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Taking State Transitions in Vulkan and Direct3D12 under Control: a Diligent Approach

by Egor Yusov on 12/11/18 10:05:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.



Explicit resource state management and synchronization is one of the main advantages and main challenges that modern graphics APIs such as Direct3D12 and Vulkan offer application developers. It makes rendering command recording very efficient, but getting state management right is a challenging problem. This article explains why explicit state management is important and introduces a solution implemented in Diligent Engine, a modern cross-platform low-level graphics library. Diligent Engine has Direct3D11, Direct3D12, OpenGL/GLES and Vulkan backends and supports Windows Desktop, Universal Windows, Linux, Android, Mac and iOS platforms. Its full source code is available on GitHub and is free to use. This article gives an introduction to Diligent Engine.

Explicit State Management and Synchronization in Next-Gen APIs

Modern graphics applications can best be described as client-server systems where CPU is a client that records rendering commands and puts them into queue(s), and GPU is a server that asynchronously pulls commands from the queue(s) and processes them. As a result, commands are not executed immediately when CPU issues them, but rather sometime later (typically one to two frames) when GPU gets to the corresponding point in the queue. Besides that, GPU architecture is very different from CPU because of the kind of problems that GPUs are designed to handle. While CPUs are great at running algorithms with lots of flow control constructs (branches, loops, etc.) such as handling events in an application input loop, GPUs are more efficient at crunching numbers by executing the same computation thousands and even millions of times. Of course, there is a little bit of oversimplification in that statement as modern CPUs also have wide SIMD (single instruction multiple data) units that allow them perform computations efficiently as well. Still GPUs are at least order of magnitude faster in these kinds of problems.

The main challenge that both CPUs and GPUs need to solve is memory latency. CPUs are out-of-order machines with beefy cores and large caches that use fancy prefetching and branch-prediction circuitry to make sure that data is available when a core actually needs it. GPUs in contrast are in-order beasts with small caches, thousands of tiny cores and very deep pipelines. They don't use any branch prediction or prefetching, but instead maintain tens of thousands of threads in flight and are capable of switching between threads instantaneously. When one group of threads waits for a memory request, GPU can simply switch to another group provided it has enough work.

When programming CPU (when talking about CPU I will mean x86 CPU; things may be little bit more involved for ARM ones), the hardware does a lot of things that we usually take for granted. For instance, after one core has written something at a memory address, we know that another core can immediately read the same memory. The cache line containing the data will need to do a little bit of travelling through the CPU, but eventually another core will get correct piece of information with no extra effort from the application. GPUs in contrast give very few explicit guarantees. In many cases you cannot expect that a write is visible to subsequent reads unless special care is taken by the application. Besides that, the data may need to be converted from one form to another before it can be consumed by the next step. Few examples where explicit synchronization may be required:

  • After data has been written to a texture or a buffer though an unordered access view (UAV in Direct3D) or an image (in Vulkan/OpenGL terminology), the GPU may need to wait until all writes are complete and flush the cashes to memory before the same texture or buffer can be read by another shader.
  • After shadow map rendering command is executed, the GPU may need to wait until rasterization and all writes are complete, flush the caches and change the texture layout to a format optimized for sampling before that shadow map can be used in a lighting shader.
  • If CPU needs to read data previously written by the GPU, it may need to invalidate that memory region to make sure that caches get updated bytes.

These are just few examples of synchronization dependencies that a GPU needs to resolve. Traditionally, all these problems were handled by the API/driver and were hidden from the developer. Old-school implicit APIs such as Direct3D11 and OpenGL/GLES work that way. This approach, while being convenient from developer's point of view, has major limitations that result in suboptimal performance. First, a driver or API does not know what the developer's intent is and have to always assume the worst-case scenario to guarantee correctness. For instance, if one shader writes to one region of a UAV, but the next shader reads from another region, the driver must always insert a barrier to guarantee that all writes are complete and visible because it just can't know that the regions do not overlap and the barrier is not really necessary.

