Mapping Data to Shaders

All SPIR-V assembly was generated with glslangValidator

This chapter goes over how to interface Vulkan with SPIR-V in order to map data. Using the VkDeviceMemory objects allocated from vkAllocateMemory, it is up to the application to properly map the data from Vulkan such that the SPIR-V shader understands how to consume it correctly.

In core Vulkan, there are 5 fundamental ways to map data from your Vulkan application to interface with SPIR-V:

Input Attributes

The only shader stage in core Vulkan that has an input attribute controlled by Vulkan is the vertex shader stage (VK_SHADER_STAGE_VERTEX_BIT). This involves declaring the interface slots when creating the VkPipeline and then binding the VkBuffer before draw time with the data to map. Other shaders stages, such as a fragment shader stage, has input attributes, but the values are determined from the output of the previous stages ran before it.

Before calling vkCreateGraphicsPipelines a VkPipelineVertexInputStateCreateInfo struct will need to be filled out with a list of VkVertexInputAttributeDescription mappings to the shader.

An example GLSL vertex shader:

#version 450
layout(location = 0) in vec3 inPosition;

void main() {
    gl_Position = vec4(inPosition, 1.0);

There is only a single input attribute at location 0. This can also be seen in the generated SPIR-V assembly:

                Name 18  "inPosition"
                Decorate 18(inPosition) Location 0

            17: TypePointer Input 16(fvec3)
18(inPosition): 17(ptr) Variable Input
            19: 16(fvec3) Load 18(inPosition)

In this example, the following could be used for the VkVertexInputAttributeDescription:

VkVertexInputAttributeDescription input = {};
input.location = 0;
input.binding  = 0;
input.format   = VK_FORMAT_R32G32B32_SFLOAT; // maps to vec3
input.offset   = 0;

The only thing left to do is bind the vertex buffer and optional index buffer prior to the draw call.

Using VK_BUFFER_USAGE_VERTEX_BUFFER_BIT when creating the VkBuffer is what makes it a “vertex buffer”

// ...
// ...
// ...

More information can be found in the Vertex Input Data Processing chapter


A resource descriptor is the core way to map data such as uniform buffers, storage buffers, samplers, etc. to any shader stage in Vulkan. One way to conceptualize a descriptor is by thinking of it as a pointer to memory that the shader can use.

There are various descriptor types in Vulkan, each with their own detailed description in what they allow.

Descriptors are grouped together in descriptor sets which get bound to the shader. Even if there is only a single descriptor in the descriptor set, the entire VkDescriptorSet is used when binding to the shader.


In this example, there are the following 3 descriptor sets:


The GLSL of the shader:

// Note - only set 0 and 2 are used in this shader

layout(set = 0, binding = 0) uniform sampler2D myTextureSampler;

layout(set = 0, binding = 2) uniform uniformBuffer0 {
    float someData;
} ubo_0;

layout(set = 0, binding = 3) uniform uniformBuffer1 {
    float moreData;
} ubo_1;

layout(set = 2, binding = 0) buffer storageBuffer {
    float myResults;
} ssbo;

The corresponding SPIR-V assembly:

Decorate 19(myTextureSampler) DescriptorSet 0
Decorate 19(myTextureSampler) Binding 0

MemberDecorate 29(uniformBuffer0) 0 Offset 0
Decorate 29(uniformBuffer0) Block
Decorate 31(ubo_0) DescriptorSet 0
Decorate 31(ubo_0) Binding 2

MemberDecorate 38(uniformBuffer1) 0 Offset 0
Decorate 38(uniformBuffer1) Block
Decorate 40(ubo_1) DescriptorSet 0
Decorate 40(ubo_1) Binding 3

MemberDecorate 44(storageBuffer) 0 Offset 0
Decorate 44(storageBuffer) BufferBlock
Decorate 46(ssbo) DescriptorSet 2
Decorate 46(ssbo) Binding 0

The binding of descriptors is done while recording the command buffer. The descriptors must be bound at the time of a draw/dispatch call. The following is some pseudo code to better represent this:

// ...
vkCmdBindPipeline(); // Binds shader

// One possible way of binding the two sets
vkCmdBindDescriptorSets(firstSet = 0, pDescriptorSets = &descriptor_set_c);
vkCmdBindDescriptorSets(firstSet = 2, pDescriptorSets = &descriptor_set_b);

vkCmdDraw(); // or dispatch
// ...

