A tour of Granite’s Vulkan backend – Part 5

Render passes and synchronization

This is part 5 in the tour of Granite‘s Vulkan backend. We’re going to get knee-deep in the aspects of Vulkan which are the most difficult to learn in my opinion, and mastering these topics of Vulkan is the real hurdle towards mastery. This level of understanding is something high-level APIs will prevent you from reaching.

This post isn’t intended to be a tutorial on Vulkan synchronization, so I’ll assume some basic level of knowledge.

Render passes

Render passes is a new fundamental part of Vulkan which does not exist in any of the legacy APIs. In older APIs you can freewheel how you render to frame buffers, but that approach was always terrible on tile-based GPUs, and these days with hybrid tilers, it’s probably terrible on desktop as well. Vulkan forces you to think about rendering all you need in one go to a frame buffer and then proceed to the next.

In Granite, I wanted to make sure most of the flexibility and explicitness of Vulkan render passes could be expressed with minimal boilerplate. Most projects don’t seem to pay attention to this part except that it’s something you just have to do, and very few see the benefits they bring. That is probably a reasonable stance for 2019 if you do not care about mobile performance. If you need to target mobile though, it is worth the extra work. As of writing, the feature is quite mobile-centric, but desktop GPUs seem to be inching towards tile-based architectures, so it will be interesting to see if this view on render passes will shift in the future. Even D3D12 recently got render passes too, albeit in a simplified form.

In the most basic form, render passes in Vulkan can be rather daunting to set up, and it’s one of the many battles you have to fight to get hello triangle on screen. If we take a render pass with just one sub-pass (the case we care about 99% of the time), we need to specify up front:

  • How many attachments?
  • Which formats are used?
  • How many MSAA samples?
  • initialLayout and finalLayout
  • Which image layouts to use while rendering?
  • Do we load from memory or clear the attachment on render pass begin?
  • Do we bother storing the attachments to memory?

Most of this information is boilerplate we can automate, but things like load/clear/store we cannot deduce in the backend before it is too late. Knowing this kind of information up-front can be very beneficial for bandwidth consumption, at least on mobile.

The ugly framebuffer objects

An ugly aspect of Vulkan is the use of VkFramebuffer. I want an API where I just say “start a render pass where we render to these attachments”. Creating “FBOs” up front was really ugly in GL, and I think it’s a bad abstraction to have API users carry around ownership of objects which represent little to no useful work. FBOs are empty husks which might as well just be an array of image views.

We could just create VkFramebuffers every render pass we begin and defer the deletion of it right away, but creating these objects have some cost. There’s a handle allocation in the driver at minimum, and probably a little more on certain drivers. Here I just reuse the temporary hashmap allocator which I introduced in the descriptor set model post. VkFramebuffer objects can be reused over multiple frames, but if they aren’t used for a while, they are just deleted since VkFramebuffer objects are immutable.

Automating VkRenderPass creation

This topic is actually quite complicated when we start diving into the deep end of Vulkan render passes, but we can start with the trivial cases. The API in Granite looks something like:

Vulkan::RenderPassInfo rp;
rp.num_color_attachments = 1;
rp.color_attachments[0] = &rt->get_view();
rp.store_attachments = 1 << 0;
rp.clear_attachments = 1 << 0;

rp.clear_color[0].float32[0] = 1.0f;
rp.clear_color[0].float32[1] = 0.0f;
rp.clear_color[0].float32[2] = 1.0f;
rp.clear_color[0].float32[3] = 0.0f;


This is an immediate way of starting a render pass, no reason to create frame buffers up front and all that. VkRenderPass can be created lazily on-demand like everything else.

Formats / MSAA sample counts

Render passes need to know formats and sample counts, and since we pass the concrete attachments directly in begin_render_pass(), we have the information we need right here.