The biggest problem though is that this approach makes parallel command recording almost useless. Consider a scenario where one thread records commands to render a shadow map, while the second thread simultaneously records commands to use this shadow map in a forward rendering pass. The first thread needs the shadow map to be in depth-stencil writable state, while the second thread needs it to be in shader readable state. The problem is that the second thread does not know what the original state of the shadow map is. So what happens is when an application submits the second command buffer for execution, the API needs to find out what the actual state of the shadow map texture is and patch the command buffer with the right state transition. It needs to do this not only for our shadow map texture, but for any other resource that the command list may use. This is a significant serialization bottleneck and there was no way in old APIs to solve it.

Solution to the aforementioned problems is given by the next-generation APIs (Direct3D12 and Vulkan) that make all resource transitions explicit. It is up to the application now to track the states of all resources and assure that all required barriers/transitions are executed. In the example above, the application will know that when the shadow map is used in a forward pass, it will be in the depth-stencil writable state, so the barrier can be inserted right away without the need to wait for the first command buffer to be recorded or submitted. The downside here is that the application is now responsible for tracking all resource states which could be a significant burden.

Let's now take a closer look at how synchronization is implemented in Vulkan and Direct3D12.

Synchronization in Vulkan

Vulkan enables very fine-grain control over synchronization operations and provides tools to individually tweak the following aspects:

  • Execution dependencies, i.e. which set of operations must be completed before another set of operations can begin.
  • Memory dependencies, i.e. which memory writes must be made available to subsequent reads.
  • Layout transitions, i.e. what texture memory layout transformations must be performed, if any.

Executions dependencies are expressed as dependencies between pipeline stages that naturally map to the traditional GPU pipeline. The type of memory access is defined by VkAccessFlagBits enum. Certain access types are only valid for specific pipeline stages. All valid combinations are listed in Section 6.1.3 of Vulkan Spec, which are also given in the following table:

Access type (VK_ACCESS_) Pipeline Stages (VK_PIPELINE_STAGE_) Access Type Description
INDIRECT_COMMAND_READ_BIT DRAW_INDIRECT_BIT Read access to indirect draw/dispatch command data attributes stored in a buffer
INDEX_READ_BIT VERTEX_INPUT_BIT Read access to an index buffer
Read access to a uniform (constant) buffer
Read access to a storage buffer (buffer UAV), uniform texel buffer (buffer SRV), sampled image (texture SRV), storage image (texture UAV)
Write access to a storage buffer (buffer UAV), or storage image (texture UAV)
INPUT_ATTACHMENT_READ_BIT FRAGMENT_SHADER_BIT Read access to an input attachment (render target) during fragment shading
CLR_ATTACHMENT_READ_BIT CLR_ATTACHMENT_OUTPUT_BIT Read access to a color attachment (render target) such as via blending or logic operations
CLR_ATTACHMENT_WRITE_BIT CLR_ATTACHMENT_OUTPUT_BIT Write access to a color attachment (render target) during render pass or via certain operations such as blending
Read access to depth/stencil buffer via depth/stencil operations
Write access to depth/stencil buffer via depth/stencil operations
TRANSFER_READ_BIT TRANSFER_BIT Read access to an image (texture) or buffer in a copy operation
TRANSFER_WRITE_BIT TRANSFER_BIT Write access to an image (texture) or buffer in a clear or copy operation
HOST_READ_BIT HOST_BIT Read access by a host
HOST_WRITE_BIT HOST_BIT Write access by a host

Table 1. Valid combinations of access flags and pipeline stages. The following abbreviations are used in the table: CLR for COLOR, DS for DEPTH_STENCIL and TESS for TESSELLATION

As you can see, most access flags correspond 1:1 to a pipeline stage. For example, quite naturally vertex indices can only be read at the vertex input stage, while final color can only be written at color attachment (render target in Direct3D12 terminology) output stage. For certain access types you can precisely specify what stage will use that access type. Most importantly, for shader reads (such as texture sampling), writes (UAV/image stores) and uniform buffer access it is possible to precisely tell the system what shader stages will be using that access type. For depth-stencil read/write access it is possible to distinguish if the access happens at the early or late fragment test stage. Quite honestly I can't really come up with any example where this flexibility may be useful and result in measurable performance improvement. Note that it is against the spec to specify access flag for a stage that does not support that type of access (such as depth-stencil write access for vertex shader stage).