The following results would look as followed


Descriptor types

The Vulkan Spec has a Shader Resource and Storage Class Correspondence table that describes how each descriptor type needs to be mapped to in SPIR-V.

The following shows an example of what GLSL and SPIR-V mapping to each of the descriptor types looks like.

For GLSL, more information can be found in the GLSL Spec - 12.2.4. Vulkan Only: Samplers, Images, Textures, and Buffers

Storage Image


layout(set = 0, binding = 0, r32ui) uniform uimage2D storageImage;

// example usage for reading and writing in GLSL
const uvec4 texel = imageLoad(storageImage, ivec2(0, 0));
imageStore(storageImage, ivec2(1, 1), texel);
OpDecorate %storageImage DescriptorSet 0
OpDecorate %storageImage Binding 0

%r32ui        = OpTypeImage %uint 2D 0 0 0 2 R32ui
%ptr          = OpTypePointer UniformConstant %r32ui
%storageImage = OpVariable %ptr UniformConstant

Sampler and Sampled Image


layout(set = 0, binding = 0) uniform sampler samplerDescriptor;
layout(set = 0, binding = 1) uniform texture2D sampledImage;

// example usage of using texture() in GLSL
vec4 data = texture(sampler2D(sampledImage,  samplerDescriptor), vec2(0.0, 0.0));
OpDecorate %sampledImage DescriptorSet 0
OpDecorate %sampledImage Binding 1
OpDecorate %samplerDescriptor DescriptorSet 0
OpDecorate %samplerDescriptor Binding 0

%image        = OpTypeImage %float 2D 0 0 0 1 Unknown
%imagePtr     = OpTypePointer UniformConstant %image
%sampledImage = OpVariable %imagePtr UniformConstant

%sampler           = OpTypeSampler
%samplerPtr        = OpTypePointer UniformConstant %sampler
%samplerDescriptor = OpVariable %samplerPtr UniformConstant

%imageLoad       = OpLoad %image %sampledImage
%samplerLoad     = OpLoad %sampler %samplerDescriptor

%sampleImageType = OpTypeSampledImage %image
%1               = OpSampledImage %sampleImageType %imageLoad %samplerLoad

%textureSampled = OpImageSampleExplicitLod %v4float %1 %coordinate Lod %float_0

Combined Image Sampler


On some implementations, it may be more efficient to sample from an image using a combination of sampler and sampled image that are stored together in the descriptor set in a combined descriptor.

layout(set = 0, binding = 0) uniform sampler2D combinedImageSampler;

// example usage of using texture() in GLSL
vec4 data = texture(combinedImageSampler, vec2(0.0, 0.0));
OpDecorate %combinedImageSampler DescriptorSet 0
OpDecorate %combinedImageSampler Binding 0

%imageType            = OpTypeImage %float 2D 0 0 0 1 Unknown
%sampleImageType      = OpTypeSampledImage imageType
%ptr                  = OpTypePointer UniformConstant %sampleImageType
%combinedImageSampler = OpVariable %ptr UniformConstant

%load           = OpLoad %sampleImageType %combinedImageSampler
%textureSampled = OpImageSampleExplicitLod %v4float %load %coordinate Lod %float_0

Uniform Buffer


Uniform buffers can also have dynamic offsets at bind time (VK_DESCRIPTOR_TYPE_UNIFORM_BUFFER_DYNAMIC)

layout(set = 0, binding = 0) uniform uniformBuffer {
    float a;
    int b;
} ubo;

// example of reading from UBO in GLSL
int x = ubo.b + 1;
vec3 y = vec3(ubo.a);
OpMemberDecorate %uniformBuffer 0 Offset 0
OpMemberDecorate %uniformBuffer 1 Offset 4
OpDecorate %uniformBuffer Block
OpDecorate %ubo DescriptorSet 0
OpDecorate %ubo Binding 0

