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Vulkan 1.0 arrives: GPU drivers already available

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016 | Posted by Jim Thacker

AMD’s overview of the benefits of Vulkan. Both AMD and Nvidia have released beta drivers for their graphics cards supporting the next-gen open graphics API, a “ground-up redesign” of the aging OpenGL.

 
The Khronos Group, the industry consortium that oversees graphics programming interfaces, has released the specification for Vulkan, its long-awaited “ground-up redesign” of the 22-year-old OpenGL API.

The new open API, formerly known as Next Generation OpenGL Initiative or simply glNext, was originally announced in 2014, and publicised more heavily in the run up to GDC last year.

So why replace OpenGL anyway?
Whereas OpenGL was originally designed for graphics workstations, Vulkan is designed to be used on a full range of modern devices, including mobile chipsets with shared memory between CPU and GPU.

The API is also intended to give software developers direct control over GPU operation, minimising the work that needs to be done by graphics drivers – and the resulting hit on performance and stability.

In addition, it’s designed to be better for multi-core programming, further increasing performance.

Vulkan also uses the same intermediate language as OpenCL, the open API for heterogenous computing, used for GPU acceleration of general processing tasks.

That means that developers should be able to create better-looking, better-performing games and graphics software that runs across a range of devices – in theory, at least.

Supported in Windows, Linux and Android, but not OS X or iOS
In practice, while one of the benefits of Vulkan is that it’s platform-agnostic, things haven’t gone entirely smoothly on that front over the past year.

On the up side, Google is now actively backing Vulkan – it will be supported in Marshmallow, the latest release of Android – which means that there is a single next-gen low-level graphics API for Windows, Linux and Android.

On the down side, Apple seems to be exclusively backing Metal, its rival proprietary graphics API, now supported in both iOS and Mac OS X.

AnandTech reports that Apple is no longer participating in the Vulkan working group, so the prospect of either operating system supporting Vulkan in future seems slim.

For developers of high-performance graphics applications, that further increases the difficulty of supporting Apple operating systems: already a source of frustration for small firms and open-source projects.

160217_NvidiaVulkanFishDemo
 
Nvidia’s ThreadedRenderingVk tech demo illustrates techniques for utilizing multiple threads to animate a scene using the Vulkan API. Both Nvidia and AMD have released Vulkan-compatible drivers for their GPUs.

Drivers already available for both Nvidia and AMD GPUs
However, Vulkan has hit the ground running when it comes to driver support. Both Nvidia and AMD already have Vulkan-compatible drivers for their graphics cards.

Nvidia’s driver is available for Windows 8, Windows 10 and Linux, and is compatible with both the company’s GeForce range of gaming cards and its professional Quadro workstation and notebook GPUs.

Although it’s still officially a beta, the driver has passed the Vulkan 1.0 conformance tests.

If you’ve got a compatible GPU, Nvidia has also published a set of downloadable tech demos that you can try out, available via the link at the foot of this page.

AMD’s driver is only available for Windows – although it also runs on Windows 7 – and only for its Radeon graphics cards: as far as we can see, there’s no support for AMD’s professional FirePro GPUs yet.

So far, it hasn’t passed all of the conformance tests, either. According to AMD, “a fully conformant implementation of the Vulkan API will be included in a forthcoming Radeon Software release”.

In addition, chip manufacturers Intel and Imagination Technologys have published conformant drivers for Linux, and Qualcomm has done the same for Android.

AnandTech has posted a detailed article on platform and driver support for Vulkan, so if you’re interested in the implications for graphics software development, it’s well worth checking out.

Read more about Vulkan 1.0 on The Khronos Group’s website
(Includes links to the launch announcement and developer resources)

Read more about Vulkan in Nvidia’s Developer Zone site (Includes downloadable tech demos)

Read more about Vulkan on AMD’s GPUOpen developer site

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