The four stages in the evolution of broadcast programming

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The four stages in the evolution of broadcast programming

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I've been asking around for some ideas, and one developer mentioned I might want to cover compute shaders. So I went in, without much hope to attract many people, but I ended up with an overcrowded room with roughly one quarter of all the game camp participants, rambling about compute shaders for roughly an hour.

Afterwards, the main question I got was: The hardware To understand how compute shaders happened, we have to take a look at the hardware evolution.

Back in the old days, before shaders, we had geometry processing and texturing separated. This theme continued for a long time, even after shaders were introduced.

The four stages in the evolution of broadcast programming

Those units had usually similar capabilities in terms of what they could compute after all, additions and multiplications are the bulk of the work on a GPUbut memory access differed a lot.

For instance, accessing textures was something vertex shaders couldn't do for a long time. At that time, the split made sense as scenes consisted of few polygons, covering many pixels, so having less vertex shading power typically didn't result in a bottleneck.

By removing functionality from the vertex shaders, they could be better optimized and thus run faster. A basic GPU pipeline with separate vertex and pixel units.

Vertex units write shaded vertices into an attribute buffer, the pixel units consume it and also access memory through texture units. However, a fixed distribution also makes it impossible to load-balance resources. As games evolved, sometimes more vertex power was required -- for instance, when rendering dense geometry like trees -- while other games were exploiting the new shader programming models to write more complex pixel shaders.

Eventually, it became clear that the fixed split was not good enough. Gone were the days of separate units; instead, the shader core could process any kind of workload. The units can all talk to memory through the texture units, and pass data between them through an attribute buffer.

So what happened back then? The ALUs -- the units executing the math instructions -- were already similar. What changed was that the distinction between the units was removed completely. Vertex shaders were now executing on the same units as pixel shaders, making it possible to balance the workload between vertex and pixel shader work.

One thing you'll notice here is that vertex and pixel shaders need to communicate somehow -- a decent chunk of memory is needed to store attributes for interpolation, like vertex color.

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A vertex shader will compute those per vertex and move on to the next vertex, but a pixel shader might have to hang on this information for a while until all pixels are processed. We'll come to this memory later, let's remember if for now. The unified pipeline, shown as a compute pipeline.

The attribute buffer becomes the local or shared memory, the texture units become the gateway to global memory, and the pixel and vertex units are now general compute units. This model -- some ALUs bundled together, with some extra memory to allow communicating between sets of them -- was exposed at the same time as a "compute shader".

In reality there are a few more details to this, for instance, a compute unit usually does not process a single element, but multiple of those, and there are quite a few more caches involved to make all of this efficient.

Blocks with a dashed outline are shared between more than one compute unit. The SIMDs have different width, and the caches will look a bit different, but the basic compute model is still exactly the same.

Where you have one pixel, you have many, and all of them run the same shader, so this is how the hardware was designed.Olivia Tirard, Designer. Olivia is a Designer at four Combining a strong background in illustration with detailed knowledge of typography and data visualisation, Olivia brings unique references and applications to four23 design projects.

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A couple of months ago I went to the Munich GameCamp-- a bar camp where anyone can propose a talk, and then a quick vote is cast which talks get accepted. I've been asking around for some ideas, and one developer mentioned I might want to cover compute shaders.

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