C and Its Offspring: OpenGL [Part ONE]

C and Its Offspring: OpenGL [Part ONE]

OpenGL offers an API used to meet the demands of users and engineers to improve the visual quality and computational throughput of systems. A mental model must be understood in order to drive OpenGL, which enables the creation of applications and allows them to be integrated with the rest of your system.


The advent of the iPhone-era has ushered in a step change in the paradigms of visual display and user experience from desktop through mobile and down to embedded applications. This change is being driven by the user’s expectations and by the capabilities of modern hardware. No longer will users accept mechanical buttons as the primary method of interaction. Even on machine shop and factory floors, the users are demanding visually pleasing, fluid and intuitive user interfaces. At the same time, today’s hardware is capable of so much more than that of yesteryear both in terms of graphical output and compute processing.

OpenGL for Graphics and Compute

OpenGL has been around in one shape or another for 22 years. Over this time it has always had a dedicated set of followers but amongst the wider technical audience who have dabbled with OpenGL it has often left them with a sense of confusion, wild-eyed wonderment or perhaps even fear. To a large extent this level of impenetrability was caused by the mental model of engineers not matching the reality of what OpenGL was executing under the hood. This is no fault of the engineers placed in this situation. Legacy OpenGL was a beast. Lots of global state, an archaic binding-to-edit object model, and cruft gathered as graphics hardware evolved into its current form, which is vastly different to when OpenGL was first conceived.

Silicon Graphics started developing OpenGL in 1991 and since 2006, it has been further developed by the non-profit consortium, the Khronos Group. Since then, OpenGL has become very popular in the fields of CAD, virtual reality, scientific visualization, information visualization, flight simulation and video games.

Fortunately, modern OpenGL is much more approachable, flexible and has higher performance than the original. It is, however, still necessary to have a good mental model of how OpenGL operates. The key to this is understanding the so-called pipeline and how it interacts with the OpenGL C API. The pipeline describes the flow of data through OpenGL and it can be configured in numerous ways to achieve all manner of rendering algorithms such as environment mapped reflections, stylized shading (toon, ink, pencil), shadows, global illumination and many more. Before we can learn about such higher level algorithms, we need to need understand the basic pipeline that forms the fundamental building block. So take a deep breath and let’s dive in.

The OpenGL Graphics Pipeline

Figure 1 shows a simplified schematic view of the OpenGL pipeline. It begins with data being fed in from the CPU (we will see how shortly). The data usually boils down to a set of vertex positions and their associated attributes (color, normal vector, texture coordinates etc.) but this data can be anything we can encode into a few floats, booleans or integers. Modern OpenGL allows us to be flexible. No longer are we tied to what the designers of the original OpenGL thought we should be using.


Figure 1
Simplified overview of the OpenGL graphics pipeline. Data flows from the top-left to the bottom right. To begin with the data is geometric in nature (with accompanying data). The vertex shader stage performs coordinate transformations. In the rasterization stage the geometric primitives are converted into fragments and are later given a color by the fragment shader. Those fragments that successfully pass a set of tests eventually get displayed on the render target.

Each vertex and its attributes are passed into the vertex shader – a programmable piece of logic. We’ll find out later why a shader is so named. A modern GPU may allocate many cores to processing vertices in parallel, but each instantiation of the vertex shader can only operate on a single vertex at a time. The typical task a vertex shader performs is that of coordinate system transformations. This may be to transform from model space to eye space for lighting calculations; to world space for environment mapping; to tangent space for normal or parallax mapping or one of many other possibilities. One thing a vertex shader must do however, is to output the vertex position in clip-space as this is used as input to the rasterizer. Actually it’s the final stage before rasterization that must output the clip-space coordinates. That means the geometry shader if present, otherwise the tessellation evaluation shader if present, otherwise the vertex shader as in the simplified pipeline introduced here.

Understanding coordinate systems and the transformations between them is key to making effective use of OpenGL. Trying to shortcut this only leads to misery down the line. Be sure you understand the important coordinate systems, when each one is of use, and how to get your data into that coordinate system.

As the transformed vertices pop out of the vertex shader, they are processed by the first piece of fixed functionality in the pipeline – primitive assembly and clipping. This is where the individual vertices that make up a graphical primitive (point, line or triangle usually) get pulled together into a logical entity. This construct is then clipped against the volume that is eventually mapped to the current render target (usually the back buffer of a native window surface or a texture).

