Vulkan Synchronization Primer - Part I

The intent of this post is to provide a mental model for understanding the various synchronization nouns, verbs, and adjectives Vulkan offers. In particular, after reading this series, hopefully, you’ll have a good understanding of what problems exist, when you should use which sychronization feature, and what is likely to perform better or worse. There are no real prerequisites to reading this, except that you’ve at least encountered a few barriers in tutorial or sample code. I would guess that many readers might have also tried to read the standard on synchronization (with varying degrees of success).

Part I of this series will primarily cover memory barriers (VkMemoryBarrier, VkBufferMemoryBarrier and VkImageMemoryBarrier) as well as some of the fundamentals that will be important later on. This is a bird’s eye view approach and not intended to ultimately replace careful reading of the documentation and standard. I definitely won’t be able to summarize everything the standard offers on this topic, but hopefully a good chunk of it should be immediately more accessible to you.

(Part II is out!)

The “Factory”

Suppose you own a factory that makes a complicated item, the flurble. There are many types of flurbles, each type with different constituent components and unique assembly instructions. Furthermore, market demand for a specific type of flurbles can fluctuate greatly, so you often have to change up the type of flurbles being generated from the factory. To make matters worse, the flurble factory is located in a remote region, and instructions between you and the factory are delivered via email. The workers at the flurble factory are precise workers, and will follow your instructions to the letter.

As the principal flurble designer, you need to deliver your directions precisely. Otherwise, you risk requiring a lot of back-and-forth. Furthermore, if you don’t deliver an efficient set of instructions, you risk the factory churning out fewer flurbles than you might like. Let’s look at a hypothetical example to see what I mean. Suppose you design a flurble that has three parts, \(F_a\), \(F_b\), and \(F_c\). To combine them, \(F_a\) plugs into \(F_b\), and the combination \(F_{ab}\) plugins into \(F_c\) to make the finished product, \(F_{abc}\).

A very poor way to create this product might look like the following.

\[F_a \rightarrow F_b \rightarrow F_{ab} \rightarrow F_c \rightarrow F_{abc}\]

In my made up notation, the equation above prescribes a purely sequential set of instructions, and combined subscripts like \(F_{ab}\) imply a combination effect between two or more dependent objects. Creating \({F_b}\) doesn’t happen until \(F_a\) is finished for example. \(F_c\) is made until just before it’s needed at the very end. It should be pretty clear that we can do a lot better than this. For example, we could have different people at the factory create the separate flurble parts \(F_a\) through \(F_c\) in parallel, and do the assembly afterwards. To annotate this, we might describe this variant like so:

\[\begin{bmatrix} F_a \\ F_b \\ F_c \end{bmatrix} \rightarrow F_{ab} \rightarrow F_{abc}\]

This seems better in the sense that \(F_a\), \(F_b\), and \(F_c\) can all be built in parallel, but if you stop and stare for a bit, you should be able to find problems with this description as well.

The issue is, of course, that we don’t want to wait for \(F_c\) to finish construction before starting the assembly of \(F_{ab}\). We like that the creation of \(F_c\) starts in parallel with the other components, but unfortunately, our description is still overconstrained, and we’ve introduced a potential pipeline stall in our program.

From Flurble-land to GPU-land

I won’t carry the analogy any further, because hopefully, the simple example above should clarify the types of issues you might encounter. First, I’ll summarize the GPU’s execution and memory model a bit:

  • Every command we issue to the GPU may read or write memory in some way, shape, or form
  • Every command is submitted in a command buffer which determines a dispatch order between all the commands inside the buffer
  • Each command buffer is submitted to a particular queue, and different GPUs may or may not have multiple queues
  • Different queues might only support a subset of the available commands (e.g. a dedicated transfer queue supports image transfers and buffer transfers)
  • The GPU operates in a well-defined pipeline, and any given command may or may not have work for each stage of the pipeline

And things you need to worry about:

  • Just because a command was submitted early in a buffer doesn’t mean it has finished all of its instructions before a command submitted later
  • Just because a command buffer was submitted to a queue earlier than other command buffers on the same queue, doesn’t mean that all of its commands (or indeed, any of them) are guarantted to be finished before a later command buffer starts
  • Command buffers submitted on different queues similarly do not provide any guarantees

Why does the world operate this way? Well, this is where having an understanding of the CPU’s memory model can help. On the CPU, we also need to be worried about read and write hazards. If a thread writes data to a particular memory address, how can we be sure that a thread (that may be running on a different core) can read that same memory address in a well-defined way? The answer is that we need some form of synchronization primitive. If you’re familiar already with std::memory_order, you’ll know that most processors provide different types of memory barriers. The memory barriers on the CPU impose restrictions of varying levels of strictness. These barriers, when executed essentially say something akin to “wait until all writes executed prior to this point are visible” before continuing (in reality, there are different types of barriers that impose different levels of consistency).

