and threads.

Main Classes

Here are some of the main classes used in the app.


This is the main class that runs in the render process. It is responsible for:

  • Initializing V8 extensions (in OnWebKitInitialized()). The extension entry point is the AppShellExtensionHandler class, defined in client_app.cpp. All native JavaScript functions invoke the AppShellExtensionHandler::Execute() method.
  • Handling process messages from the browser process (in OnProcessMessageReceived()). Currently there are two message that get handled here:
    • invokeCallback - called to invoke the asynchronous callback functions
    • executeCommand - called to execute a command via JavaScript


This is the main class that runs in the browser process. Only one instance of this class is created for all browser windows. This class is responsible for:

  • Managing browser window instances
  • Responding to loading, error, and console messages
  • Initiating JavaScript commands (which are forwarded to the render process for sending)
  • Handling process messages from the render process. The majority of the messages are native JavaScript function calls, which are handled in appshell_extensions.cpp.


These are key CEF classes that are used throughout the program. Instances of the CefBrowser class are available in both the render and browser process, but CefBrowserHost is only available in the browser process.


All messages passed between the browser and render process are wrapped up in a CefProcessMessage.


A CefV8Context corresponds to a unique JavaScript execution environment. Every browser frame has a CefV8Context. You must be in a context before working with CefV8Values or calling CefV8Functions.


Represents a V8 (JavaScript) value. This can be a scalar type like number or String, or an Object/Function/Array.

Other files of interest

  • appshell_extensions.js: the JavaScript wrapper for all of the V8 extensions
  • cefclient.cpp: the main entry point for the browser process
  • appshell_extensions.cpp: the handler for native JavaScript functions.
  • platform-specific code for V8 extensions

Dealing With Asynchronicity

The biggest changes between the CEF1 and CEF3 shells have to do with asynchronous code. All of the JavaScript APIs in the brackets.fs and objects had asynchronous signatures (they use a callback function instead of return values), but in the old CEF1 shell, they all ran synchronously.

With the CEF3 shell, JavaScript runs in the render process and V8 extensions that need to access the UI or the file system run in the browser process. This makes everything asynchronous for realz.

What does this mean? Well, if you have JavaScript code that has a callback function, don't expect that callback function to be invoked before the rest of the outer function is run. Here is an example:

function doSomething() {
    // Declare a variable, but don't initialize it
    var someVar;

    // Call an asynchronous function and pass a callback
    asyncFunction(function (result) {
        someVar = result;

    // You may think you can use someVar here, but DON'T!
    // There is no guarantee that the callback function has been
    // called yet, so someVar could still be uninitialized.
    if (someVar === 42) {
        // ...

Closing a Window

The best example showing the complexities of asynchronicity are in the window closing code. When the user clicks the close box on the window, we need to call into JavaScript to see if there are any unsaved changes before closing the window. Here are the steps that happen:

  1. The native close message is sent to the window (windowShouldClose on the mac, WM_CLOSE on windows)
  2. The native code sends a FILE_CLOSE_WINDOW command to JavaScript (asynchronously, of course!) and returns NO (telling the OS that the window should not be closed).
  3. In JavaScript, if there are any unsaved changes, the user is prompted to save the changes, cancel, or continue without saving.
  4. If the user selects "Cancel", no other processing is done, and the window remains open.
  5. If the user selects "Save", all files are saved (asynchronously, of course!).
  6. The JavaScript code eventually calls window.close() after all files have been saved.
  7. In the native code, window.close() ends up calling windowShouldClose/WM_CLOSE a second time. The native code sends another FILE_CLOSE_WINDOW command to JavaScript.
  8. The FILE_CLOSE_WINDOW handler detects that we are already in the process of closing the window and returns without handling the command.
  9. The native code sees that the JavaScript code did not handle the command, so it tries to close the window directly. Before this is done we set a flag on the window to note that it is being closed for real this time.
  10. A third windowShouldClose/WM_CLOSE message is sent. This time the native code looks at the flag set in step 9 and returns YES (telling the OS that the window should be closed).
  11. Finally, after all of that, the window is actually closed!

In summary, when closing a window, the JavaScript code could have the FILE_CLOSE_WINDOW command invoked twice, and the native code could have the shouldCloseWindow/WM_CLOSE message sent three times. All of this to deal with asynchronous code...

V8 Extensions

See the [Writing V8 Extensions] ( document for more details on the V8 extension architecture.