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The OpenGL Pipeline Newsletter - Volume 004

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Longs Peak Update: Buffer Object Improvements

Longs Peak offers a number of enhancements to the buffer object API to help streamline application execution. Applications that are able to leverage these new features may derive a considerable performance benefit. In particular they can boost the performance of applications that have a lot of dynamic data flow in the form of write-once/draw-once streamed batches, procedurally generated geometry, or frequent intra-frame edits to buffer object contents.

Under OpenGL 2.1, there are two ways to transfer data from the application to a buffer object: the glBufferData/glBufferSubData calls, and the glMapBuffer/glUnmapBuffer calls. The latter themselves do not transfer any data but instead allow the application temporary access to read and write the contents of a buffer object directly. The Longs Peak enhancements described here are focused on the latter style of usage.

The behavior of glMapBuffer is not very complicated under OpenGL 2.1: it will wait until all pending drawing activity using the buffer in question has completed, and it will then return a pointer representing the beginning of the buffer, implicitly granting access to the entire buffer. Once the application has finished reading or writing data in the buffer, glUnmapBuffer must be called to return control of the storage to GL. This model is straightforward and easy to code to, but can hold back performance during some usage patterns. The usage patterns of interest are strongly centered on write-only traffic from the application, and the enhancements to the Longs Peak API reflect that.

Longs Peak will allow the application to exercise tighter control over the behavior of glMapBuffer (tentatively referred to as lpMapBuffer), by offering these new requests:

  • mapping only a specified range of a buffer
  • strict write-only access
  • explicit flushing of altered/written regions
  • whole-buffer invalidation
  • partial-buffer invalidation
  • non-serialized access

An application may benefit from using some or all of the above techniques. They're listed above in roughly increasing order of challenge for the developer to utilize correctly; getting the maximum performance may take more developer work and testing, depending on how application code is structured. Let's look at each of the options in more detail. Each is exposed via an individual bit flag in the access parameter to the lpMapBuffer call.

Sub-range mapping of a buffer: Under OpenGL 2.1 it was not possible to request access to a limited section of a buffer object; mapping was an “all or nothing” operation. One side effect of this is that GL has no way to know how much data was changed before unmapping, whether it involves a single range of data or potentially multiple ranges of data. In Longs Peak, by explicitly mapping sub-ranges of a buffer, the application can provide useful information to help accelerate the delivery of those edits to the buffer contents.

For example, if the application maintains a multi-megabyte vertex buffer and wishes to change a few kilobytes of localized data, it can map just the area of interest, write any changes to it, and then unmap. On implementations where altered data ranges must be copied or mirrored to GPU storage, the work at unmap time is thereby reduced significantly.

While in some cases an application may be able to achieve the same partial edit to a large buffer by using glBufferSubData, that technique assumes the original data exists in a readily copyable form. This enhancement to the lpMapBuffer path allows more efficient partial edits to a buffer object even when the CPU is sourcing the data directly via some algorithm, such as a decompression technique or procedural animation system (particles, physics, etc.). The application can map the range of interest, use the pointer as the target address for the code actually writing the finished data, and then unmap.

Write-only access: While a request of write-only access was possible in GL2, reading from those mappings was discouraged in the spec as likely to be slow or capable of causing a crash. Under Longs Peak this is even more strongly forbidden; reading from a write-only mapping may either crash or return garbage data even if the read succeeds. If there is any need to read from a mapped buffer in a Longs Peak program, you absolutely must request read access in the access parameter to lpMapBuffer.

By defining this behavior more strictly we can enhance the notion of one-way data flow from CPU to memory to GPU and free up the driver to do some interesting optimizations, the net effect being that lpMapBuffer can return more quickly with a usable pointer for writing when needed. Write-only access is especially powerful in conjunction with one or more of the options described below.

Explicit flushing: In some use cases it can be beneficial for the application to map a range of a buffer representing the “worst case” size needs for the next drawing operation, then write some number of vertices up to that amount, and then unmap. Normally this would imply to GL that all of the data in the mapped range had been changed. But by requesting explicit flushing, the application can undertake the responsibility of informing GL which regions were actually written. Use of this option requires the application to track precisely which bytes it has written to, and to tell GL where those bytes are prior to unmap through use of the lpFlushMappedData API.