Image layouts and VK_SUBPASS_EXTERNAL dependencies

There are three kinds of attachments in Granite:

  • User-created. These attachments are render targets which are created with Device::create_image() and the backend does not own the resource or knows anything about how long the resource will live. Common case for user-created render targets.
  • WSI images. These images are special since they came from VkSwapchainKHR or some equivalent mechanism. We know that these images are only used for rendering and they are only consumed by the presentation engine, or some other mechanism.
  • Transient images. Images with transient usage flags only live inside render passes. They cannot be sampled from, their memory does not necessarily exist except in page tables which point to /dev/null. We don’t care what happens to these images once the render pass is done.

To deduce image layouts for a render pass we have a few different paths.

wsi images

I don’t care about preserving WSI images over multiple frames, and I don’t care about sampling from WSI images or any such weird use case after rendering, so the flow of image layouts is:

  • initialLayout = UNDEFINED (discard)
  • VkAttachmentReference -> COLOR_ATTACHMENT_OPTIMAL or whatever is required for the subpass
  • finalLayout = PRESENT_SRC_KHR or whatever layout we need when using external WSI. For something like libretro, this will be SHADER_READ_ONLY_OPTIMAL since the image will be handed off to some other render pass which we don’t know or care about. For headless PNG/video dumping, it might be TRANSFER_SRC_OPTIMAL.

When initialLayout != the layout used in the first subpass, vkCmdBeginRenderPass will actually need to perform a memory barrier implicitly to make this work. The big question is when this memory barrier takes place, and the answer is “as soon as possible” (TOP_OF_PIPE_BIT) if we don’t specify it anywhere. For this case, Granite will add a subpass dependency which waits for VK_SUBPASS_EXTERNAL in the COLOR_ATTACHMENT_OUTPUT stage. This latches onto the WSI acquire semaphore, more on that later.

Final layout != last layout is used, so we get a transition at the end of the render pass, but we don’t need to care about external subpass dependencies here. The automatically generated one is perfect, and we’re going to use the WSI release semaphore to properly synchronize this image anyways.

When we see a WSI image in a render pass, we can trivially mark this command buffer as “touching WSI”. This will affect command buffer submission later. This is indeed the kind of tracking which I have been arguing against in earlier posts, but it’s so trivial that it’s a no-brainer to me in this case.

Transient images

For transient images, we automate it just like WSI images, except that finalLayout will match last used layout in the render pass. This way we avoid some useless image layout transition at the end of the render pass. Next time we use the image, it’s going to be discarded anyways.

Because we deal with transitions automatically, users can freely pull images from Vulkan::Device with get_transient_attachment(), render to it, and forget about it. This is super convenient for things like MSAA rendering where the multi-sampled attachment just needs to exist temporarily for purposes of being resolved into the single-sampled attachment we care about. Having to care about synchronization for resources we don’t own is weird I think.

other images

For any other image, we need to avoid any implicit layout transition, so we simply force initialLayout to match the first use in the render pass, and finalLayout will match the last use. In our small sample, it’s all going to be COLOR_ATTACHMENT_OPTIMAL. It’s up to the API user to know what layouts a render pass will expect, but it’s straight forward to map a render pass to expected layout. Color attachments are COLOR_ATTACHMENT_OPTIMAL, depth-stencil is DEPTH_STENCIL_OPTIMAL or DEPTH_STENCIL_READ_ONLY_OPTIMAL based on the read/write mode for depth, input attachments are SHADER_READ_ONLY, etc. It’s possible to use an attachment for multiple purposes in a subpass, and Granite supports that as well. Some examples:

  • Color attachment + input attachment: Feedback loop ala GL_ARB_texture_barrier (super useful for certain emulators) -> GENERAL
  • RW Depth attachment + input attachment (some weird decal algorithm?) -> GENERAL
  • Read-Only depth + input attachment (deferred shading use case) -> DEPTH_STENCIL_READ_ONLY_OPTIMAL

All of this is analyzed when a newly observed VkRenderPass is created, and subpass dependencies are set up automatically. Anything which happens outside the render pass is the user’s responsibility.

