Fundamentals of the Vulkan Graphics API: Why Rendering a Triangle is Complicated

Last week, my dad was asking me why I was proud of this triangle on my laptop.

I told him that rendering a triangle is complicated: it took me 3 days, and 1000+ lines of code to create the above image. This just made him more confused.

So I wrote this article explaining what the Vulkan graphics API is, how it works, and everything that goes into rendering a triangle with your GPU.

What Vulkan Is

Vulkan is a graphics API that is designed to provide an accurate abstraction of how modern graphics processing units (GPUs) work. Unlike OpenGL, Vulkan is very verbose. Every detail related to the graphics API needs to be set up from scratch. The upsides to this are that you only use what you choose to, and you can better understand what’s going on in your application and in doing so achieve much higher performance.

This article is intended to be a concise overview of the fundamentals of Vulkan. It was written for somebody who knew Vulkan but has forgotten many of the details (i.e. future me). Most of the information here comes from the Vulkan 1.2 Spec.

Note: This article uses the C++ bindings for Vulkan

Vulkan in a Nutshell

From a bird’s eye view, here’s how a Vulkan application works:

Vulkan can access devices, which let you control one or more queues. Queues are how you send a list of commands to the GPU, and they can be members of one or more queue families, each of which can do different things (e.g. draw the vertices of a 3D model).

Command buffers are how you submit commands to a queue. Device commands are ‘recorded’ to a command buffer through Vulkan API calls, and can then be submitted once or many times (e.g. once every frame) to a queue to be executed.

That’s the TL;DR - now it’s time to dive into the details!

Genesis

Instances and Devices

In the beginning there was the Vulkan API. And the API was made flesh through vk::Instance, and from it sprung all per-application state.

You initialize Vulkan by creating an instance, which contains application state - information like what version of the Vulkan API you’re using, your application’s name, and which extensions and layers you want to enable. Extensions and layers provide behavior that isn’t included by default in Vulkan, like extended error checking and call logging.

With an instance you can examine the physical devices (usually GPUs) that are available. A machine might have multiple physical devices, and each of their properties (such as being a dedicated graphics card) can be inspected.

A common pattern for physical device selection is to:

Example code for physical device selection

(Tip: Read the comments so you don’t get overwhelmed by code)

void pickPhysicalDevice() {
  // Get list of all physical devices that can be found by Vulkan
  auto physicalDevices = instance.enumeratePhysicalDevices();

  if (physicalDevices.size() == 0) {
    throw std::runtime_error("No GPUs with Vulkan support found!");
  }

  // Create list of physical devices sorted by rateDeviceSuitability
  std::multimap<int, vk::PhysicalDevice> candidates;

  for (const auto& physicalDevice : physicalDevices) {
    int score = rateDeviceSuitability(physicalDevice);
    candidates.insert(std::make_pair(score, physicalDevice));
  }

  // Check if best candidate meets required properties (score > 0)
  if (candidates.rbegin()->first > 0) {
    physicalDevice = candidates.rbegin()->second;
  } else {
    throw std::runtime_error("failed to find a suitable GPU!");
  }
}

int rateDeviceSuitability(vk::PhysicalDevice physicalDevice) {
  // Get all features / properties of a given physical device
  vk::PhysicalDeviceFeatures deviceFeatures
    = physicalDevice.getFeatures();

  vk::PhysicalDeviceProperties deviceProperties
    = physicalDevice.getProperties();

  int score = 0;

  if (   deviceProperties.deviceType
      == vk::PhysicalDeviceType::eDiscreteGpu)
  {
    score += 1000;  // Prefer dedicated GPUs
  }

  if (!deviceFeatures.geometryShader) {
    return 0;       // Require geometry shaders
  }

  return score;
}

With a physical device you can create a logical device.

A logical device is basically a physical device (which represents a GPU) that is initialized and ready for work. They’re what you use to create resources and queues.

Making Stuff Happen

Queues, Command Buffers, and Render Passes

A queue is a list of commands that the GPU executes.

Each queue can only have certain types of commands (some can have multiple types, others just one), and this is specified when a queue is created.

The four types of queue operations are:

A physical device will give you access to several queues of different queue families, and when you create a queue it will be an index to a queue of a matching queue family on the device. Queue families are queues that have the same properties as one another (e.g. perform both graphics and compute operations).

Commands are submitted to queues by first recording a series of commands into a command buffer and then submitting the entire command buffer to a queue with vk::Queue::submit().

Note: Command buffers are usually re-recorded every frame (and not reused) to account for the change in workload in an application (e.g. drawing a new 3D model after an event).

Also, you can submit multiple command buffers to a single queue. This is useful because it can allow you to ensure that one set of commands from a command buffer completes execution before another command buffer in the queue starts (more on this later), and it allows you to take advantage of multi-core CPUs by recording each of the command buffers in parallel on multiple threads.

Finally, commands recorded in command buffers can perform:

Some commands perform just one of these tasks, while others do several. A render pass is needed to execute certain commands, including drawing.

Render Passes

A render pass consists of one or more subpasses, along with several framebuffers. Framebuffers represent a series of memory attachments (e.g. color, depth etc) that each subpass can read from and write to.

A command in a subpass might write to a color buffer, which will allow for later subpasses / render passes to read from it. This allows for techniques like deferred rendering.

