|Original author(s)||AMD, DICE (original Mantle design)|
|Developer(s)||Khronos Group (donated and derived variant, as Vulkan)|
|Initial release||February 16, 2016|
|Stable release||1.3.219 (June 30, 2022)|
|Operating system||Android, Linux, Fuchsia, BSD Unix, QNX, Windows, Nintendo Switch, Stadia, Tizen, macOS, IOS, Raspberry Pi, vxWorks|
|Type||3D graphics and compute API|
|License||Apache License 2.0|
Vulkan is a low-overhead, cross-platform API, open standard for 3D graphics and computing. Vulkan targets high-performance real-time 3D graphics applications, such as video games and interactive media. Vulkan is intended to offer higher performance and more efficient CPU and GPU usage compared to older OpenGL and Direct3D 11 APIs. It provides a considerably lower-level API for the application than the older APIs, making Vulkan comparable to Apple's Metal API and Microsoft's Direct3D 12. In addition to its lower CPU usage, Vulkan is designed to allow developers to better distribute work among multiple CPU cores.
Vulkan was first announced by the non-profit Khronos Group at GDC 2015. The Vulkan API was initially referred to as the "next generation OpenGL initiative", or "OpenGL next" by Khronos, but use of those names was discontinued when Vulkan was announced.
Vulkan is derived from and built upon components of AMD's Mantle API, which was donated by AMD to Khronos with the intent of giving Khronos a foundation on which to begin developing a low-level API that they could standardize across the industry.
Vulkan is intended to provide a variety of advantages over other APIs as well as its predecessor, OpenGL. Vulkan offers lower overhead, more direct control over the GPU, and lower CPU usage. The overall concept and feature set of Vulkan is similar to concepts seen in Mantle and later adopted by Microsoft with Direct3D 12 and Apple with Metal.
Intended advantages of Vulkan over previous-generation APIs include the following:
Vulkan provides a single API for both desktop and mobile graphics devices, whereas previously these were split between OpenGL and OpenGL ES respectively.
Vulkan is available on multiple modern operating systems. Like OpenGL, and in contrast to Direct3D 12, the Vulkan API is not locked to a single OS or device form factor. Vulkan runs on Android, Linux, BSD Unix, QNX, Nintendo Switch, Raspberry Pi, Stadia, Fuchsia, Tizen, Windows 7, 8, 10, and 11; and MoltenVK provides freely-licensed third-party support for macOS, iOS and tvOS by wrapping over Apple's Metal API.
Lower CPU usage
Vulkan reduces load on CPUs through the use of batching and other low-level optimizations, therefore reducing CPU workloads and leaving the CPU free to do more computation or rendering than would otherwise be possible.
Multi-threading friendly design
Direct3D 11 and OpenGL 4 were initially designed for use with single-core CPUs and only received augmentation to be executed on multi-cores. Even when application developers use the augmentations, these APIs regularly do not scale well on multi-cores. Vulkan offers improved scalability on multi-core CPUs due to the modernized threading architecture.
OpenGL uses the high-level language GLSL for writing shaders, which forces each OpenGL driver to implement its own compiler for GLSL. This then executes at application runtime to translate the program's shaders into the GPU's machine code. In contrast, Vulkan drivers are supposed to ingest shaders already translated into an intermediate binary format called SPIR-V (Standard Portable Intermediate Representation), analogous to the binary format that HLSL shaders are compiled into in Direct3D. By allowing shader pre-compilation, application initialization speed is improved and a larger variety of shaders can be used per scene. A Vulkan driver only needs to perform GPU specific optimization and code generation, resulting in easier driver maintenance, and potentially smaller driver packages. The developers of applications can also can now more easily obfuscate proprietary shader code, due to shaders not being stored directly as source code.
- Vulkan provides unified management of compute kernels and graphical shaders, eliminating the need to use a separate compute API in conjunction with a graphics API.
- Ray tracing is provided through the VK_KHR_ray_tracing extension, while no such extension exists for older APIs such as OpenGL and Direct3D.
