Improving shader performance with Vulkan’s specialization constants

For some time now I have been working on and off on a personal project with no other purpose than toying a bit with Vulkan and some rendering and shading techniques. Although I’ll probably write about that at some point, in this post I want to focus on Vulkan’s specialization constants and how they can provide a very visible performance boost when they are used properly, as I had the chance to verify while working on this project.

The concept behind specialization constants is very simple: they allow applications to set the value of a shader constant at run-time. At first sight, this might not look like much, but it can have very important implications for certain shaders. To showcase this, let’s take the following snippet from a fragment shader as a case study:

layout(push_constant) uniform pcb {
   int num_samples;
} PCB;

const int MAX_SAMPLES = 64;
layout(set = 0, binding = 0) uniform SamplesUBO {
   vec3 samples[MAX_SAMPLES];
} S;

void main()
{
   ...
   for(int i = 0; i < PCB.num_samples; ++i) {
      vec3 sample_i = S.samples[i];
      ...
   }
   ...
}

That is a snippet taken from a Screen Space Ambient Occlusion shader that I implemented in my project, a popular techinique used in a lot of games, so it represents a real case scenario. As we can see, the process involves a set of vector samples passed to the shader as a UBO that are processed for each fragment in a loop. We have made the maximum number of samples that the shader can use large enough to accomodate a high-quality scenario, but the actual number of samples used in a particular execution will be taken from a push constant uniform, so the application has the option to choose the quality / performance balance it wants to use.

While the code snippet may look trivial enough, let’s see how it interacts with the shader compiler:

The first obvious issue we find with this implementation is that it is preventing loop unrolling to happen because the actual number of samples to use is unknown at shader compile time. At most, the compiler could guess that it can’t be more than 64, but that number of iterations would still be too large for Mesa to unroll the loop in any case. If the application is configured to only use 24 or 32 samples (the value of our push constant uniform at run-time) then that number of iterations would be small enough that Mesa would unroll the loop if that number was known at shader compile time, so in that scenario we would be losing the optimization just because we are using a push constant uniform instead of a constant for the sake of flexibility.

The second issue, which might be less immediately obvious and yet is the most significant one, is the fact that if the shader compiler can tell that the size of the samples array is small enough, then it can promote the UBO array to a push constant. This means that each access to S.samples[i] turns from an expensive memory fetch to a direct register access for each sample. To put this in perspective, if we are rendering to a full HD target using 24 samples per fragment, it means that we would be saving ourselves from doing 1920x1080x24 memory reads per frame for a very visible performance gain. But again, we would be loosing this optimization because we decided to use a push constant uniform.

Vulkan’s specialization constants allow us to get back these performance optmizations without sacrificing the flexibility we implemented in the shader. To do this, the API provides mechanisms to specify the values of the constants at run-time, but before the shader is compiled.

Continuing with the shader snippet we showed above, here is how it can be rewritten to take advantage of specialization constants:

layout (constant_id = 0) const int NUM_SAMPLES = 64;
layout(std140, set = 0, binding = 0) uniform SamplesUBO {
   vec3 samples[NUM_SAMPLES];
} S;

void main()
{
   ...
   for(int i = 0; i < NUM_SAMPLES; ++i) {
      vec3 sample_i = S.samples[i];
      ...
   }
   ...
}

We are now informing the shader that we have a specialization constant NUM_SAMPLES, which represents the actual number of samples to use. By default (if the application doesn’t say otherwise), the specialization constant’s value is 64. However, now that we have a specialization constant in place, we can have the application set its value at run-time, like this:

VkSpecializationMapEntry entry = { 0, 0, sizeof(int32_t) };
   VkSpecializationInfo spec_info = {
      1,
      &entry,
      sizeof(uint32_t),
      &config.ssao.num_samples
   };
   ...

The application code above sets up specialization constant information for shader consumption at run-time. This is done via an array of VkSpecializationMapEntry entries, each one determining where to fetch the constant value to use for each specialization constant declared in the shader for which we want to override its default value. In our case, we have a single specialization constant (with id 0), and we are taking its value (of integer type) from offset 0 of a buffer. In our case we only have one specialization constant, so our buffer is just the address of the variable holding the constant’s value (config.ssao.num_samples). When we create the Vulkan pipeline, we pass this specialization information using the pSpecializationInfo field of VkPipelineShaderStageCreateInfo. At that point, the driver will override the default value of the specialization constant with the value provided here before the shader code is optimized and native GPU code is generated, which allows the driver compiler backend to generate optimal code.

It is important to remark that specialization takes place when we create the pipeline, since that is the only moment at which Vulkan drivers compile shaders. This makes specialization constants particularly useful when we know the value we want to use ahead of starting the rendering loop, for example when we are applying quality settings to shaders. However, If the value of the constant changes frequently, specialization constants are not useful, since they require expensive shader re-compiles every time we want to change their value, and we want to avoid that as much as possible in our rendering loop. Nevertheless, it it is possible to compile the same shader with different constant values in different pipelines, so even if a value changes often, so long as we have a finite number of combinations, we can generate optimized pipelines for each one ahead of the start of the redendering loop and just swap pipelines as needed while rendering.

Conclusions

Specialization constants are a straight forward yet powerful way to gain control over how shader compilers optimize your code. In my particular pet project, applying specialization constants in a small number of shaders allowed me to benefit from loop unrolling and, most importantly, UBO promotion to push constants in the SSAO pass, obtaining performance improvements that ranged from 10% up to 20% depending on the configuration.

Finally, although the above covered specialization constants from the point of view of Vulkan, this is really a feature of the SPIR-V language, so it is also available in OpenGL with the GL_ARB_gl_spirv extension, which is core since OpenGL 4.6.

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