Gecko:Continuation Model

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Continuations in the Frame Tree

To render a DOM node, represented as nsIContent object, Gecko creates zero or more frames (nsIFrame objects). Each frame represents a rectangular area usually corresponding to the node's CSS box as described by the CSS specs. Simple elements are often representable with exactly one frame, but sometimes an element needs to be represented with more than one frame. For example, text breaking across lines:

  xxxxxx AAAA
  AAA xxxxxxx

The A element is a single DOM node but obviously a single rectangular frame isn't going to represent its layout precisely.

Similarly, consider text breaking across pages:


  |            |

Again, a single rectangular frame cannot represent the layout of the node. Columns are similar.

Another case where a single DOM node is represented by multiple frames is when a text node contains bidirectional text (e.g. both Hebrew and English text). In this case, the text node and its inline ancestors are split so that each frame contains only unidirectional text.

The first frame for an element is called the primary frame. The other frames are called continuation frames. Primary frames are created by nsCSSFrameConstructor in response to content insertion notifications. Continuation frames are created during bidi resolution, and during reflow, when reflow detects that a content element cannot be fully laid out within the constraints assigned (e.g., when inline text will not fit within a particular width constraint, or when a block cannot be laid out within a particular height constraint).

Continuation frames created during reflow are called "fluid" continuations (or "in-flows"). Other continuation frames (currently, those created during bidi resolution), are, in contrast, "non-fluid". The NS_FRAME_IS_FLUID_CONTINUATION state bit indicates whether a continuation frame is fluid or not.

The frames for an element are put in a doubly-linked list. The links are accessible via nsIFrame::GetNextContinuation and nsIFrame::GetPrevContinuation. If only fluid continuations are to be accessed, nsIFrame::GetNextInFlow and nsIFrame::GetPrevInFlow are used instead.

The following diagram shows the relationship between the original frame tree considering just primary frames, and a possible layout with breaking and continuations:

Original frame tree       Frame tree with A broken into three parts
    Root                      Root
     |                      /  |  \ 
     A                     A1  A2  A3
    / \                   / |  |    |
   B   C                 B  C1 C2   C3
   |  /|\                |  |  | \   |
   D E F G               D  E  F G1  G2

Certain kinds of frames create multiple child frames for the same content element:

  • nsPageSequenceFrame creates multiple page children, each one associated with the entire document, separated by page breaks
  • nsColumnSetFrame creates multiple block children, each one associated with the column element, separated by column breaks
  • nsBlockFrame creates multiple inline children, each one associated with the same inline element, separated by line breaks, or by changes in text direction
  • nsTableColFrame creates non-fluid continuations for itself if it has span="N" and N > 1
  • If a block frame is a multi-column container and has column-span:all children, it creates multiple nsColumnSetFrame children, which are linked together as non-fluid continuations. Similarly, if a block frame is within a multi-column formatting context and has column-span:all children, it is chopped into several flows, which are linked together as non-fluid continuations as well. See documentation and example frame trees in nsCSSFrameConstructor::ConstructBlock().

Overflow Container Continuations

Sometimes the content of a frame needs to break across pages even though the frame itself is complete. This usually happens if an element with fixed height has overflow that doesn't fit on one page. In this case, the completed frame is "overflow incomplete", and special continuations are created to hold its overflow. These continuations are called "overflow containers". They are invisible, and are kept on a special list in their parent. See documentation in nsContainerFrame.h and example trees in bug 379349 comment 3.

This infrastructure was extended in bug 154892 to also manage continuations for absolutely-positioned frames.

Relationship of continuations to frame tree structure

It is worth emphasizing two points about the relationship of the prev-continuation / next-continuation linkage to the existing frame tree structure.

First, if you want to traverse the frame tree or a subtree thereof to examine all the frames once, you do not want to traverse next-continuation links. All continuations are reachable by traversing the GetNextSibling links from the result of GetFirstChild for all child lists.

Second, the following property holds:

  • Consider two frames F1 and F2 where F1's next-continuation is F2 and their respective parent frames are P1 and P2. Then either P1's next continuation is P2, or P1 == P2, because P is responsible for breaking F1 and F2.

In other words, continuations are sometimes siblings of each other, and sometimes not. If their parent content was broken at the same point, then they are not siblings, since they are children of different continuations of the parent. So in the frame tree for the markup

 <p>This is <b><i>some <br/>text</i></b>.</p>

the two continuations for the b element are siblings (unless the line break is also a page break), but the two continuations for the i element are not.

There is an exception to that property when F1 is a first-in-flow float placeholder. In that case F2's parent will be the next-in-flow of F1's containing block.

Reflow statuses

The aStatus argument of Reflow reflects that. IsComplete() means that we reflowed all the content and no more next-in-flows are needed. At that point there may still be next in flows, but the parent will delete them. IsIncomplete() means "some content did not fit in this frame". IsOverflowIncomplete() means that the frame is itself complete, but some of its content didn't fit: this triggers the creation of overflow containers for the frame's continuations. IsIncomplete() and NextInFlowNeedsReflow() means "some content did not fit in this frame AND it must be reflowed". These values are defined and documented in nsIFrame.h (search for "Reflow status").

Dynamic Reflow Considerations

When we reflow a frame F with fluid continuations, two things can happen:

  • Some child frames do not fit in the passed-in width or height constraint. These frames must be "pushed" to F's next-in-flow. If F has no next-in-flow, we must create one under F's parent's next-in-flow --- or if F's parent is managing the breaking of F, then we create F's next in flow directly under F's parent. If F is a block, it pushes overflowing child frames to its "overflow" child list and forces F's next in flow to be reflowed. When we reflow a block, we pull the child frames from the prev-in-flow's overflow list into the current frame.
  • All child frames fit in the passed-in width or height constraint. Then child frames must be "pulled" from F's next-in-flow to fill in the available space. If F's next-in-flow becomes empty, we may be able to delete it.

In both of these situations we might end up with a frame F containing two child frames, one of which is a continuation of the other. This is incorrect. We might also create holes, where there are frames P1 P2 and P3, P1 has child F1 and P3 has child F2, but P2 has no F child.

A strategy for avoiding these issues is this: When pulling a frame F2 from parent P2 to prev-in-flow P1, if F2 is a breakable container, then:

  • If F2 has no prev-in-flow F1 in P1, then create a new primary frame F1 in P1 for F2's content, with F2 as its next-in-flow.
  • Pull children from F2 to F1 until F2 is empty or we run out of space. If F2 goes empty, pull from the next non-empty next-in-flow. Empty continuations with no next-in-flows can be deleted.

When pushing a frame F1 from parent P1 to P2, where F1 has a next-in-flow F2 (which must be a child of P2):

  • Merge F2 into F1 by moving all F2's children into F1, then deleting F2

For inline frames F, we have our own custom strategy that coalesces adjacent inline frames. This need not change.

We do need to implement this strategy when F is a normal in-flow block, a floating block, and eventually an absolutely positioned block.