An application may use these tools to very precisely specify dependencies between stages. For example, it may request that writes to a uniform buffer from vertex shader stage are made available to reads from the fragment shader in a subsequent draw call. An advantage here is that since dependency starts at fragment shader stage, the driver will not need to synchronize the execution of the vertex shader stage, potentially saving some GPU cycles.

For image (texture) resources, a synchronization barrier also defines layout transitions, i.e. potential data reorganization that the GPU may need to perform to support the requested access type. Section 11.4 of the Vulkan spec describes available layouts and how they must be used. Since every layout can only be used at certain pipeline stages (for example, color-attachment-optimal layout can only be used by color attachment read/write stage), and every pipeline stage allows only few access types, we can list all allowed access flags for every layout, as presented in the table below:

Image layout (VK_IMAGE_LAYOUT) Allowed access type (VK_ACCESS_) Description

This layout can only be used as initial layout when creating an image or as the old layout in image transition. When transitioning out of this layout, the contents of the image is not preserved.


All types of device access.

Must only be used as color attachment.
Must only be used as depth-stencil attachment.
DS_READ_ONLY_OPTIMAL DS_ATTACHMENT_READ_BIT or SHADER_READ_BIT Must only be used as read-only depth-stencil attachment or as read-only image in a shader.
SHADER_READ_ONLY_OPTIMAL SHADER_READ_BIT Must only be used as a read-only image in a shader (sampled image or input attachment)
TRANSFER_SRC_OPTIMAL TRANSFER_READ_BIT Must only be used as source for transfer (copy) commands.
TRANSFER_DST_OPTIMAL TRANSFER_WRITE_BIT Must only be used as destination for transfer (copy and clear) commands.
PREINITIALIZED n/a This layout can only be used as initial layout when creating an image or as the old layout in image transition. When transitioning out of this layout, the contents of the image is preserved, as opposed to UNDEFINED layout.

Table 2. Image layouts and allowed access flags.


As with access flags and pipeline stages, there is very little freedom in combining image layouts and access flags. As a result, image layouts, access flags and pipeline stages in many cases form uniquely defined triplets.

Note that Vulkan also exposes another form of synchronization called render passes and subpasses. The main purpose of render passes is to provide implicit synchronization guarantees such that an application does not need to insert a barrier after every single renering command (such as draw or clear). Render passes also allow expressing the same dependencies in a form that may be leveraged by the driver (especially on GPUs that use tiled deferred rendering architectures) for more efficient rendering. Full discussion of render passes is out of scope of this article.


Synchronization in Direct3D12

Synchronization tools in Direct3D12 are not as expressive as in Vulkan, but are also not as intricate. With the exception of UAV barriers described below, Direct3D12 does not define the distinction between execution barrier and memory barrier and operates with resource states (see Table 3).

Resource state (D3D12_RESOURCE_STATE_) Description
VERTEX_AND_CONSTANT_BUFFER The resource is used as vertex or constant buffer.
INDEX_BUFFER The resource is used as index buffer.
RENDER_TARGET The resource is used as render target.
UNORDERED_ACCESS The resource is used for unordered access via an unordered access view (UAV).
DEPTH_WRITE The resource is used in a writable depth-stencil view or a clear command.
DEPTH_READ The resource is used in a read-only depth-stencil view.
NON_PIXEL_SHADER_RESOURCE The resource is accessed via shader resource view in any shader stage other than pixel shader.
PIXEL_SHADER_RESOURCE The resource is accessed via shader resource view in pixel shader.
INDIRECT_ARGUMENT The resource is used as the source of indirect arguments for an indirect draw or dispatch command.
COPY_DEST The resource is as copy destination in a copy command.
COPY_SOURCE The resource is as copy source in a copy command.

Table 3. Most commonly used resource states in Direct3D12.


Direct3D12 defines three resource barrier types:

  • State transition barrier defines transition from one resource state listed in Table 3 to another. This type of barrier maps to Vulkan barrier when old an new access flags and/or image layouts are not the same.
  • UAV barrier is an execution plus memory barrier in Vulkan terminology. It does not change the state (layout), but instead indicates that all UAV accesses (read or writes) to a particular resource must complete before any future UAV accesses (read or write) can begin.
  • Aliasing barrier indicates a usage transition between two resources that are backed by the same memory and is out of scope of this article.


