by Marco Giordano

31 January 2019

Unity GPU culling experiments Part2 – optimizations

Let’s recap…

In this previous article Unity GPU culling experiments¬†we discussed frustum culling, where we wanted to figure out which geometries are visible in the frustum and if they’re not visible, we don’t render them. In particular, we focused on doing the culling on the GPU and using instances.

The goal is to be able to filter the instances that survive the culling in parallel. We can depict this with this image:


Our goal now is to compact the surviving instances (the red spheres), into an array, by effectively filtering the blue orbs out.


A naive implementation

The computation is performed inside compute shaders, in three steps:

  • Vote
  • Scan
  • Compact

As mentioned in the previous article, the vote shader will write to an array either a 1 or a 0 to specify whether or not the instance survived the frustum culling.
The scan shader will generate, in parallel, the output index for each of the instances.
The compact will copy the instance to the final array using the index generated by the scan.

Let’s take a first look at the profile result of the rendering loop:

The software used for the profiling is Nsight Graphics from Nvidia

Here there are some initial timings:


As we can see, the algorithm spends most of its time in the scan passes. For the moment, we have a naive implementation (Hillis-Steele based), which works in several iterations on the data, where every iteration is a kernel invocation.

Let’s dig a bit more into the statistics the profiler gives us:

We can see from the sections highlighted that we are memory bound (77% SOL), we also have a quite high percentage of stalls waiting for memory (67%).
The problem with Hillis-Steele implementation is that we are processing the data many times, and every time with a bigger and bigger stride, which is quite bad for memory accesses, causing a lot of cache misses.

How can we do better?

A first improvement

All those accesses to global memory are quite slow, but the GPU has several different memories we can use. One of those is called ‘shared memory’ which is explained further in this Nvidia blog post: Using Shared Memory in CUDA C/C++

Shared memory is a much smaller but significantly faster memory that is on-chip, close to the cores. The main peculiarity is that you need to manually fill shared memory before you can use it, forcing you to reason on a block of data/threads at the time, not on a single thread anymore.

How can we re-imagine a scan operation using shared memory?

If you recall, a scan algorithm (also called prefix-sum) performs the sum of all the elements of the array up to the index, for example, at index 10, we will have the sum of all the values from 0-9/10, if the 10th index itself is included or not in the sum, depends whether or not the scan is inclusive or exclusive. 

Let’s try to visualize how a scan will work using shared memory:

Each block will be scanned independently, in shared memory, and we will still perform multiple iterations, but memory accesses will be much faster and without the need to kick multiple shader invocations.

Once the block is scanned, we need to offset it by the sum of the previous blocks. Since we are doing an inclusive scan, the last value in the block is going to be the sum of all the elements in the block. If we want to know the result of the of the block N-1, we need to check the last number of such block.
How can we exactly achieve that?

There are two ways to do it. The first is data order independent, the second is not.
For this particular task, we don’t mind if the instances get shuffled in the process. If instead the order for your use case is a concern you might have to use some more sophisticated methods, check this paper from Nvidia for inspiration –

Since we don’t care if our data gets shuffled, as soon as one block is done we are going to accumulate the total sum of the block with an atomic operation on a counter. The old value before the addition is going to be the value we need to offset our local block scan. So every block will first read the value and then increment by the local scan value. This operation can be done atomically.

One added benefit is that as soon as we read our offset from the atomic variable, we know exactly where will we need to write our data in global memory so that we can merge the scan and compact pass in a single shader invocation.

How did that optimization help us?

As we can see from the telemetry, VRAM is still the major bottleneck, but memory stalls went down dramatically from 67% to 12%, what about the actual timings?

What we are seeing is quite an impressive speed up, how can we do better?

Let us reduce memory usage

VRAM is still very much our problem. We tried an algorithmic improvement, can we try to read less data?

Our algorithms are using a full 4×4, 32 bits matrix for representing each instance, let us reduce that to a position and a quaternion, this will result in 8×32 bits per instance. After we read the data, we will convert it to a matrix, and the algorithm will work just the same. We are threading memory size for computation. Let’s profile this new optimization.

VRAM utilization finally went down, and finally, we can see the “SM” (Streaming processor), metric showing up!
The fact that SM metric starts to ranks up in utilization, means our cores are finally doing some real work and less bound on memory. Let us profile again:

We got a nice speedup from both the scan and vote algorithm!

Even less memory

Can we reduce our memory usage even more? In our vote, we’re using an integer, to store the result of the value.
That is 32 bits of data to store a 0 or a 1. Some of the readers might think: “why not just use a bool?”. A bool datatype exists in HLSL but it is still a 32-bit value. We could use a “half”, 16 bits, but what about just using one bit per vote? Can we do it?
Thanfully, both AMD and Nvidia offer custom instructions that work on “lanes”, one of which is called a ballot. Each thread in a warp is going to perform a vote, and store the result in a bit of a 32-bit integer.
On Nvidia, a warp is a collection of 32 threads, which fits our goal perfectly! On AMD a warp is called a wavefront and is composed of 64 threads and the ballot operation returns 2x32bits integer.

The issue with those custom instructions is that they cannot be used in regular Unity shaders, but you need to use a native plug-in and compile the shader differently. Let us know in a comment if you are interested in how to do that and we will write a blog post about it!

By using those custom instructions, we are effectively able to reduce our vote array by a factor of 32. Did it help us?

Not a huge speed up, roughly a 10%. Still an improvement. Now the entry bar for this 10% improvement was quite high as it took approximately 800 lines of C++ code to be able to use those instructions (due to going to a native plugin).
It this was the only benefit we got, I would probably advocate dropping the optimization for the sake of simplicity.
But now that we have custom instructions at our disposal, but can we do better?


Another instruction offered by both IHVs is called shuffle. Shuffle is an instruction that allows threads in the same warp to exchange values without using memory, but directly, register to register. That will enable us to do the scan of 32 numbers at the time, straight in the registers’ memory space, which is the fastest memory on the GPU.

If you want more details on this technique, check this great Nvidia blog post: CUDA Pro Tip: Do The Kepler Shuffle

We got roughly another 20% speed up, our slowest part of the algorithm became our fastest one! The whole algorithm ended up with a 10x~ speed up.

The takeaway

Often when working with GPU compute and/or shaders, memory is going to be your primary concern.
GPUs have a tremendous amount of horsepower, but if you cannot keep all those core fed with memory, you are going to cripple the performances by an order of magnitude. You will have to think hard about how you are accessing and structuring your data.

Can we do better?

Is this it? Can we do anything more? Of course! Optimization is a never-ending task. There are a few things that we did not get around to try but might be quite interesting.

  • Aggressive data compression, it is possible to compress quaternions down to a single 32-bit value, this would allow
    us to store the quaternion in the w component of the position, and reduce our original 4×4 matrix to a 4×1 dataset.
  • Use more of the shuffle instructions, it is quite useful for sharing data between registers. Maybe we can exploit that to speed up the frustum computation as well.

Hope you enjoyed the post, see you next time.