Plugin Design

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K-3D is designed around an extensive and flexible system of plugins, shared library components that are dynamically loaded at runtime. The K-3D application is little more than a "container" that knows how to load plugins at startup and manage their interactions. All of the real functionality in K-3D - from pipeline sources, modifiers, and sinks to the user interface - is provided by plugins. The plugin mechanism simplifies both building and distribution of the program - developers can easily disable plugins that they can't compile or don't want, and distributors can ship binary plugins to users, secure in the knowledge that plugins with missing dependencies will be quietly ignored at runtime. This article presents an overview for developers of how the plugin system works.


The first level of organization in the plugin system is Modules, which are shared libraries (DLLs on Win32) that can be loaded into the application working set at runtime. Each module includes zero-to-many plugins, and is loaded by the K-3D application at startup (this is a simplification - see On Demand Modules for more details on how modules are loaded). Every K-3D module contains a known entry-point function that is called when the module is first loaded by the application.

Plugin Factories

When its entry-point function is called, a module registers zero-to-many plugin factories with the application. A Plugin Factory is a C++ class that performs two tasks - it provides metadata that describes a plugin type, and it is used to create instances of that plugin type. Each plugin factory must implement the k3d::iplugin_factory interface, which is used to retrieve plugin metadata (unique identifier, human-readable name, human-readable description, etc), and either the k3d::iapplication_plugin_factory or k3d::idocument_plugin_factory interfaces, which are used to instantiate plugins.

Following is a list of plugin metadata provided via k3d::iplugin_factory:

  • factory_id - Universally-unique identifier for the factory.
  • name - Human-readable plugin name, displayed in the user interface and used to instantiate plugins from scripts.
  • short_description - Short human-readable description of what the plugin does, displayed in the application user interface and in automatically-generated documentation.
  • categories - Arbitrary list of human-readable categories that are used to group plugins in the user interface.
  • quality - Special enumerated value that describes a plugin as "Stable", "Experimental", or "Deprecated" in the user interface. See Plugin Status for details.
  • interfaces - Provides a list of interfaces supported by the plugin type. Used in special circumstances by code that needs to determine the capabilities of a plugin before instantiating it.
  • New in K-3D 0.7! metadata - Provides a collection of arbitrary name-value pairs that can be set by a plugin author and used by the user interface or other layers.


Plugins are also C++ classes, and fall into two categories: Document Plugins and Application Plugins.

Document plugins are the type users are most aware of - a document plugin is linked with a specific user document at the time of its creation, saving and restoring its state along with the containing document. Pipeline components - sources, modifiers, sinks - are all document plugins, as are render model components - cameras, render engines, lights, materials, etc. It is not possible to create a document plugin without a valid open document.

Application plugins, in contrast, are not associated with any document, and do not save or restore any state. These plugins are usually created "behind the scenes" to perform a specific task, then destroyed, without any user intervention. Thus, application plugins often take on the role of strategy objects (as-in Strategy Design Pattern). Examples of application plugins include user interface plugins, scripting engines, and file format importers and exporters.

As you might expect, there are two types of plugin factory corresponding to the two types of plugin - the k3d::iapplication_plugin_factory and k3d::idocument_plugin_factory interfaces are used to instantiate application plugins and document plugins, respectively.


Because plugins play an endless number of different roles in K-3D, a sophisticated mechanism is needed to determine the capabilities and purpose of an individual plugin after it is created. K-3D defines formal Interface classes that correspond to capabilities, plugin classes Implement interfaces by deriving from them, and callers Query a plugin instance for its capabilities using dynamic_cast. See Contract Programming and RTTI for a discussion of this technique.

Instantiating Plugins

There are many possible ways to instantiate plugins, but it is highly recommended that you use the k3d::plugin::create() convenience functions provided in k3dsdk/plugins.h. This will eliminate repetitive code and subtle errors. Overloaded and templated versions of k3d::plugin::create() are provided to handle the creation of application and document plugins and automatically query new plugins for particular interfaces (a very common use-case).

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