Resource state management in Diligent Engine

The purpose of Diligent Engine is to provide efficient cross-platform low-level graphics API that is convenient to use, but at the same time is flexible enough to not limit the applications in expressing their intent. Before version 2.4, the ability of application to control resource state transitions was very limited. Version 2.4 made resource state transitions explicit and introduced two ways to manage the states. The first one is fully automatic, where the engine internally keeps track of the state and performs necessary transitions. The second one is manual and completely driven by the application.

Automatic State Management

Every command that may potentially perform state transitions uses one of the following state transitions modes:

  • RESOURCE_STATE_TRANSITION_MODE_NONE  - Perform no state transitions and no state validation.
  • RESOURCE_STATE_TRANSITION_MODE_TRANSITION - Transition resources to the states required by the command.
  • RESOURCE_STATE_TRANSITION_MODE_VERIFY - Do not transition, but verify that states are correct.

The code snippet below gives an example of a sequence of typical rendering commands in Diligent Engine 2.4:

// Clear the back buffer
const float ClearColor[] = { 0.350f, 0.350f, 0.350f, 1.0f };
m_pImmediateContext->ClearRenderTarget(nullptr, ClearColor,
m_pImmediateContext->ClearDepthStencil(nullptr, CLEAR_DEPTH_FLAG, 1.f, 0,

// Bind vertex buffer
Uint32 offset = 0;
IBuffer *pBuffs[] = {m_CubeVertexBuffer};
m_pImmediateContext->SetVertexBuffers(0, 1, pBuffs, &offset, 
m_pImmediateContext->SetIndexBuffer(m_CubeIndexBuffer, 0,

// Set pipeline state
// Commit shader resources

DrawAttribs DrawAttrs;
DrawAttrs.IsIndexed = true;
DrawAttrs.IndexType = VT_UINT32; // Index type
DrawAttrs.NumIndices = 36;
// Verify the state of vertex and index buffers

Automatic state management is useful in many scenarios, especially when porting old applications to Diligent API. It has the following limitations though:

  • The state is tracked for the whole resource only. Individual mip levels and/or texture array slices cannot be transitioned.
  • The state is a global resource property. Every device context that uses a resource sees the same state.
  • Automatic state transitions are not thread safe. Any operation that uses RESOURCE_STATE_TRANSITION_MODE_TRANSITION requires that no other thread accesses the states of the same resources simultaneously.

Explicit State Management

As we discussed above, there is no way to efficiently solve resource management problem in a fully automate manner, so Diligent Engine is not trying to outsmart the industry and makes state transitions part of the API. It introduces a set of states that mostly map to Direct3D12 resource states as we believe this method is expressive enough and is way more clear compared to Vulkan's approach. If an application needs a very fine-grain control, it can use native API interoperability to directly insert Vulkan barriers into a command buffer. The list of states defined by Diligent Engine as well as their mapping to Direct3D12 and Vulkan is given in Table 4 below.

Diligent State
Direct3D12 state
Vulkan Image Layout
Vulkan Access Type
UNKNOWN n/a n/a n/a

Table 4. Mapping between Diligent resource state, Direct3D12 state, Vulkan image layouts and access flags. Note that the table uses shortened version of some constants (i.e. CLR_ATTACH_OPTIMAL = COLOR_ATTACHMENT_OPTIMAL or NON_PS_RESOURCE = NON_PIXEL_SHADER_RESOURCE).

Diligent resource states map almost exactly 1:1 to Direct3D12 resource states. The only real difference is that in Diligent, SHADER_RESOURCE state maps to the union of NON_PIXEL_SHADER_RESOURCE and PIXEL_SHADER_RESOURCE states, which does not seem to be a real issue.

Compared to Vulkan, resource states in Diligent are little bit more general, specifically:

  • RENDER_TARGET state always defines writable render target (sets both COLOR_ATTACHMENT_READ_BIT, COLOR_ATTACHMENT_WRITE_BIT access type flags).
  • UNORDERED_ACCESS state always defines writable storage image/storage buffer (sets both SHADER_WRITE_BIT, SHADER_READ_BIT access type flags).
  • Transitions to and out of CONSTANT_BUFFER, UNORDERED_ACCESS, and SHADER_RESOURCE states always set all applicable pipeline stage flags as given by Table 1.

