GPUs are highly parallel processors. Within one draw call or a compute dispatch there might be thousands or millions of invocations of your shader. Some variables in such a shader have constant value for all invocations in the draw call / dispatch. We can call them constant or uniform. A literal constant like 23.0 is surely such a value and so is a variable read from a constant (uniform) buffer, let’s call it
cbScaleFactor, or any calculation on such data, like
(cbScaleFactor.x + cbScaleFactor.y) * 2.0 - 1.0.
Other values may vary from thread to thread. These will surely be vertex attributes, as well as system value semantics like
SV_Position in a pixel shader (denoting the position of the current pixel on the screen),
SV_GroupThreadID in a compute shader (identifier of the current thread within a thread group), and any calculations based on them. For example, sampling a texture using non-constant UV coordinates will result in a non-constant color value.
But there is another level of grouping of threads. GPU cores (Compute Units, Execution Units, CUDA Cores, however we call them) execute a number of threads at once in a SIMD fashion. It would be more correctly to say SIMT. For the explanation of the difference see my old post: “How Do Graphics Cards Execute Vector Instructions?” It’s usually something like 8, 16, 32, 64 threads executing on one core, together called a wave in HLSL and a subgroup in GLSL.
Normally you don’t need to care about this fact. However, recent versions of HLSL and GLSL added intrinsic functions that allow to exchange data between lanes (threads/invocations within a wave/subgroup) - see “HLSL Shader Model 6.0” or “Vulkan Subgroup Tutorial”. Using them may allow to optimize shader performance.
This another level of grouping yields a possibility for a variable to be or not to be uniform (to have the same value) across a single wave, even if it’s not constant across the entire draw call or dispatch. We can also call it scalar, as it tends to go to scalar registers (SGPRs) rather than vector registers (VGPRs) on AMD architecture, which is overall good for performance. Simple cases like the ones I mentioned above still apply. What’s constant across the entire draw call is also scalar within a wave. What varies from thread to thread is not scalar. Some wave functions like
WaveActiveAllTrue return the same value for all threads, so it’s always scalar.
Knowing which values are scalar and which ones may not be is necessary in some cases. For example, indexing buffer or texture array requires special keyword
NonUniformResourceIndex if the index is not uniform across the wave. I warned about it in my blog post “Direct3D 12 - Watch out for non-uniform resource index!”. Back then I was working on shader compiler at Intel, helping to finish DX12 implementation before the release of Windows 10. Now, 5 years later, it is still a tricky thing to get right.
Another such case is a function WaveReadLaneAt which “returns the value of the expression for the given lane index within the specified wave”. The index of the lane to fetch was required to be scalar, but developers discovered it actually works fine to use a dynamically varying value for it, like Ken Hu in his blog post “HLSL pitfalls”. Now Microsoft formally admitted that it is working and allowed
LaneIndex to be any value by making this GitHub commit to their documentation.
If this is so important to know where an argument needs to be scalar and which values are scalar, you should also know about some less obvious, tricky ones.
SV_GroupID in compute shader – identifier of the group within a compute dispatch. This one surely is uniform across the wave. I didn’t search specifications for this topic, but it seems obvious that if a groupshared memory is private to a thread group and a synchronization barrier can be issued across a thread group, threads from different groups cannot be assigned to a single wave. Otherwise everything would break.
SV_InstanceID in vertex shader – index of an instance within an instanced draw call. It looks similar, but the answer is actually opposite. I’ve seen discussions about it many times. It is not guaranteed anywhere that threads in one wave will calculate vertices of the same instance. While inconvenient for those who would like to optimize their vertex shader using wave functions, it actually gives a graphics driver an opportunity to increase utilization by packing vertices from multiple instances into one wave.
SV_GroupThreadID.xyz in compute shader – identifier of the thread within a thread group in a particular dimension. Article “Porting Detroit: Become Human from PlayStation® 4 to PC – Part 2” on GPUOpen.com suggests that by using
[numthreads(64,2,1)], you can be sure that waves will be dispatched as 32x1x1 or 64x1x1, so that
SV_GroupThreadID.y will be scalar across a wave. It may be true for AMD architecture and other GPUs currently on the market, so relying on this may be a good optimization opportunity on consoles with a known fixed hardware, but it is not formally correct to assume this on any PC. Neither D3D nor Vulkan specification says that threads from a compute thread group are assigned to waves in row-major order. The order is undefined, so theoretically a driver in a new version may decide to spawn waves of 16x2x1. It is also not guaranteed that some mysterious new GPU couldn’t appear in the future that is 128-lane wide. WaveGetLaneCount function says “the result will be between 4 and 128”. Such GPU would execute entire 64x2x1 group as a single wave. In both cases,
SV_GroupThreadID.y wouldn’t be scalar.
Long story short: Unless you can prove otherwise, always assume that what is not uniform (constant) across the entire draw call or dispatch is also not uniform (scalar) across the wave.