17.2 Alternative Hardware Architectures

Our focus in this book has been on traditional multi-core CPUs as a target for the system. Furthermore, we have ignored the potential of being able to perform up to eight floating-point operations per instruction by using CPU SIMD hardware. While other computing architectures like GPUs or specialized ray-tracing hardware are appealing targets for a renderer, their characteristics tend to change rapidly, and their programming languages and models are less widely known than languages like C++ on CPUs. Though we haven’t targeted these architectures with pbrt, it’s useful to discuss their characteristics.

The early days of ray tracing saw work in this area focused on multiprocessors (Cleary et al. 1983; Green and Paddon 1989; Badouel and Priol 1989) and clusters of computers (Parker et al. 1999; Wald et al. 2001a, 2002; Wald et al. 2001b; Wald et al. 2003). More recently, substantial capabilities have become available in single computer systems, which has led to a shift of focus to the capabilities of CPU SIMD units and GPUs.

CPUs have long been designed to run a single thread of computation as efficiently as possible; these processors can be considered to be latency focused, in that the goal is to finish a single computation as quickly as possible. (Only since 2005 or so has this focus started to slowly change in CPU design, as multicore CPUs have provided a small number of independent latency-focused processors on a single chip.) Starting with the advent of programmable graphics processors around the year 2003, throughput processors (as exemplified by GPUs) have increasingly become the source of most of the computational capability available in many computer systems. These processors focus not on single-thread performance but instead on efficiently running hundreds or thousands of computations in parallel with high aggregate computational throughput, without trying to minimize time for any of the individual computations.

By not focusing on single-thread performance, throughput processors are able to devote much less space on the chip for caches, branch prediction hardware, out-of-order execution units, and other features that have been invented to improve single-thread performance on CPUs. Thus, given a fixed amount of chip area, these processors are able to provide many more arithmetic logic units (ALUs) than a CPU. For the types of computations that can provide a substantial amount of independent parallel work, throughput processors can keep these ALUs busy and very efficiently execute the computation. As of the time of writing, GPUs offer approximately ten times as many peak FLOPS as high-end CPUs; this makes them highly attractive for many processing-intensive tasks (including ray tracing).

Single instruction, multiple data (SIMD) processing, where processing units execute a single instruction across multiple data elements, is the key mechanism that throughput processors use to efficiently deliver computation; both today’s CPUs and today’s GPUs have SIMD vector units in their processing cores. Modern CPUs generally have a handful of processing cores and support four or eight 32-bit floating point operations in their vector instruction sets (e.g., SSE, NEON, or AVX). GPUs currently have tens of processing cores, each with SIMD vector units between 8 and 64 elements wide. (Intel’s Xeon Phi architecture, which features over 50 relatively simple CPU cores, each with a 16-wide 32-bit floating-point SIMD unit, lies somewhere between these two points.) It is likely that both the number of processing cores and the width of the vector units in all of these processor architectures will go up over time, as hardware designers make use of additional transistors made possible by Moore’s law.

17.2.1 GPU Ray Tracing

Purcell et al. (2002, 2003) and Carr, Hall, and Hart (2002) were the first to map general-purpose ray tracers to throughput graphics processors. GPU-based construction of data structures tends to be challenging; see Zhou et al. (2008), Lauterbach et al. (2009), Pantaleoni and Luebke (2010), Garanzha et al. (2011), and Karras and Aila (2013) for techniques for building kd-trees and BVHs on GPUs.

Aila and Laine (2009) carefully investigated the performance of SIMD ray tracing on a graphics processor, using their insights to develop a new SIMD-friendly traversal algorithm that was substantially more efficient than the previous best known approach. Their insights are worth careful consideration by all implementors of high-performance rendering systems.

A big challenge in using throughput processors for rendering systems can be finding coherent collections of computation that use the SIMD vector elements efficiently. Consider a Monte Carlo path tracer tracing a collection of rays; after random sampling at the first bounce, each ray will in general intersect completely different objects, likely with completely different surface shaders. At this point, running the surface shaders will likely make poor use of SIMD hardware as each ray needs to execute a different computation. This specific problem of efficient shading was investigated by Hoberock et al. (2009), who re-sorted a large number of intersection points to create coherent collections of work before executing their surface shaders.