On the GPU though, things are a bit more complicated than the CPU. The CPU is also deeply pipelined, but in general, the programmer doesn’t think about the different pipeline stages. The entire thing is more or less treated as a black box. Also, full memory/execution barriers on the GPU are very expensive. The GPU’s pipelines are deep and comparatively expensive to run compared to the CPU’s pipeline. For example, just rasterization of triangles alone is a boatload of instructions and occupies its own stage in the GPU’s pipeline. This is another way of saying that the GPU is optimized for throughput; at least, relative to the CPU. The final difference we’ll consider (there are more, but arguably less important differences) is that the GPU has many different types of memory writes. For example, a fragment shader might write to a framebuffer. Alternatively, a command might transition an image buffer from one memory layout to another (for more optimized sampling, or swap chain presentation). Maybe a vertex shader writes out transform feedback data to a storage buffer. Thus, when we issue a barrier that says “make all writes prior to this point visible,” this could be a very expensive barrier indeed, since all the various buffers now need to perform all necessary operations (some of which are fairly expensive indeed) before continuing.

The way we have to approach things then, is a much more explicit barrier. We need a barrier that says: given a pipeline stage and all the types of memory we’re about to care about, make sure we’re finished with those writes before proceeding to access this type of memory at these specific stages. A bit of a mouthful? Let’s look at an example:

vk::MemoryBarrier barrier{
    vk::AccessFlagBits::eTransferWrite,      // Src access mask
    vk::AccessFlagBits::eVertexAttributeRead // Dst access mask

    vk::PipelineStageFlagBits::eTransfer,   // Src pipeline stage mask
    vk::PipelineStageFlagBits::eVertexInput // Dst pipeline stage mask
    1,                                      // Memory barrier count
    &barrier                                // Memory barriers

We can read this code in two parts. First, the memory barrier defines what memory must be visible (here, transferred memory from something like a vkCmdBufferCopy) to where (subsequent commands that rely on reading vertex attribute memory). The second part, the vkCmdPipelineBarrier, informs the driver that the memory barrier kicks in when we reach the vertex input stage of the pipeline, and the relevant memory written by the transfer stage must have been published at this point in time. This barrier applies to all commands submitted prior to the same command buffer, and all commands submitted in a different buffer earlier on the same queue. Remember also that each command may or may not invoke each pipeline stage. In this example, if commands submitted before the barrier did not have a transfer stage, they would not factor into the execution of the barrier. Similarly, commands submitted after the barrier that do not have the VertexInput stage enabled will execute as though this barrier didn’t exist. The memory and pipeline barrier together then, can be thought of as a specification of “filters” that define dependencies between a subset of commands submitted after to a subset of commands submiitted before.

We should now be able to simply read arbitrary barriers and understand what information they encode (regardless of whether or not they make sense). For example:

vk::MemoryBarrier barrier{
    vk::AccessFlagBits::eUniformWrite |
        vk::AccessFlagBits::eDepthStencilAttachmentWrite, // Src access mask
    vk::AccessFlagBits::eIndexRead                        // Dst access mask

    vk::PipelineStageFlagBits::eEarlyFragmentTests, // Src pipeline stage mask
    vk::PipelineStageFlagBits::eGeometryShader |
        vk::PipelineStageFlagBits::eTransfer        // Dst pipeline stage mask
    1,                                              // Memory barrier count
    &barrier                                        // Memory barriers

This “nonsense” barrier basically reads like “before trying to read any index buffers from either the transfer or geometry shading stage (or later), make sure that writes to any uniforms and depth-stencil attachments from the early fragment tests stage (or earlier) have completed.”

