OpenGL (henceforth, the ``GL'') is concerned only with rendering into a framebuffer (and reading values stored in that framebuffer). There is no support for other peripherals sometimes associated with graphics hardware, such as mice and keyboards. Programmers must rely on other mechanisms to obtain user input.
The GL draws primitives subject to a number of selectable modes. Each primitive is a point, line segment, polygon, or pixel rectangle. Each mode may be changed independently; the setting of one does not affect the settings of others (although many modes may interact to determine what eventually ends up in the framebuffer). Modes are set, primitives specified, and other GL operations described by sending commands in the form of function or procedure calls.
Primitives are defined by a group of one or more vertices. A vertex defines a point, an endpoint of an edge, or a corner of a polygon where two edges meet. Data (consisting of positional coordinates, colors, normals, and texture coordinates) are associated with a vertex and each vertex is processed independently, in order, and in the same way. The only exception to this rule is if the group of vertices must be clipped so that the indicated primitive fits within a specified region; in this case vertex data may be modified and new vertices created. The type of clipping depends on which primitive the group of vertices represents.
Commands are always processed in the order in which they are received, although there may be an indeterminate delay before the effects of a command are realized. This means, for example, that one primitive must be drawn completely before any subsequent one can affect the framebuffer. It also means that queries and pixel read operations return state consistent with complete execution of all previously invoked GL commands. In general, the effects of a GL command on either GL modes or the framebuffer must be complete before any subsequent command can have any such effects.
In the GL, data binding occurs on call. This means that data passed to a command are interpreted when that command is received. Even if the command requires a pointer to data, those data are interpreted when the call is made, and any subsequent changes to the data have no effect on the GL (unless the same pointer is used in a subsequent command).
The GL provides direct control over the fundamental operations of 3D and 2D graphics. This includes specification of such parameters as transformation matrices, lighting equation coefficients, antialiasing methods, and pixel update operators. It does not provide a means for describing or modeling complex geometric objects. Another way to describe this situation is to say that the GL provides mechanisms to describe how complex geometric objects are to be rendered rather than mechanisms to describe the complex objects themselves.
The model for interpretation of GL commands is client-server. That is, a program (the client) issues commands, and these commands are interpreted and processed by the GL (the server). The server may or may not operate on the same computer as the client. In this sense, the GL is ``network-transparent.'' A server may maintain a number of GL contexts, each of which is an encapsulation of current GL state. A client may choose to connect to any one of these contexts. Issuing GL commands when the program is not connected to a context results in undefined behavior.
The effects of GL commands on the framebuffer are ultimately controlled by the window system that allocates framebuffer resources. It is the window system that determines which portions of the framebuffer the GL may access at any given time and that communicates to the GL how those portions are structured. Therefore, there are no GL commands to configure the framebuffer or initialize the GL. Similarly, display of framebuffer contents on a CRT monitor (including the transformation of individual framebuffer values by such techniques as gamma correction) is not addressed by the GL. Framebuffer configuration occurs outside of the GL in conjunction with the window system; the initialization of a GL context occurs when the window system allocates a window for GL rendering.
The GL is designed to be run on a range of graphics platforms with varying graphics capabilities and performance. To accommodate this variety, we specify ideal behavior instead of actual behavior for certain GL operations. In cases where deviation from the ideal is allowed, we also specify the rules that an implementation must obey if it is to approximate the ideal behavior usefully. This allowed variation in GL behavior implies that two distinct GL implementations may not agree pixel for pixel when presented with the same input even when run on identical framebuffer configurations.
Finally, command names, constants, and types are prefixed in the GL (by gl, GL_, and GL, respectively in C) to reduce name clashes with other packages. The prefixes are omitted in this document for clarity.