Color attachments after initial render pass in deferred rendering (LearnOpenGL)

Deferred rendering is a story for another day, but the gist of it is that you can store most of the geometry information in an initial render pass, and defer expensive rendering operations like lighting for later.

Example code for recording to a command buffer and render pass

// Create a command buffer
vk::CommandBuffer cmd;

// Start recording to the command buffer and render pass
cmd.begin(vk::CommandBufferBeginInfo());
cmd.beginRenderPass(vk::RenderPassBeginInfo());

// Bind a graphics pipeline (covered later)
cmd.bindPipeline(vk::PipelineBindPoint::eGraphics, graphicsPipeline);

// Bind vertex buffers containing info needed to draw vertices
cmd.bindVertexBuffers(0, 1, vertexBuffers, offsets);

// Draw the buffer currently bound to this command buffer
cmd.draw(vertices.size(), 1, 0, 0);

// Stop recording to the render pass and command buffer
cmd.endRenderPass();
cmd.end();

Last thing! Some commands that perform actions (e.g. draw vertices) do so based on the current state (e.g. the currently bound array of vertices) set by commands since the start of the command buffer. This means that in the above code example, cmd.draw() will operate on the current state set by cmd.bindVertex() in the previous line. This “synchronization guarantee”, that one command will finish executing before the next one starts, is usually not true.

Synchronization

GPUs are optimized for operation throughput, and because of this (with a few exceptions) commands are not executed in the order they were recorded in. The first command that performs an action in a command buffer isn’t guaranteed to finish executing before the last action command in that buffer. The first command buffer submitted to a queue won’t necessarily finish any commands before a later command buffer starts. The same thing applies to command buffers submitted on different queues and multiple subpasses.

At places the Vulkan spec is confusing on this topic, but the TL;DR is that this is true unless a synchronization object is used (or with state setting commands within a single command buffer).

There are a few different types of synchronization objects:

Synchronization is closely tied to the graphics pipeline.

The Graphics Pipeline

The graphics pipeline is what takes the meshes and textures of 3D models (along with other information) and turns them into pixels on your 2D screen. Each stage of the graphics pipeline operates on the output of the previous stage.

There are two types of stages in the graphics pipeline: fixed-functions and shaders.

Fixed-functions complete operations that can be tweaked with parameters, but the way they work is predefined. Anything in the graphics pipeline that isn’t a shader is a fixed function.

Shaders are user-created programs that execute in the graphics pipeline. They can read from input variables (e.g. position of vertex / fragment / light) and run on GPUs, which are great at parallel computing tasks such as applying the same lighting rule for every one of the 2 million pixels on your screen or rotating a 3D model with thousands of vertices.

A single 3D model with different shaders applied to it can look very different (Rodrigo Toledo)

A simplified overview of the graphics pipeline consists of 7 stages:

  1. Input Assembler: Collects the raw vertex data from specified buffers. Optionally, an index buffer can be used to repeat certain elements without duplicating vertex data.

  2. Vertex Shader: Runs on every vertex and passes per-vertex data down the graphics pipeline. Usually applies transformations to vertices, and converts from model space to screen space.

  3. Tessellation: Optional. Runs on arrays of vertices (“patches”) and subdivides them into smaller primitives.

  4. Geometry Shader: Optional. Runs on every primitive (triangle, line, point) and can discard or output more primitives. This stage is often not used because its performance isn’t great on most graphics cards.

  5. Rasterization: Discretizes the primitives into fragments (the data necessary to generate a pixel). Fragments that fall outside the screen and fragments that are behind other primitives are discarded.

  6. Fragment Shader: Runs on every fragment and determines its color, depth value, and which framebuffer the fragment is written to. Often uses interpolated data from the vertex shader such as surface normals to apply lighting.

  7. Color Blending: Applies operations to mix different fragments that map to the same pixel in the framebuffer. Fragments can overwrite each other, or be mixed based on transparency.

Shader Modules

Unlike OpenGL, shader code in Vulkan has to be in a bytecode format called SPIR-V, as opposed to human-readable syntax like GLSL.

The advantage of using a bytecode format is that the compilers to turn shader code into native GPU code are significantly less complex. This leads to SPIR-V shader code being more reliable across GPU vendors.

However, shaders are still commonly written in GLSL, and later compiled to SPIR-V using a tool called glslc (included in the Vulkan SDK). SPIR-V can be passed to the graphics pipeline by reading the bytecode, and then wrapping it in a vk::ShaderModule object, which specifies the entry point function in the shader, and assigning it to a specific stage of the graphics.

Presentation Time

Swap Chains and Window Surfaces

We’ve done all of this work to render an image, now we need to present that image to a window surface from the swap chain.

A window surface allows you to interact with platform specific display systems.

A swap chain is an array of at least two presentable images. The first image is the screenbuffer, which is the image presented to the screen, and later images are backbuffers. If you don’t use a backbuffer and directly send new images to the screenbuffer, image tearing (where the top portion of the screen contains the new image and the bottom portion contains the old image) will occur while the monitor is refreshing.

Image tearing caused by directly sending images to the screenbuffer (Direct2D Succinctly)

Using a screenbuffer and a single backbuffer is known as a double buffer. This technique prevents image tearing.

Rendering a Triangle

To bring it all together, in a Vulkan application:

That’s why rendering a triangle is complicated.


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