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Josh Reuben


A compute shader is a programmable shader stage that expands OpenGL beyond graphics programming. Like other programmable shaders, a compute shader is designed and implemented with GLSL. A compute shader provides single stage SIMD pipeline parallelized on the GPU. The compute shader provides memory sharing and thread synchronization features to allow more effective parallel programming methods.

Create a Compute Shader Program:

  • glCreateShader(GL_COMPUTE_SHADER) - create a compute shader

  • glShaderSource() - set shader source

  • glCompileShader() - compile the shader

  • glCreateProgram() - create a shader program

  • glAttachShader() - attach the shader to the shader program

  • glLinkProgram() - link all shaders in the shader program

  • glUseProgram() - set the current program to execute on a GPGPU pass

Dispatch the Compute Pipeline:

  • GlGenBuffers() - Create a buffer

  • glBindBuffer(GL_DISPATCH_INDIRECT_BUFFER)bind a buffer – set it as the buffer in context.

  • glBufferData() - pass a struct containing 3 x GLuint fields representing the local group dimensions

  • glDispatchComputeIndirect() - dispatch the compute shader, with GLintptr pointing to buffer location of parameters including local group dimensions

Built-in Variables:

  • uvec3 gl_WorkGroupSize3D volume size

  • uvec3 gl_NumWorkGroups global workgroup count

  • uvec3 gl_LocalInvocationID work item Id relative to local group

  • uvec3 gl_WorkGroupID – local workgroup Id

  • uvec3 gl_GlobalInvocationID work item Id relative to global group

  • uint gl_LocalInvocationIndex – a 1D array index representation of gl_LocalInvocationID

Synchronization Functions:

  • barrier() - local workgroup sync - eg write to shared variables from one invocation and read from another.

  • MemoryBarrier() - globally force instructions to occur in order

  • groupMemoryBarrier() - locally force instructions to occur in order

  • memoryBarrierAtomicCounter() - wait for write to atomic counter before continuing.

  • MemoryBarrierBuffer() - wait for write to buffer before continuing.

  • memoryBarrierImage() - wait for write to image variable before continuing.

  • MemoryBarrierShared() - wait for write to shared variable before continuing.

Implementation Details

  • parallelism is explicitly specified in a 3D hierarchy - global workgroups contain local workgroups which contain work items.

  • in GLSL, read data from a specific location in an input array or set the value of elements in an output array

  • local workgroup size is defined in GLSL as an input layout qualifier via local_size_x, local_size_y , local_size_z – each defaults to 1. must match parameters accessed by glDispatchComputeIndirect.

  • read / write to an imageBuffer / uniform image2D to store data into with the imageLoad() / imageStore() functions, specifying a location (and for write, a value)

  • parallel invocations of work items can access GLSL variables with shared attrib (shared across local workgroup) and communicate via shared GPU memory.

  • glGetIntegerv(GL_MAX_COMPUTE_SHARED_MEMORY_SIZE) - query max capacity of using shared variables

  • Run async – a compute shader can run in a non-blocking manner – receive a callback on completion

  • Choose optimal local workgroup size - appropriate for workload & hardware – small enough to fit, but big enough to leverage GPU's optimal parallelism capabilities

  • use shared variables - better performance than access to images or shader storage buffers

  • sync when necessary - avoid race conditions by using barriers

Eg a Canonical Compute Shader

#version 440 core
layout (local_size_x = 16, local_size_y = 16) in; // eg specify local workgroup to be a 16 x 16 ( x 1) 2D matrix
layout (rgba32f, binding = 0) uniform imageBuffer _buffer;
uniform float c;
void main(void){
    vec4 v = imageLoad(_buffer, int(gl_GlobalInvocationID.x)); += * c;
    imageStore(_buffer, int(gl_GlobalInvocationID.x), c);

Posted on Friday, February 6, 2015 11:45 AM Parallelism , Graphics Programming | Back to top

Comments on this post: OpenGL Compute Shaders – an overview

# re: OpenGL Compute Shaders – an overview
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Thanks for sharing this article. Just a great job
Left by Md. Shekelur Islam on Feb 06, 2015 3:03 PM

# Fitnesscarebd
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Left by Md. Shekelur Islam on Apr 14, 2015 8:42 PM

# re: OpenGL Compute Shaders – an overview
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Wonderful idea! Definitely, this is something very useful. - Morgan Exteriors
Left by Mike Abbott on Jan 05, 2017 6:15 PM

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