None of the limitations above seem to be causing any measurable performance degradation. Again, if an application really needs to specify more precise barrier, it can rely on native API interoperability.

Note that Diligent defines both UNKNOWN and UNDEFINED states, which have very different meaning. UNKNOWN means that the state is not known to the engine and that application manually manages the state of this resource. UNDEFINED means that the state is known to the engine and is undefined from the point of view of the underlying API. This state has well defined counterparts in Direct3D12 and Vulkan.

Explicit resource state transitions in Diligent Engine are performed with the help of IDeviceContext::TransitionResourceStates() method that takes an array of StateTransitionDesc structures:

void IDeviceContext::TransitionResourceStates(Uint32 BarrierCount,
                                              StateTransitionDesc* pResourceBarriers)

Every element in the array defines resource to transition (a texture or a buffer), old state, new state as well as the range of mip levels and array slices, for a texture resource:

struct StateTransitionDesc
    ITexture* pTexture       = nullptr;
    IBuffer*  pBuffer        = nullptr;

    Uint32    FirstMipLevel  = 0;
    Uint32    MipLevelsCount = 0;
    Uint32    FirstArraySlice= 0;
    Uint32    ArraySliceCount= 0;


    bool UpdateResourceState = false;

If the state of the resource is known to the engine, the OldState member can be set to UNKNOWN, in which case the engine will use the state from the resource. If the state is not known to the engine, OldState must not be UNKNOWN. NewState can never be UNKNOWN.

An important member is UpdateResourceState flag. If set to true, the engine will set the state of the resource to value given by NewState. Otherwise the state will be unchanged.

Switching between explicit and automatic state management

Diligent Engine provides tools to allow switching between and mixing automatic and manual state management. Both ITexture and IBuffer interfaces exposes SetState() and GetState() methods that allow an application to get and set the resource state. When the state of a resource is set to UNKNOWN, this resource will be ignored by all methods that use RESOURCE_STATE_TRANSITION_MODE_TRANSITION mode. State transitions will still be performed for all resources whose state is known. An application can thus mix automatic and manual state management by setting the state of resources that are manually managed to UNKNOWN. If an application wants to hand over state management back to the system, it can use SetState() method to set the resource state. Alternatively, it can set UpdateResourceState flag to true, which will have the same effect.

Multithreaded Safety

As we discussed above, the main advantage of manual resource state management is the ability to record rendering commands in parallel. As resource states are tracked globally in Diligent Engine, the following precautions must be taken:

  • Recording state transitions of the same resource in multiple threads simultaneously with IDeviceContext::TransitionResourceStates() is safe as long as UpdateResourceState flag is set to false.
  • Any thread that uses RESOURCE_STATE_TRANSITION_MODE_TRANSITION mode with any method must be the only thread accessing resources that may be transitioned. This also applies to IDeviceContext::TransitionShaderResources() method.
  • If a thread uses RESOURCE_STATE_TRANSITION_MODE_VERIFY mode with any method (which is recommended whenever possible), no other thread should alter the states of the same resources.


Diligent Engine adopts D3D11-style API with immediate and deferred contexts to record rendering commands. Since it is well known that deferred contexts did not work well in Direct3D11, a natural question one may ask is why they work in Diligent. And the answer is because of the explicit state transition control. While in Direct3D11, resource state management was always automatic and implicit, Diligent gives the application direct control of how resource states must be handled by every operation. At the same time, device contexts implement dynamic memory, descriptor management and other tasks that need to be handled by a thread that records rendering commands.

Conclusion and Future Work

Explicit resource state management system introduced in Diligent Engine v2.4 combines flexibility, efficiency and convenience to use. An application may rely on automatic resource state management in typical rendering scenarios and switch to manual mode when the engine does not have enough knowledge to manage the states optimally or when it is not possible such as in the case of multithreaded rendering command recording.

At the moment Diligent Engine only supports one command queue exposed as single immediate context. One of the next steps is to expose multiple command queues through multiple immediate contexts as well as primitives to synchronize execution between queues to allow async compute and other advanced rendering techniques.

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