%uniformBuffer = OpTypeStruct %float %int
%ptr           = OpTypePointer Uniform %uniformBuffer
%ubo           = OpVariable %ptr Uniform

Storage Buffer


Storage buffers can also have dynamic offsets at bind time (VK_DESCRIPTOR_TYPE_STORAGE_BUFFER_DYNAMIC)

layout(set = 0, binding = 0) buffer storageBuffer {
    float a;
    int b;
} ssbo;

// example of reading and writing SSBO in GLSL
ssbo.a = ssbo.a + 1.0;
ssbo.b = ssbo.b + 1;

BufferBlock and Uniform would have been seen prior to VK_KHR_storage_buffer_storage_class

OpMemberDecorate %storageBuffer 0 Offset 0
OpMemberDecorate %storageBuffer 1 Offset 4
OpDecorate %storageBuffer Block
OpDecorate %ssbo DescriptorSet 0
OpDecorate %ssbo Binding 0

%storageBuffer = OpTypeStruct %float %int
%ptr           = OpTypePointer StorageBuffer %storageBuffer
%ssbo          = OpVariable %ptr StorageBuffer

Uniform Texel Buffer


layout(set = 0, binding = 0) uniform textureBuffer uniformTexelBuffer;

// example of reading texel buffer in GLSL
vec4 data = texelFetch(uniformTexelBuffer, 0);
OpDecorate %uniformTexelBuffer DescriptorSet 0
OpDecorate %uniformTexelBuffer Binding 0

%texelBuffer        = OpTypeImage %float Buffer 0 0 0 1 Unknown
%ptr                = OpTypePointer UniformConstant %texelBuffer
%uniformTexelBuffer = OpVariable %ptr UniformConstant

Storage Texel Buffer


layout(set = 0, binding = 0, rgba8ui) uniform uimageBuffer storageTexelBuffer;

// example of reading and writing texel buffer in GLSL
int offset = int(gl_GlobalInvocationID.x);
vec4 data = imageLoad(storageTexelBuffer, offset);
imageStore(storageTexelBuffer, offset, uvec4(0));
OpDecorate %storageTexelBuffer DescriptorSet 0
OpDecorate %storageTexelBuffer Binding 0

%rgba8ui            = OpTypeImage %uint Buffer 0 0 0 2 Rgba8ui
%ptr                = OpTypePointer UniformConstant %rgba8ui
%storageTexelBuffer = OpVariable %ptr UniformConstant

Input Attachment


layout (input_attachment_index = 0, set = 0, binding = 0) uniform subpassInput inputAttachment;

// example loading the attachment data in GLSL
vec4 data = subpassLoad(inputAttachment);
OpDecorate %inputAttachment DescriptorSet 0
OpDecorate %inputAttachment Binding 0
OpDecorate %inputAttachment InputAttachmentIndex 0

%subpass         = OpTypeImage %float SubpassData 0 0 0 2 Unknown
%ptr             = OpTypePointer UniformConstant %subpass
%inputAttachment = OpVariable %ptr UniformConstant

Push Constants

A push constant is a small bank of values accessible in shaders. Push constants allow the application to set values used in shaders without creating buffers or modifying and binding descriptor sets for each update.

These are designed for small amount (a few dwords) of high frequency data to be updated per-recording of the command buffer.

More information can be found in the Push Constants chapter.

Specialization Constants

Specialization constants are a mechanism allowing a constant value in SPIR-V to be specified at VkPipeline creation time. This is powerful as it replaces the idea of doing preprocessor macros in the high level shading language (GLSL, HLSL, etc).


If an application wants to create to VkPipeline where the color value is different for each, a naive approach is to have two shaders:

// shader_a.frag
#version 450
layout(location = 0) out vec4 outColor;

void main() {
    outColor = vec4(0.0);
// shader_b.frag
#version 450
layout(location = 0) out vec4 outColor;

void main() {
    outColor = vec4(1.0);

Using specialization constants, the decision can instead be made when calling vkCreateGraphicsPipelines to compile the shader. This means there only needs to be a single shader.