08 – Bare-bones “deferred rendering” sample

I made a cut-down sample to show how the API expresses multi-pass in the context of deferred rendering with transient gbuffer + depth. The meat of it is:

Vulkan::RenderPassInfo rp;
rp.num_color_attachments = 3;
rp.color_attachments[0] = &device.get_swapchain_view();

rp.color_attachments[1] = &device.get_transient_attachment(
rp.color_attachments[2] = &device.get_transient_attachment(

rp.depth_stencil = &device.get_transient_attachment(

rp.store_attachments = 1 << 0;
rp.clear_attachments = (1 << 0) | (1 << 1) | (1 << 2);

Vulkan::RenderPassInfo::Subpass subpasses[2];
rp.num_subpasses = 2;
rp.subpasses = subpasses;

rp.clear_depth_stencil.depth = 1.0f;

subpasses[0].num_color_attachments = 2;
subpasses[0].color_attachments[0] = 1;
subpasses[0].color_attachments[1] = 2;

subpasses[0].depth_stencil_mode = Vulkan::RenderPassInfo::DepthStencil::ReadWrite;

subpasses[1].num_color_attachments = 1;
subpasses[1].color_attachments[0] = 0;
subpasses[1].num_input_attachments = 3;
subpasses[1].input_attachments[0] = 1;
subpasses[1].input_attachments[1] = 2;
subpasses[1].input_attachments[2] = 3;  // Depth attachment
subpasses[1].depth_stencil_mode = Vulkan::RenderPassInfo::DepthStencil::ReadOnly;

// Do work
// Do work

See code comments in sample for more detail. To write this kind of sample in raw Vulkan would be almost a full day’s project.


Unlike many aspects of Granite which are reasonably high-level, synchronization in Granite is almost 100% explicit. The general philosophy of Granite is that excessive tracking of resource use is a no-no, unless it is trivial to do so (e.g. WSI images). Synchronization is a case where you need a lot of tracking to do a good job, and it is impossible to do a perfect job since you end up relying on heuristics, at least if you are to implement automatic synchronization on top of Vulkan. GL and D3D11 drivers have an advantage here since they can tap into GPU-specific synchronization mechanisms which might be better suited for implicit synchronization. A good example here is the i915 driver stack in the Linux DRM stack which can do automatic synchronization in kernel space somehow. I’m sure that simplifies the Mesa GL driver a lot, but I don’t know the details.

Let’s go through a thought experiment where we look at the big problems we run into if we are to implement a fully automatic barrier system. (I have tried :p)

Problem #1 – We cannot rewind time

When touching a resource, we must ask ourselves: “When and where was this resource accessed last?” We have three potential solutions to resolve a hazard:

  • Pipeline barrier (was used just now)
  • Event (was used some time ago in this queue)
  • Semaphore (was used in a different queue)

Ideally, we need to inject a barrier at the exact point where a resource was last used, but we cannot inject new commands in the middle of a command buffer which has already been recorded.

There is no winning this fight, either we eagerly inject barriers after every command in the hope that some future command will need to synchronize against it (VkEvent is nice here), or we inject barriers too late, stalling the GPU needlessly.

Eagerly injecting barriers is pure insanity if we take into the account that the resource might be used on a different queue in the future. That means signalling a heavy semaphore after every render pass or command. We could simply ignore supporting multiple queues, but that’s a huge compromise to make.

Problem #2 – Redundant tracking of read-only resources

A problem I found while trying to implement automatic barrier tracking was that static resources might be written in the future, so we need to keep track of them. This is a waste of CPU time, but it might be possible to explicitly mark these resources as “do not track, they’re truly static, pinky promise”, but I feel this is bolting on hacks.

Problem #3 – Multi-threading

The question of “where was this resource touched last” might not actually be possible to answer in a multi-threaded scenario. If we are recording command buffers in parallel, the backend has no idea what is going on until we serialize execution in vkQueueSubmit. A common solution I have seen for this problem is to resolve synchronization internally in command buffers as they are recorded, and on command buffer submission time, we can look at all used resources and resolve any cross-command buffer synchronization points right before submitting the command buffers in vkQueueSubmit. The complexity starts to shoot through the roof though. That’s a good sign we need to rethink.

