A zygote process is one that listens for spawn requests from a master process and forks itself in response. Generally they are used because forking a process after some expensive setup has been performed can save time and share extra memory pages.

On Linux, for Chromium, this is not the point, and measurements suggest that the time and memory savings are minimal or negative.

We use it because it‘s the only reasonable way to keep a reference to a binary and a set of shared libraries that can be exec’ed. In the model used on Windows and Mac, renderers are exec‘ed as needed from the chrome binary. However, if the chrome binary, or any of its shared libraries are updated while Chrome is running, we’ll end up exec'ing the wrong version. A version x browser might be talking to a version y renderer. Our IPC system does not support this (and does not want to!).

So we would like to keep a reference to a binary and its shared libraries and exec from these. However, unless we are going to write our own ld.so, there's no way to do this.

Instead, we exec the prototypical renderer at the beginning of the browser execution. When we need more renderers, we signal this prototypical process (the zygote) to fork itself. The zygote is always the correct version and, by exec'ing one, we make sure the renderers have a different address space randomisation than the browser.

The zygote process is triggered by the --type=zygote command line flag, which causes ZygoteMain (in chrome/browser/zygote_main_linux.cc) to be run. The zygote is launched from chrome/browser/zygote_host_linux.cc.

Signaling the zygote for a new renderer happens in chrome/browser/child_process_launcher.cc.

You can use the --zygote-cmd-prefix flag to debug the zygote process. If you use --renderer-cmd-prefix then the zygote will be bypassed and renderers will be exec'ed afresh every time.