The Vulkan API just launched yesterday and things are already moving pretty fast for the open-source competitor to Microsoft’s DirectX 12. Vulkan, for those of you who haven’t been following, is built on the back of AMD’s Mantle API launched in 2013, which allowed low-level access to the graphics hardware to improve performance. At the time, AMD said that having NVIDIA and Intel support Mantle was simply a case of building a driver that supported it. While that never progressed in the way AMD intended, handing over Mantle to the Khronos group turned out to be a good idea, and Vulkan now has driver support from the big three GPU designers, namely Intel, AMD, and NVIDIA.
While there isn’t anything that supports Vulkan yet, The Talos Principle (available on Steam for R409) is set to become the first game to patch in support for it, which is useful because it currently runs on Windows, Apple Mac OS X, and Linux, giving us a nice three-way comparison for assessing the game’s performance in different software environments. Other games that support Vulkan will be announced soon, although it’s likely that these will be existing titles already in development on modern engines like Unreal Engine 4 or Unity. As I mentioned yesterday, Vulkan’s aim is to make porting to it from other APIs as easy as possible, so anything running on DirectX 11 or 12 should be within reach.
Driver support is now in the works by NVIDIA, AMD, and Intel, which are all partners in the Khronos group that helped design and develop the API into a DirectX competitor (Mantle was essentially a proof of concept). But the way in which each company is rolling support out is different.
NVIDIA has a beta Windows driver (356.39) and a beta Linux driver (355.00.26) available, though both are considered highly experimental and require GPUs based on the Kepler or Maxwell architectures
Intel has an open-source Linux driver available, and requires hardware based on Broadwell or newer to benefit from the new drivers. Support for Haswell and earlier platforms is planned, but not guaranteed given the highly experimental nature of Vulkan drivers at the moment
AMD has drivers, but doesn’t have any graphics cards listed on the compliance page of Khronos’ website, which has a laundry list of Intel and NVIDIA graphics cards that support Vulkan 1.0. AMD’s press release limits users to GPUs from the HD 7000 series and upwards, so anything based on GCN which already was able to run Mantle.
While AMD and Khronos are definitely the two companies who worked the closest to get Vulkan off the ground, NVIDIA flies out of the gate with immediate support for most of their Geforce and Quadro lineup based on Kepler and Maxwell. On their developer portal for Vulkan, they already have demos that users can run on their machines to see the benefits of using Vulkan for 3D games, CAD rendering, particle simulation, and creating super-sampled objects with high precision.
NVIDIA also has a C++ wrapper that enables basic access for existing code to run on Vulkan, giving developers a starting point to begin porting over their code and toying with the new API to discover its benefits. What an exciting start to the year for the gaming industry! I wonder what kind of gains we’ll see with Vulkan in a head-to-head Windows versus Linux showdown.