#version 450
layout (constant_id = 0) const float myColor = 1.0;
layout(location = 0) out vec4 outColor;

void main() {
    outColor = vec4(myColor);

Resulting SPIR-V assembly:

                      Decorate 9(outColor) Location 0
                      Decorate 10(myColor) SpecId 0

                      // 0x3f800000 as decimal which is 1.0 for a 32 bit float
10(myColor): 6(float) SpecConstant 1065353216

With specialization constants, the value is still a constant inside the shader, but for example, if another VkPipeline uses the same shader, but wants to set the myColor value to 0.5f, it is possible to do so at runtime.

struct myData {
    float myColor = 1.0f;
} myData;

VkSpecializationMapEntry mapEntry = {};
mapEntry.constantID = 0; // matches constant_id in GLSL and SpecId in SPIR-V
mapEntry.offset     = 0;
mapEntry.size       = sizeof(float);

VkSpecializationInfo specializationInfo = {};
specializationInfo.mapEntryCount = 1;
specializationInfo.pMapEntries   = &mapEntry;
specializationInfo.dataSize      = sizeof(myData);
specializationInfo.pData         = &myData;

VkGraphicsPipelineCreateInfo pipelineInfo = {};
pipelineInfo.pStages[fragIndex].pSpecializationInfo = &specializationInfo;

// Create first pipeline with myColor as 1.0

// Create second pipeline with same shader, but sets different value
myData.myColor = 0.5f;

The second VkPipeline shader disassembled has the new constant value for myColor of 0.5f.

3 Types of Specialization Constants Usages

The typical use cases for specialization constants can be best grouped into three different usages.

  • Toggling features

    • Support for a feature in Vulkan isn’t known until runtime. This usage of specialization constants is to prevent writing two separate shaders, but instead embedding a constant runtime decision.

  • Improving backend optimizations

    • The “backend” here refers the implementation’s compiler that takes the resulting SPIR-V and lowers it down to some ISA to run on the device.

    • Constant values allow a set of optimizations such as constant folding, dead code elimination, etc. to occur.

  • Affecting types and memory sizes

    • It is possible to set the length of an array or a variable type used through a specialization constant.

    • It is important to notice that a compiler will need to allocate registers depending on these types and sizes. This means it is likely that a pipeline cache will fail if the difference is significant in registers allocated.

Physical Storage Buffer

The VK_KHR_buffer_device_address extension promoted to Vulkan 1.2 adds the ability to have “pointers in the shader”. Using the PhysicalStorageBuffer storage class in SPIR-V an application can call vkGetBufferDeviceAddress which will return the VkDeviceAddress to the memory.

While this is a way to map data to the shader, it is not a way to interface with the shader. For example, if an application wants to use this with a uniform buffer it would have to create a VkBuffer with both VK_BUFFER_USAGE_SHADER_DEVICE_ADDRESS_BIT and VK_BUFFER_USAGE_UNIFORM_BUFFER_BIT. From here in this example, Vulkan would use a descriptor to interface with the shader, but could then use the physical storage buffer to update the value after.


With all the above examples it is important to be aware that there are limits in Vulkan that expose how much data can be bound at a single time.

  • Input Attributes

    • maxVertexInputAttributes

    • maxVertexInputAttributeOffset

  • Descriptors

    • maxBoundDescriptorSets

    • Per stage limit

    • maxPerStageDescriptorSamplers

    • maxPerStageDescriptorUniformBuffers

    • maxPerStageDescriptorStorageBuffers

    • maxPerStageDescriptorSampledImages

    • maxPerStageDescriptorStorageImages

    • maxPerStageDescriptorInputAttachments

    • Per type limit

    • maxPerStageResources

    • maxDescriptorSetSamplers

    • maxDescriptorSetUniformBuffers

    • maxDescriptorSetUniformBuffersDynamic

    • maxDescriptorSetStorageBuffers

    • maxDescriptorSetStorageBuffersDynamic

    • maxDescriptorSetSampledImages

    • maxDescriptorSetStorageImages

    • maxDescriptorSetInputAttachments

    • VkPhysicalDeviceDescriptorIndexingProperties if using Descriptor Indexing

    • VkPhysicalDeviceInlineUniformBlockPropertiesEXT if using Inline Uniform Block

  • Push Constants

    • maxPushConstantsSize - guaranteed at least 128 bytes on all devices