The subject is really vast and complex and I’ve been trying to write an article about this for quite some time now. Recently, I made a small patch to enhance this technique and I thought it was a good occasion to try to summarize how it works and the benefits of it. In order to talk about this new enhancement, I would like to draw the big picture first.
That might look like a complicated post title… but this is rather complex than really complicated. Here is how it starts: rendering a 3D object require to execute a graphics rendering program – or “shader” – on the GPU. To make it simple, let’s just say this program will compute the final color of each pixel on the screen. Thus, the operations performed by this shader will vary according to how you want your object to look like. For example rendering with a solid flat color requires different operations than rendering with per-pixel lighting.
Any programming beginner will understand that such program will test conditions – for example whether to use lighting or not – and perform some operations according to the result of this test. Yes: that’s pretty much exactly what an “if” statement is. It might look like programming trivia to you. And it would be if this program was not meant to be executed on the GPU…
You see, the GPU does not like branching. Not one bit (literally)! For the sake of parallelization, the GPU expects the program to have a fixed number of operations. This is the only efficient way to ensure computations can be distributed over a large number of pipelines without having to care too much about their synchronization. Thus, the GPU does not know branching and each program has a fixed number of instructions that will always be executed in the same order.
Conclusion: shader programs cannot use “if” statements. And of course, loops are out of the game too since they are pretty much pimped out “if” statements. Can you imagine what such logic would imply on your daily programming tasks? If you simply try to, you will quickly understand that instead of writing one program that can handle many different situations you will have to write many different programs that will handle a single situation. And then manually choose which one should be launched according to your initial setup…
The simplest workaround is to find “some way” to make sure useless computations do not affect the actual rendering operations. For example, you can “virtually disable” lighting by setting all lights diffuse/specular components to 0.
As you can imagine, this is really a suboptimal option. Performance wise, it’s actually the worst possible idea: a lot of computations happen and most of them are likely to be useless in most cases.
If/else shader intrinsic instructions
After a few years, shaders evolved and featured more and more instructions. Those instructions are now usable through higher level languages such as CG or GLSL. Those languages feature “if” statements (and even loops too). How are they compiled into shader code that can run on a GPU? Do they overcome the challenges implied by parallelization?
No. They actually fit in in a very straight forward and simple way. As a shader program must feature a single fixed list of instructions, the two parts of a if/else statement will both be executed. The hardware will then decide which one should be muted according to the actual result of the test performed by the conditional instructions.
The bright side is that you can use this technique to have a single shader program that handles multiple scenarios. The dark side is that this shader is still very inefficient and might eventually break the limit number of instructions for a single program. On some older hardware, the corresponding hardware instructions simply do not exist…
So even this “brand new” feature that will be introduced in Flash 11.7 and its “extended” profile is far from sufficient.
Some engines will use high level shader programming languages (like CG or GLSL) and a pre-compilation workflow to generate all the possible outcomes. Then, the right shader is loaded at runtime according to the rendering setup. This is the case of the Source Engine, created by Valve and used in famous games like Half Life 2, Team Fortress 2 or Portal.
This solution is efficient performance wise: there is always a shader that will do exactly and strictly the required operations according to the rendering setup. Plus it does not have to rely on some hardware features availability. But pre-compilation implies a very heavy and inefficient assets workflow.
How would the same principle apply to shaders? If you consider your application as the VM and your shader code as this VM execution language, then it all falls into place! Indeed, your 3D application could simply compile some higher level language shader code into actual machine shader code according to the available data. For example, some shader might compile differently according to whether lighting is enabled or not or even according to the number of lights.
With Minko, we tried to keep it as simple as possible. Therefore, we worked very hard to find a way to be able to write shaders using AS3. As the figure above explains, the AS3 shader code you write is not executed on the GPU (because that’s simply not possible). Instead, the application acts as a Virtual Machine and as it gets executed at runtime, this AS3 shader code transparently generates what we call an Abstract Shader Graph (ASGs). You can see it as an Abstract Syntax Tree for shaders (you can even ask Minko to output ASGs in the consoleas they get generated using a debug flag). This ASG in then optimized and compiled into actual shader code for the GPU.
For example: everytime you call the add() method in your AS3 shader code, it will create a corresponding ASG node. This very node will be linked with the rest of the ASG as you use it in other operations until it is finally used as the result of the shader. This result node becomes the “entry point” of the ASG.
Here is what a very simple ASG that just handles a solid flat color rendering looks like:
Here is what a (complicated) ASG that handle multiple lights looks like:
Your AS3 shader code is executed at runtime on the CPU to generate this ASG that will be compiled into actual shader code that will run on the GPU (in the case of Flash it will actually output AGAL bytecode that will be translated into shader machine code by the Flash Player). As such, you can easily perform “if” statements that will shape the ASG. You can even use loops, functions and OOP! You just have to make sure the shader is re-evaluated anytime the output might be different (for example when the condition tested in a “if” changes). But that’s for another time…
Using JIT shaders, Minko can efficiently dynamically compile shaders shaped by the actual rendering settings occuring at runtime. Thus, it combines the high performance of a pre-compilation solution while leveraging all the flexibility of JIT compilation. In my next articles, I will explain how JIT shaders compilation can be efficiently automated and how multi-pass rendering can also be made more efficient thanks to this approach.
If you have questions, hit the comments or post in the Minko category on Aerys Answers!