Another challenge is that relatively limited amount of local memory on GPUs makes it challenging to implement light transport algorithms that require more than a small amount of storage for each ray. (For example, even storing all of the vertices of a pair of subpaths for a bidirectional path tracing algorithm is not straightforward.) The paper by Davidovič et al. (2014) gives a thorough overview of these issues and previous work and includes a discussion of implementations of a number of sophisticated light transport algorithms on the GPU.

An interesting trade-off for renderer developers to consider is exhibited by Hachisuka’s path tracer, which uses a rasterizer with parallel projection to trace rays, effectively computing visibility in the same direction for all of the points being shaded (Hachisuka 2005). His insight was that although this approach doesn’t give a particularly good sampling distribution for Monte Carlo path tracing, in that each point isn’t able to perform importance sampling to select outgoing directions, the increased efficiency from computing visibility for a very coherent collection of rays paid off overall. In other words, for a fixed amount of computation, so many more samples could be taken using rasterization versus using ray tracing that the much larger number of less well-distributed samples generated a better image than a smaller number of well-chosen samples. We suspect that this general issue of trading off between computing exactly the locally desired result at a single point versus computing what can be computed very efficiently globally for many points will be an important one for developers to consider on the SIMD processors of the future.

17.2.2 Packet Tracing

For narrow SIMD widths on CPUs (like four-element SSE), some performance gains can be attained by opportunistically using the SIMD unit. For example, one might modify pbrt to use SSE instructions for the operations defined in the Spectrum class, thus generally being able to do three floating-point operations per instruction (for RGB spectra) rather than just one if the SIMD unit was not used. This approach would achieve 75% utilization of an SSE unit for those instructions but doesn’t help with performance in the rest of the system. In some cases, optimizing compilers can identify multiple computations in scalar code that can be executed together using a single SIMD instruction.

Achieving excellent utilization of SIMD vector units generally requires that the entire computation be expressed in a data parallel manner, where the same computation is performed on many data elements simultaneously. A natural way to extract data parallelism in a ray tracer is to have each processing core responsible for tracing n rays at a time, where n is at least the size of the SIMD width, if not larger; as such, each SIMD vector “lane” is responsible for just a single ray, and each vector instruction performs only a single scalar computation for each of the rays it’s responsible for. Thus, high SIMD utilization comes naturally, except for the cases where some rays require different computations than others.

This approach has seen success with high-performance CPU ray tracers (where it is generally called “packet tracing”). Wald et al. (2001a) introduced this approach, which has since seen wide adoption. In a packet tracer, the camera generates “packets” of n rays that are then processed as a unit. Acceleration structure traversal algorithms are modified so that they visit a node if any of the rays in the packet passes through it; primitives in the leaves are tested for intersection with all of the rays in the packet, and so forth. Packet tracing has been shown to lead to substantial speedups, although it becomes increasingly less effective as the rays to be traced become less coherent; it works well for camera rays and shadow rays to localized light sources, since the packets of rays will pass through similar regions of the scene, but efficiency generally falls off with multi-bounce light transport algorithms. Finding ways to retain good efficiency with packet tracing remains an active area of research.

Packet tracing on CPUs is usually implemented with the SIMD vectorization made explicit: intersection functions are written to explicitly take some number of rays as a parameter rather than just a single ray, and so forth. In contrast, the vectorization in programs written for throughput processors like GPUs is generally implicit: code is written as if it just operates on a single ray at a time, but the underlying compiler and hardware actually execute one instance of the program in each SIMD lane.

For processors that directly expose their SIMD nature in their instruction sets (like CPUs or Intel’s Xeon Phi), the designer of the programming model is able to choose whether to provide an implicit or an explicit vector model to the user. See Parker et al.’s (2007) ray-tracing shading language for an example of compiling an implicitly data-parallel language to a SIMD instruction set on CPUs. See also Georgiev and Slusallek’s (2008) approach, where a generic programming approach is taken in C++ to allow implementing a high-performance ray tracer with details like packets well hidden. ispc, described in a paper by Pharr and Mark (2012), provides a general-purpose “single program multiple data” (SPMD) language for CPU vector units that also provides this model.