I think this is the kind of solution you end up with when you have no choice but to port some old legacy API to Vulkan, and breaking the abstraction API is not an option.

Render graphs

A Vulkan backend which solves synchronization can only look back in time and deal with hazards at the last minute, but that is only because we do not have any context about what the application is doing. At a higher level, we can know what is going to happen in the future, and we can make automated decisions at that level, where we actually have context about what is going on. This is another reason why I do not want to have automatic synchronization in a Vulkan backend. Either we get a sub-optimal solution, or we try to close the gap with heuristics, but now run-time behavior is completely non-deterministic. We should aim for something better.

I believe the synchronization problem should be solved at a higher level, like a render graph. I wrote a blog some time ago about this topic: http://themaister.net/blog/2017/08/15/render-graphs-and-vulkan-a-deep-dive/

Signalling fences

Granite’s way of signalling fences is very similar to plain Vulkan.

Vulkan::Fence fence;
device.submit(cmd, &fence);

// Somewhere else, potentially in a different thread.
// fence ref-count goes to 0, queued up for recycling.

There is a pool of VkFence objects which can be reused. Signalling a fence forces a vkQueueSubmit. Once the lifetime of a Vulkan::Fence ends it is recycled back to the frame context. Nothing out of the ordinary here.


Semaphores work very similar to fences and are requested in Device::submit() like fences. Like Vulkan, they have a restriction that they can only be waited on once. Semaphores can be waited on in other queues with Device::add_wait_semaphore() in a particular queue and pipeline stage. This matches pDstWaitStages. Semaphores are also recycled like fences.


Events can be signalled and later waited on in the same queue. Again, we have a pool of VkEvent objects, CommandBuffer::signal_event() requests a fresh event, signals it with vkCmdSetEvent and hands it to the user. VkEvents are recycled using the frame context. There is a similar CommandBuffer::wait_event() which maps 1:1 to vkCmdWaitEvents.


Granite has many different methods to inject pipeline barriers, the most common ones are:

cmd->barrier(srcStage, srcAccess, dstStage, dstAccess);

which maps to a vkCmdPipelineBarrier with a VkMemoryBarrier, and image barriers which act on all subresources:

cmd->image_barrier(image, oldLayout, newLayout, srcStage, srcAccess, dstStage, dstAccess);

There are cases where we want to batch barriers or otherwise use more complicated commands than this, so there are also 1:1 interfaces to vkCmdPipelineBarrier where the full structures are passed in, but these are only really used by the render graph since writing out full structures is super painful.

The automatic barriers in Granite

There are a few instances where I think having automatic barriers makes sense. These are cases where it’s convenient to do so, and there is no tracking required, so we can resolve all hazards right away and forget about it. Some of them we’ve seen already, like WSI images and transient images in render passes.

The other major case is static read-only resources. If you pass in initial_data to Device::create_buffer() or Device::create_image(), we generally have a desire to upload some data, and never touch it again.

The general gist of it is that we can upload data with a staging buffer over the transfer queue and inject semaphores which block all possible pipeline stages (based on bufferUsage/imageUsage flags). The downside is that we might end up creating too many submissions if we somehow want to upload a ridiculous amount of buffers or images in one go, but we can opt-out of this automatic behavior by simply not passing initial_data and do all the batching and synchronization work ourselves.

The end goal is that we should be able to call create_buffer or create_image and just use the static resource right away without having to think about synchronization at all.

09 – Rendering to image and reading it back to CPU on transfer queue

I wrote a sample which flexes most of the synchronization APIs. It renders a small 4×4 texture on the graphics queue, synchronizes that with the transfer queue with a semaphore and reads it back to a CACHED host buffer. We spawn threads which wait on a fence, maps the buffer and reads the results.


In these parts of the backend, the low-level explicit nature of Vulkan shines through. I think we have to be fairly low-level, or we inherit most of the problems with the older APIs.

… up next!

In the next installment, we’ll have a look at pipeline creation.