OpenGL vs. Vulkan
|One single global state machine||Object-based with no global state|
|State is tied to a single context||All state concepts are localized to a command buffer|
|Operations can only be executed sequentially||Multi-threaded programming is possible|
|GPU memory and synchronization are usually hidden||Explicit control over memory management and synchronization|
|Extensive error checking||Vulkan drivers do no error checking at runtime;|
there is a validation layer for developers
NVIDIA states that "OpenGL is still a great option for a lot of use cases, as it comes at a much lower complexity and maintenance burden than Vulkan, while in many cases still providing great overall performance."
AMD states that "Vulkan supports close-to-metal control, enabling faster performance and better image quality across Windows 7, Windows 8.1, Windows 10, and Linux. No other graphics API offers the same powerful combination of OS compatibility, rendering features, and hardware efficiency."
At SIGGRAPH 2016, Khronos announced that Vulkan would be getting support for automatic multi-GPU features, similar to what is offered by Direct3D 12. Multi-GPU support included in-API removes the need for SLI or Crossfire which requires graphics cards to be of the same model. API multi-GPU instead allows the API to intelligently split the workload among two or more completely different GPUs. For example, integrated GPUs included on the CPU can be used in conjunction with a high-end dedicated GPU for a slight performance boost.
On March 7, 2018, Vulkan 1.1 was released by the Khronos Group. This first major update to the API standardized several extensions, such as multi-view, device groups, cross-process and cross-API sharing, advanced compute functionality, HLSL support, and YCbCr support. At the same time, it also brought better compatibility with DirectX 12, explicit multi-GPU support, ray tracing support, and laid the groundwork for the next generation of GPUs. Alongside Vulkan 1.1, SPIR-V was updated to version 1.3.
On January 15, 2020, Vulkan 1.2 was released by the Khronos Group. This second major update to the API integrates 23 additional commonly-used proven Vulkan extensions into the base Vulkan standard. Some of the most important features are "timeline semaphores for easily managed synchronization", "a formal memory model to precisely define the semantics of synchronization and memory operations in different threads", and "descriptor indexing to enable reuse of descriptor layouts by multiple shaders". The additional features of Vulkan 1.2 improve its flexibility when it comes to implementing other graphics APIs on top of Vulkan, including "uniform buffer standard layout", "scalar block layout", and "separate stencil usage".
On January 25, 2022, Vulkan 1.3 was released by the Khronos Group. This third major update to the API integrates 23 additional commonly-used proven Vulkan extensions into the base Vulkan standard. Vulkan 1.3 focuses on reducing fragmentation by making the new features not optional in order for a device to be considered Vulkan 1.3 capable. The new features in Vulkan 1.3 include dynamic rendering, additional dynamic state, improved synchronization API, and device profiles.
When releasing OpenCL 2.2, the Khronos Group announced that OpenCL would converge where possible with Vulkan to enable OpenCL software deployment flexibility over both APIs. This has been now demonstrated by Adobe's Premiere Rush using the clspv open source compiler to compile significant amounts of OpenCL C kernel code to run on a Vulkan runtime for deployment on Android.
The Khronos Group began a project to create a next generation graphics API in July 2014 with a kickoff meeting at Valve. At SIGGRAPH 2014, the project was publicly announced with a call for participants.
According to the US Patent and Trademark Office, the trademark for Vulkan was filed on February 19, 2015.
In early 2015, LunarG (funded by Valve) developed and showcased a Linux driver for Intel which enabled Vulkan compatibility on the HD 4000 series integrated graphics, despite the open-source Mesa drivers not being fully compatible with OpenGL 4.0 until later that year. There is still the possibility of Sandy Bridge support, since it supports compute through Direct3D11.
On August 10, 2015, Google announced that future versions of Android would support Vulkan. Android 7.x "Nougat" launched support for Vulkan on August 22, 2016. Android 8.0 "Oreo" has full support.