The OpenGL graphics pipeline consists of several programmable and fixed function stages. The programmable stages are controlled by writing short programs in the OpenGL shading language called GLSL that execute directly on the GPU. Where such flexibility is not required the pipeline uses blocks of fixed functionality implemented directly in silicon. Some of these fixed stages can be tweaked to some extent by calling OpenGL API functions from C/C++. Think of these as levers and dials on a machine that change how the machine operates.

Armed with the clipped primitives, the rasterizer is then able to generate fragments for each primitive. Think of a fragment as a pixel in training. Our nascent fragments still have a long journey ahead of them before they may graduate to become a fully-fledged pixel. To help them on their way, each fragment contains data for not only its position but also potentially a host of other data too.

Recall the attributes that we have associated with each of our vertices. Each of these attributes is interpolated across the primitive by the rasterizer. As an example imagine the simple case of the three vertices shown in Figure 2. The three vertices have position and a color attribute: red, green and blue respectively. For each fragment generated by the rasterizer, these three colors are interpolated to give a color at the position of that fragment. At the precise center of the resulting triangle (assuming the center is conveniently aligned to the pixel grid) there will be a fragment whose color consists of equal amounts of red green and blue – perfectly grey.

Figure 2
The three vertices of a triangle are submitted to OpenGL. After transformation the vertices are assembled into a triangle. The rasterizer performs a scan-line conversion of the triangle and any additional attributes associated with the vertices are interpolated across the surface of the triangle to create fragments. The fragments are then fed into the fragment shader to be processed further.

Depending upon the detail of the geometry sent into the pipeline relative to the resulting projected sizes of the rasterized primitives you will likely find that at this stage of the pipeline there is somewhat of a data explosion. Each of those rasterized fragments must be lovingly crafted by the next programmable stage – the fragment shader. It was the fragment shader that gave rise to the general term shader, because the fragment shader’s prime responsibility is determining what color, or shade, the fragment should be given on its way to becoming a pixel.

Just as with the vertex shader, each instantiation of the fragment shader executes in isolation from all others. This is to allow many cores on the GPU to process fragments in parallel without data dependencies between them – remember, there are a lot of fragments to churn through. Actually, that is a bit of a generalization. It is possible to get limited amounts of information about neighbouring fragment processing into a fragment shader. This is often achieved via the GLSL functions dFdX and dFdY which allow getting information about gradients between fragments. This is possible because the GPU processes blocks of fragments together and in lock-step. This allows peeking into the registers for neighbouring fragments.

Given the expressive power and flexibility of the GLSL language, a skilled developer can craft all manner of effects in the fragment shader. For some convincing examples of what can be achieved with a fragment shader and rendering a full-window quad (two triangles, since quads are now relegated to the annals of history), take a look at the impressive examples at https://www.shadertoy.com/.

Although the order in which vertices are fed into the pipeline is well defined, it is sometimes useful for a shader stage to be able to sample from a chunk of data in an arbitrary manner. To enable this, data can be exposed to the pipeline in the form of textures, images and special types of buffer object (uniform buffers and shader storage buffers). These can be accessed from any shader stage. Access to textures can also optionally include quite sophisticated sampling and filtering implemented in hardware.

The fragments exiting the fragment shader, sporting a (hopefully intended) color now go into another piece of fixed functionality that performs a number of tests that must be passed if our fragment hopes to graduate to pixeldom. Two common examples are the depth test and the stencil test. The depth test is often referred to as z-testing due to the key role played by the z component in this test. Both of these tests operate by comparing the data in each fragment to the data in another buffer—the depth buffer or stencil buffer respectively.

Exactly how the data gets into these additional buffers is beyond the scope of this article but suffice it to say that it is very common and very easy to populate the depth buffer. The incoming fragment and the data at the corresponding position in the buffer are compared, using a user-specified comparison operator. If the comparison is true, the fragment passes the test and is allowed to carry on. If the fragment fails, it is thrown away.

If blending is disabled, that is the end of the story. The successful fragments get written to the render target and eventually get displayed on the screen, or used as input to a subsequent render pass. If blending is enabled, then the incoming fragments get combined with any fragments that went before them at the same pixel location by way of a user-specified blending operation. At this time, blending is still classified as a fixed function, but configurable pipeline stage. Who knows, perhaps in time, blending will also evolve into a full-blown programmable stage.

Read Part TWO

Houston, TX
(866) 777-5322