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Alyssa Rosenzweig: Dissecting the Apple M1 GPU, part III

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After a few weeks of investigating the Apple M1 GPU in January, I was able to draw a triangle with my own open source code. Although I began dissecting the instruction set, the shaders there were specified as machine code. A real graphics driver needs a compiler from high-level shading languages (GLSL or Metal) to a native binary. Our understanding of the M1 GPU’s instruction set has advanced over the past few months. Last week, I began writing a free and open source shader compiler targeting the Apple GPU. Progress has been rapid: at the end of its first week, it can compile both basic vertex and fragment shaders, sufficient to render 3D scenes. The spinning cube pictured above has its shaders written in idiomatic GLSL, compiled with the nascent free software compiler, and rendered with native code like the first triangle in January. No proprietary blobs here!

Over the past few months, Dougall Johnson has investigated the instruction set in-depth, building on my initial work. His findings on the architecture are outstanding, focusing on compute kernels to complement my focus on graphics. Armed with his notes and my command stream tooling, I could chip away at a compiler.

The compiler’s design must fit into the development context. Asahi Linux aims to run a Linux desktop on Apple Silicon, so our driver should follow Linux’s best practices like upstream development. That includes using the New Intermediate Representation (NIR) in Mesa, the home for open source graphics drivers. NIR is a lightweight library for shader compilers, with a GLSL frontend and backend targets including Intel and AMD. NIR is an alternative to LLVM, the compiler framework used by Apple. Just because Apple prefers LLVM doesn’t mean we have to. A team at Valve famously rewrote AMD’s LLVM backend as a NIR compiler, improving performance. If it’s good enough for Valve, it’s good enough for me.

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Also: More Progress Is Made Understanding Apple's M1 GPU, Working Towards An Open Driver

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