# Vulkan sparse binding - a quick overview
On 13 December 2018 AMD released new version of graphics driver: 18.12.2. One could say there is nothing special about it – new drivers are released as often as every 2 weeks. But this version brings a change very important for Vulkan developers. AMD now catches up with competition – Nvidia and Intel – in supporting Vulkan sparse binding and sparse residency, which makes it usable in Windows PC games. I’d like to make it an opportunity to briefly describe what is it and how can you start using it, assuming you are a programmer who already knows a bit about C or C++ and Vulkan.
Creation of memory-consuming “resources” – buffers and images – is a 4-step process in Vulkan. You need to:
VkDeviceMemoryobject (I like to call it a “memory block”). You could make a separate allocation for each of your resources, but this doesn’t scale to large projects (because there is an overhead of that, as well as limit on maximum number of allocations –
VkPhysicalDeviceLimits::maxMemoryAllocationCount), so it is recommended to allocate larger blocks and write your own memory allocator to manage them – or use free Vulkan Memory Allocator library.
Notice these are all operations done on CPU side, effective immediately and not interacting with Vulkan queues that execute work on the GPU.
This approach has following limitations:
Because of this, after many different resources created and destroyed during runtime, memory fragmentation can occur. If you want to move data around to defragment it, you need to recreate your resources, as well as views pointing to them and update descriptors that refer to them.
Here comes “sparse binding” – a feature that can be optionally supported by a Vulkan implementation (graphics driver for a specific GPU). The main flag is
VkPhysicalDeviceFeatures::sparseBinding. When it’s set, you can bind your buffers and images in a different, more flexible way:
Thanks to using memory allocations of same size, you can simplify your allocator and avoid fragmentation. Even when you still want to defragment (compact) your memory, you can now do so without recreating your resources – you just need to rebind them to new place where you moved their data.
One important limitation still applies: The resource must be “fully-resident” – all of its pages must be bound to a valid place in memory before it can be used on the GPU. Please also note that memory of both buffers and images is treated here as a linear sequence of pages, measured in bytes, regardless of parameters of an image like width, height, depth, or pixel format.
Here is how you can create sparse binding resources:
VK_IMAGE_CREATE_SPARSE_BINDING_BITor a buffer with
VkMemoryRequirements::sizemeans total size of memory required for that resource and
VkMemoryRequirements::alignment– required alignment for memory address, but the alignment parameter also means the size of a memory page for that resource. All pages have to be of that size, and they must also be aligned to a multiply of that value.
VkDeviceMemoryblocks, as above.
This time, the binding is an operation on a
VkQueue, just like
vkQueueSubmit. You need to use a queue that supports
VK_QUEUE_SPARSE_BINDING_BIT. Fortunately all 3 PC GPU vendors support this flag on the main queue together with
GRAPHICS (and AMD does on other queues as well). Vulkan spec warns that “sparse binding operations are not automatically ordered against command buffer execution, even within a single queue”, which means you need to synchronize them using
VkSemaphore (between submits on GPU queues) or
VkFence (to wait or poll for finish on the CPU).
We can go even further. Vulkan defines, and all 3 PC GPU vendors now support, another feature on top of sparse binding, called “sparse residency”. The main flags are:
VkPhysicalDeviceFeatures::sparseResidencyBuffer – for buffers,
sparseResidency2Samples (also for 4/8/16) – for images. When appropriate flag is set, you can create a buffer with flag
VK_BUFFER_CREATE_SPARSE_RESIDENCY_BIT or an image with flag
VK_IMAGE_CREATE_SPARSE_RESIDENCY_BIT. It gives you two new features:
It lets you create a large texture (known as “megatexture”), e.g. for a vast terrain, and dynamically stream its data in and out of video memory only for parts that are really needed.
Using it is much more difficult though. There are many concepts that you need to understand first. Here is an overview of symbols you need to deal with:
VkSparseImageFormatProperties2– to query for memory requirements of an image in given format, especially its
imageGranularity– size of a single page, expressed in pixels.
VK_IMAGE_ASPECT_METADATA_BITthat you need to handle.
VK_SPARSE_IMAGE_FORMAT_SINGLE_MIPTAIL_BIT: When set, all array layers share a single mip tail region.
VkPhysicalDeviceSparseProperties::residencyAlignedMipSize): When set, the first mip level that would contain partially used sparse blocks begins the mip tail region. Only the first N mip levels whose dimensions are an exact multiple of the sparse image block dimensions can be bound and unbound on a sparse block basis. When not set, mip levels that are as large or larger than a sparse image block in all dimensions can be bound individually.
VkSparseImageMemoryRequirements2– to query for memory requirements of a specific, given image –
VkSparseImageFormatPropertiesagain, but also information about mip tail.
VkPhysicalDeviceSparseProperties::residencyNonResidentStrict: When set, reads from non-resident regions return value as if it was filled with zeros. When not set, result is undefined, but it’s still safe to read and write to non-bound regions – it won’t crash.
VK_SPARSE_IMAGE_FORMAT_NONSTANDARD_BLOCK_SIZE_BIT, as well as flags:
residencyStandard3DBlockShape– tell whether the binding requirements of images comply with a standard defined in Vulkan spec, or they are nonstandard and
imageGranularityis in effect.
VkSparseImageMemoryBindInfo(this time without the “Opaque”) and
VkSparseImageMemoryBindto specify what part of the image to bind, expressed in pixels.
There is also “sparse aliasing”, which allows physical memory ranges to be shared between multiple locations in the same sparse resource or between multiple sparse resources, with each binding of a memory location observing a consistent interpretation of the memory contents. It is supported when
VkPhysicalDeviceFeatures::sparseResidencyAliased flag is set. You can then create your buffers with
VK_BUFFER_CREATE_SPARSE_ALIASED_BIT and images with
VK_IMAGE_CREATE_SPARSE_ALIASED_BIT flag and make use of this feature. This doesn’t work with mip tail regions though.
Please note that all what I’ve described here is about feature support, not the performance. Using sparse binding may give you benefit due to not experiencing memory fragmentation or not having to recreate your resources when moving data around in memory, but it may also have some overhead on its own. First, allocating and binding many small memory pages instead of whole resources at once may be time-consuming. Second, binding is a queue operation here, just like submit, so every such call, as well as synchronization between them using semaphores and fences may have significant performance overhead. Whether sparse binding or sparse residency is a good solution for performance of your game, that’s a question which is out of scope of this article.
By the way, new version 2.2.0 of Vulkan Memory Allocator library improves support for sparse binding by adding convenience functions that allocate and free multiple memory pages at once. It also adds a test for sparse binding, which may serve as an example code.
Thank you for reading that far. If you find any mistakes in this article or have any other feedback, please leave a comment below. Further details can be found in Vulkan specification chapter 31 "Sparse Resources".