For some types of client code where vertices are being generated procedurally, it can be difficult to predict the number of vertices generated precisely in advance. With explicit flush, the application can “reserve” a worst-case-sized region at map time, and then “commit” the portion actually generated through the lpFlushMappedData call, prior to unmap.

This ability to convey precisely how much data was written (and where) has a number of positive implications for the driver with respect to any temporary memory management it may need to do in response to the request. While an application can and should use the map-time range information to constrain the amount of storage being manipulated, explicit flushing allows for additional control if that amount cannot be precisely predicted at map time.

This is another case where the same net effect could be accomplished by using a separate temp buffer for the initial data generation, followed by a call to glBufferSubData. However, being able to write the finished data directly into the mapped region can eliminate a copying step for the application and also potentially reduce processor cache pollution depending on the implementation.

Whole-buffer invalidation: This is analogous to the glBufferData(NULL) idiom from OpenGL 2.1, whereby a new block of uninitialized storage is atomically swapped into the buffer object, but the old storage is detached for the driver to release at a later time after pending drawing operations have completed -- also known as “buffer orphaning.” Since Longs Peak no longer allows the glBufferData(NULL) idiom, this functionality is now provided as an option to the lpMapBuffer call. This is especially useful for implementing efficient streaming of variable sized batches; an application can set up a fixed size buffer object, then repeatedly fill and draw at ascending offsets -- packing as many batches as possible into the buffer -- then perform a full buffer invalidation and start over at offset zero.

Partial-buffer invalidation: This option can and should be invoked when the application knows that none of the data currently stored within the mapped range of a buffer needs to be preserved. That is, the application’s intent is to overwrite all or part of that range, and only the newly written data is expected to have any validity upon completion. This option is only usable in conjunction with write-only access mode. It has a number of positive implications for performance, as it releases the driver from the requirement of providing any valid view of the existing storage at map time. Instead it is free to provide scratch memory in order to return a usable pointer to the application more quickly.

Generally speaking, a program can and should make use of both partial and whole buffer invalidation, but the usage frequency of the former is expected to be much higher. Restated, partial invalidation is useful for efficiently accumulating individual batches of CPU-sourced data into a common buffer, whereas whole buffer invalidation should be invoked when one buffer fills up and a fresh batch of storage is needed. Whole buffer invalidation, like glBufferData(NULL) in OpenGL 2.1, enables the application to perform these hand-offs without any need for sync objects, fences, or blocking.

Non-serialized access: This option allows an application to assume complete responsibility for scheduling buffer accesses. When this option is engaged, lpMapBuffer may not block if there is pending drawing activity on the buffer of interest. Access may be granted without consideration for any such concurrent activity. Another term for this behavior is "non-blocking mapping." If you have written code for OpenGL 2.1 and run into stalls in glMapBuffer, this option may be of interest.

When used in conjunction with write-only access and partial invalidation, this option can enable the application to efficiently accumulate any number of edits to a common buffer interleaved with draw calls using those regions, keeping the drawing thread largely unblocked and effectively decoupling CPU progress from GPU progress.  On contemporary multi-core-aware implementations where multiple frames' worth of drawing commands may be enqueued at any given moment, the impact of being able to interleave mapped buffer access with drawing requests (without blocking the application) can be quite significant.
An application can only safely use this option if it has taken the necessary steps to ensure that regions of the buffer being used by drawing operations are not altered by the application before those operations complete.  This can be accomplished using proper use of sync objects, or by enforcing a write-once policy per region of the buffer.  A developer must not set this bit and expect everything to keep working as-is; careful thought must go into analysis of existing access/drawing patterns before proceeding with the use of this technique.  The caution level on the part of the developer must be very high, but the potential rewards are also significant.

As the Longs Peak spec is still evolving and minor naming or API changes may yet be made, some of the terminology above could change before the final spec is drafted and released.  This article is intended to offer a “sneak peek” at the types of improvements under consideration.  Please share your questions and feedback with us on the OpenGL forums.

T. Hunter
Object Model Technical SubGroup Contributor

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