On December 18, 2015, the Khronos Group announced that the 1.0 version of the Vulkan specification was nearly complete and would be released when conforming drivers were available.
The full Vulkan specification and the open-source Vulkan SDK were released on February 16, 2016.
On February 26, 2018, Khronos Group announced that the Vulkan API became available to all on macOS and iOS through the MoltenVK library, which enables Vulkan to run on top of Metal. Other new developments were shown at SIGGRAPH 2018. Previously MoltenVK was a proprietary and commercially licensed solution, but Valve made an arrangement with developer Brenwill Workshop Ltd to open-source MoltenVK under the Apache 2.0 license and as a result the library is now available on GitHub. Valve also announced that Dota 2 can as of 26 February 2018 run on macOS using the Vulkan API, which is based on MoltenVK.
On February 25, 2019, the Vulkan Safety Critical (SC) Working Group was announced to bring Vulkan GPU acceleration to safety critical industries.
On January 15, 2020, Vulkan 1.2 was released.
Alongside the Vulkan 1.2 release, the Khronos Group posted a blog post which considered that HLSL support in Vulkan had reached "production ready" status, given the improvements in Microsoft's DXC compiler and Khronos's glslang compiler, and new features in Vulkan 1.2 which enhance HLSL support.
On February 3, 2020, the Raspberry Pi Foundation announced that it was working on an open source Vulkan driver for their Raspberry Pi, a popular single board computer. On June 20, 2020, a graphics engineer revealed that he had created one after two years of work that was capable of running VkQuake3 at over 100FPS on the small computer.
On March 17, 2020, Khronos Group released the Ray Tracing extensions, based on Nvidia's proprietary extension, with some major extensions and many minor changes, which in turn was based on Nvidia's OptiX API. On November 23, 2020, these Ray Tracing extensions were finalized.
On January 25, 2022, Vulkan 1.3 was released.
On March 1, 2022, Vulkan SC 1.0 was released, bringing Vulkan graphics and compute for the safety-critical industry while being based on the Vulkan 1.2 standard.
Support across vendors
Initial specifications stated that Vulkan drivers can be implemented on any hardware that supports OpenGL ES 3.1 or OpenGL 4.x and up. As Vulkan support requires new graphics drivers, this does not necessarily imply that every existing device that supports OpenGL ES 3.1 or OpenGL 4.x will have Vulkan drivers available.
Intel, Nvidia and AMD
All three major PC vendors provide free of charge the Vulkan API implementations in the form of drivers for the Linux and Windows systems. On Windows, Vulkan is supported by the newer lines of hardware like Intel Skylake and higher, AMD GCN 2.0 and higher, and Nvidia Kepler and higher. On Linux, the open-source Mesa driver supports AMD (GCN 1.0/1.1 unofficially, GCN 2.0 and above officially) and Intel (Ivy Bridge and later unofficially, Broadwell and later officially); while support for Nvidia GPUs requires Nvidia's official proprietary driver.
Android and mobile GPUs
Most modern Android devices support Vulkan. Android 7.0 Nougat includes optional Vulkan 1.0 support, Android 9.0 Pie includes optional Vulkan 1.1 support, and Android 10 requires all 64-bit devices support Vulkan 1.1. On Linux and some Chrome OS devices, the open-source Mesa driver provides support for Arm Mali (Midgard and Bifrost), Qualcomm Adreno, and Broadcom VideoCore VI hardware.
As of March 9, 2022, there is no native support for Vulkan API provided by Apple devices, and no plans for official support have been announced. Vulkan 1.1 support is available via the open-source library MoltenVK, which provides a Vulkan implementation on top of the Metal graphics API provided on iOS and macOS devices, though it has some limitations in regards to certain advanced API features.
- The process of setting up a graphics rendering pipeline doesn't differ drastically from OpenGL [ES] ones. E.g. shaders written in GLSL still can be reused: the source code can be compiled/translated by a standalone compiler into a new intermediate binary format called SPIR-V, which can then be consumed by the Vulkan API.
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