Reshetov et al. (2005) generalized packet tracing, showing that gathering up many rays from a single origin into a frustum and then using the frustum for acceleration structure traversal could lead to very high-performance ray tracing; they refined the frusta into subfrusta and eventually the individual rays as they reached lower levels of the tree. Reshetov (2007) later introduced a technique for efficiently intersecting a collection of rays against a collection of triangles in acceleration structure leaf nodes by generating a frustum around the rays and using it for first-pass culling. See Benthin and Wald (2009) for a technique to use ray frusta and packets for efficient shadow rays.

While packet tracing is effective for coherent collections of rays that follow generally the same path through acceleration structures, it’s much less effective for incoherent collections of rays, which are more common with global illumination algorithms. To address this issue, Christensen et al. (2006), Ernst and Greiner (2008), Wald et al. (2008), and Dammertz et al. (2008) proposed only traversing a single ray through the acceleration structure at once but improving SIMD efficiency by simultaneously testing each ray against a number of bounding boxes at each step in the hierarchy.

Another approach to the ray incoherence problem is to reorder small batches of incoherent rays to improve SIMD efficiency; representative work in this area includes papers by Mansson et al. (2007), Boulos et al. (2008), Gribble and Ramani (2008), and Tsakok (2009). More recently, Barringer and Akenine-Möller (2014) developed a SIMD ray traversal algorithm that delivered substantial performance improvements given large numbers of rays.

The Embree system, described in a paper by Wald et al. (2014), is a high-performance open source rendering system that supports both packet tracing and highly efficient traversal of single rays. See also the paper by Benthin et al. (2011) on the topic of finding a balance between these two approaches.

pbrt is very much a “one ray at a time” ray tracer; if a rendering system can provide many rays for intersection tests at once, a variety of more efficient implementations are possible even beyond packet tracing. For example, Keller and Wächter (2011) and Mora (2011) described algorithms for intersecting a large number of rays against the scene geometry where there is no acceleration structure at all. Instead, primitives and rays are both recursively partitioned until small collections of rays and small collections of primitives remain, at which point intersection tests are performed. Improvements to this approach were described by Áfra (2012) and Nabata et al. (2013).

17.2.3 Ray-Tracing Hardware

Given the widespread success of specialized hardware for triangle rasterization and shading in modern PCs, there has long been interest in designing specialized hardware for ray tracing. The ray-tracing algorithm presents a variety of stages of computation that must be addressed in a complete system, including camera ray generation, construction of the acceleration hierarchy, traversal of the hierarchy, ray–primitive intersections, shading, lighting, and integration calculations.

Early published work in this area includes a paper by Woop et al. (2005), who described the design of a “ray processing unit” (RPU). More recently, Aila and Karras (2010) described general architectural issues related to handling incoherent rays, as are common with global illumination algorithms. Nah et al. (2011) and Lee and collaborators (2013, 2015) have written a series of papers on ray tracing on a mobile GPU architecture, addressing issues including hierarchy traversal, ray generation, intersection calculations, and ray reordering for better memory coherence. See also the paper by Doyle et al. (2013) on SAH BVH construction in specialized hardware.

While there has been substantial research work in this area, unfortunately none of these architectures has made it out to the market in large numbers, though the Caustic ray-tracing architecture (McCombe 2013) has been acquired by a mobile GPU vendor, Imagination Technologies. Plans for products based on an integration of this architecture into a traditional GPU have been announced; we are hopeful that the time for efficient ray-tracing hardware may have arrived.

17.2.4 The Future

Innovation in high-performance architectures for graphics seems likely to continue in coming years. As CPUs are gradually increasing their SIMD width and adding more processing cores, becoming more similar to throughput processors, throughput processors are adding support for task parallelism and improving their performance on more irregular workloads than purely data-parallel ones. Whether the computer system of the future is a heterogeneous collection of both types of processing cores or whether there is a middle ground with a single type of processor architecture that works well for a range of applications remains an open question.

The role of specialized fixed-function graphics hardware in future systems is likely to become increasingly important; fixed-function hardware is generally substantially more power-efficient than programmable hardware. As the critical computational kernels of future graphics systems become clear, fixed-function implementations of them may become widespread.