We should include a few caveats. First, masking memory access bits for a stage that the stage doesn’t actually use doesn’t make a lot of sense. For example, defining a memory barrier that waits for all shader writes from late fragment tests stage is odd because no shader invocation happens in that pipeline stage whatsover. Furthermore, it doesn’t make sense to place a barrier between two stages within a render pass where the source stage happens after the destination stage in the pipeline. Third, it doesn’t make sense to mask access bits that correspond to reads (e.g. eShaderRead) in the source access mask. Reading from memory from different stages without a write issued in between is well-defined and requires no barrier. Last, the scopes defined by a pipeline barrier refer to commands submitted prior to the barrier and commands submitted after. Thus, in the above example, if you were to submit the pipeline barrier after a draw command that uses the geometry shader, the barrier won’t apply to it (and you may be violating a memory hazard if that shader accessed a uniform).

Multiple Queue Submission

The definitions above applied to submissions that occurred on the same queue. As we mentioned earlier though, GPUs have multiple queues. Most generally, they will have some number (0 or more) graphics, compute, and transfer queues. Submitting to multiple queues unlocks parallel submission on one hand, but on the other hand, there is now an entirely separate class of possible memory hazards we need to watch out for. Going back to the Flurble factory, imagine if there were multiple people emailing the factory workers with interdependent instructions. Of course, we’d like to not have to deal with this complexity at all, but in general, applications can be hugely bandwidth-bound, and this abstraction simply offers too much performance to leave off the table.

There are two main options for synchronizing work between queues. First, there is the broad-phase synchronization known as the VkSemaphore. The way it works is much like the standard OS-provided semaphore. Semaphores to be signaled are submitted to one queue at submission time, and semaphores are submitted to a different queue to be waited on (also at submission time). I call this “broad-phase” for pretty obvious reasons; it’s heavy-weight and blocks all execution on the second queue until all operations of the first queue finish. Sometimes, this is simply exactly what you want. For example, finishing all rendering on a graphics queue before attempting to send the framebuffer to the presentation queue.

Other times, we need a finer grained form of synchronization. The most common examples of this are a transfer job to submit buffers or images to the GPU that get consumed later by the graphics queue. Alternatively, we might have interdependencies between the graphics queue and the compute queue or vice-versa. Luckily, encoding this information is not so difficult as we have two memory barrier types for dealing with these cases specifically: the VkBufferMemoryBarrier and VkImageMemoryBarrier. Both of these structures contain member fields to encode the source and destination queue families. These barriers can also be used usefully on a single queue since they let you encode a barrier on a sub-region of either the buffer or image, or an image format transition in addition to every thing else in the case of an image barrier. When used to describe a queue transfer however, these barriers need to be submitted to both queues with the source and destination queue reversed. Depending on the queue they are submitted to, the barriers define a release or consume dependency between the queues. Another difference is that when these barriers are used to describe a queue ownership transfer, when a release is defined, the dstStageMask is ignored - after all, the commands submitted afterwards in the same queue do not care about the barrier. Similarly, the srcStageMask is ignored in the consume operation on the other side for an analogous reason.

Render Passes and Subpasses, Fences, and Events

Render passes operate similarly to the other barriers but are much more convenient to use in the context of draw commands and optimizations for tiled renderers. Fences and events will have to wait for later as well, but in all, I expect any subsequent discussion to be a bit easier once the contents in this post are firmly grasped (these topics are covered in part ii).


And that’s it for this part of the “primer.” Hopefully, this much is enough that you can reason about when and why dependencies occur in Vulkan (or any other modern graphics API), and how to encode them. To actually use them effectively in the wild, remember not to encode redundant dependencies. For example, if \(C\) depends on both \(A\) and \(B\), but \(B\) depends on \(A\), you can encode this using two dependencies \(A \rightarrow B\) and \(B \rightarrow C\). The dependency \(A \rightarrow C\) is redundant. Also, trying to get a perfect representation of all your resources in the application is often counterproductive. It’s better to think of synchronization as necessary for making your application correct, but not in and of themselves free. After all, it takes some amount of computational work to evaluate the dependency graph for the driver as well. How granular your dependencies should be is definitely outside the scope of this article, but experimentation is encouraged, and personally, I would opt for less granularity upfront, with additional changes once profiling has identified a bubble. As a final point, if you’ve tried reading the spec before and perhaps got discouraged or disinterested, you may want to try giving it another go :). As always, feedback is welcome and you can reach me via email or twitter at the links below.