Alex Carney

Learning Vulkan: Enumerating Physical Devices

Being an API for talking to GPUs and other compute devices every Vulkan program starts off by looking for an appropriate physical device to use. In this post I write a little C program that initialises the Vulkan API and lists out the available devices in the system.

$ vkdevice
Device Name:            Intel(R) HD Graphics 520 (Skylake GT2)
  Type:                 Integrated GPU
  Vendor ID:            32902
  Device ID:            6422
  API Version:          v1.1.102
  Driver Version:       v19.3.1

This is part of my “Learning Vulkan” series where I try to figure how to use Vulkan to explore various concepts in graphics programming. As mentioned in the Overview I don’t necessarily know what I’m doing!


Unlike Python which has tools like pip and venv to manage dependencies and development environments, C projects (as far as I know) require the environment of your development machine to be “just right”. This means details such as the host operating system and its libraries are more important than normal.

Since this series is a learning exercise, being able to compile and run code across multiple systems is not a huge concern of mine right now. But here is a rough overview of what is required to build this project…

I’m running Arch Linux with gcc and make installed along with the following Vulkan related packages

$ pacman -Q | grep vulkan
vulkan-extra-layers 1.1.130+10614+a70d5d17e-1
vulkan-headers 1:1.1.130-1
vulkan-html-docs 1:1.1.130-1
vulkan-icd-loader 1.1.130-1
vulkan-intel 19.3.1-1
vulkan-man-pages 1:1.0.38-1
vulkan-trace 1.1.130+10614+a70d5d17e-1
vulkan-validation-layers 1.1.130-1

I’m not sure however which of these are essential for the code contained in this post.

Project Structure

I’m intending over the course of this series to build up a repository of Vulkan examples/utilities and since the API has a reputation of being verbose I’ll be looking to reuse as much code as I can! So with that in mind I have opted for the following project structure

$ tree -a --dirsfirst
├── bin
│   └── vkdevice
├── src
│   ├── vkdevice.c
│   └── vkdevice.o
├── .gitignore
└── Makefile

Nothing ground breaking, a src/ folder to hold the source and intermediate build files, bin/ to hold all the compiled programs and a plain Makefile to orchestrate the whole thing.

The Makefile

I know that there are tools such as CMake and Autoconf that are probably preferable to a plain Makefile since they can be used to abstract over some differences between platforms. However since I’m not familiar with them and want to focus on learning Vulkan I’m opting for a simpler approach to start out with.

CC = gcc
CFLAGS = -Wall -Wextra
LDFLAGS = -lvulkan

Here I’m declaring that I’m using the gcc compiler, the CFLAGS variable contains any flags that should passed to compile steps (at the moment this just enables some compiler warnings). Finally LDFLAGS contains any flags related to linking, -lvulkan tells the linker to link our program against the Vulkan SDK.

.PHONY: default clean
default: vkdevice
    rm src/*.o bin/*

Next I define the default target to be vkdevice so that I can just run make and have it build the project. Then there’s a clean target so that it’s easy to recompile everything from scratch. Declaring both default and clean to be phony targets I think means we’re telling make not to look for matching files on the filesystem.

%.o: %.c
    $(CC) -c $(CFLAGS) $< $@

VKDEVICE = src/vkdevice.o
    $(CC) $(LDFLAGS) $(VKDEVICE) -o bin/vkdevice

Last but not least we get to the main part of the Makefile. First there is a generic pattern rule that instructs make on how to convert any .c file into an .o file making use of any of the compiler flags defined earlier. This allows the Makefile to be extended to compile each program we write by declaring a target that links the relevant object files (as defined by VKDEVICE) into an executable.

Then we can compile the project by calling make from the same directory as the Makefile

$ make
gcc -c -Wall -Wextra src/vkdevice.c -o src/vkdevice.o
gcc -lvulkan src/vkdevice.o -o bin/vkdevice

Creating an instance

With all the housekeeping out of the way, time to dive into the code which starts in a fairly standard way with us including all the header files we need.

#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <vulkan/vulkan.h>

int main() {
    // Insert code...

Then we start by filling out the VkApplicationInfo and VkInstanceCreateInfo structs. Unsurprisingly the first is used to provide information about our application such as the version of the API we wish to use. The application name and version fields are arbitrary and can be set to whatever we like.

VkApplicationInfo app_info = {
    .pApplicationName = "vkDevice Info",
    .applicationVersion = VK_MAKE_VERSION(1,0,0),
    .apiVersion = VK_API_VERSION_1_1,

VkInstanceCreateInfo vk_info = {
    .pApplicationInfo = &app_info,

The vk_info struct is then be used to create the instance.

VkInstance vk = NULL;
VkResult res = vkCreateInstance(&vk_info, NULL, &vk);

if (res != VK_SUCCESS) {
    fprintf(stderr, "Unable to create VkInstance!\n");
    return 0;

We also have to be sure to destroy the instance once we have finished with it

// Code omitted...

    vkDestroyInstance(vk, NULL);

return 0;

This is me attempting to apply this rule from the Linux kernel style guide to help manage resources through the lifetime of the program.

Listing Devices

Now that we have an instance we can start querying the API for the physical devices that are in the system. The issue is however - we don’t know how many devices the system has! To get around this we first have to call vkEnumeratePhysicalDevices with a NULL pointer, it will then mutate the count variable that we give to be equal to the number of available devices.

Note that we skip straight to the cleanup_instance label we defined earlier if this step fails.

uint32_t count = 0;
res = vkEnumeratePhysicalDevices(vk, &count, NULL);
if (res != VK_SUCCESS) {
    fprintf(stderr, "Unable to enumerate physical devices\n");
    goto cleanup_instance;

Next we attempt to allocate enough memory to store each of the devices in an array.

VkPhysicalDevice* physical_devices = malloc(count * sizeof(VkPhysicalDevice));
if (physical_devices == NULL) {
    fprintf(stderr, "Unable to enumerate physical devices\n");
    goto cleanup_instance;

Finally with the array allocated we can call vkEnumeratePhysicalDevices a second time to populate it. Notice how this time the error path has to jump to the cleanup_devices label so that we can be sure to free the newly allocated memory.

res = vkEnumeratePhysicalDevices(vk, &count, physical_devices);
if (res != VK_SUCCESS) {
    fprintf(stderr, "Unable to enumerate physical devices\n");
    goto cleanup_devices;

// Code omitted...

    physical_devices = NULL;

    vkDestroyInstance(vk, NULL);

Editor’s Note:

As I was writing this post I looked up the documentation for vkEnumeratePhysicalDevices and noticed that there is a different way to approach this section. We could’ve instead decided on a fixed size array

uint32_t MAX_DEVICES = 4;
VkPhysicalDevice physical_devices[MAX_DEVICES];
res = vkEnumeratePhysicalDevices(vk, &MAX_DEVICES, physical_devices);

In this situation the function will return up to MAX_DEVICES and if there more devices than can fit in the array then res will be set to VK_INCOMPLETE giving us the option to try again with a larger array.

This creates a dilemma - which approach is better? 🤔

Device Properties

It turns out that a VkPhysicalDevice on its own is rather useless since it doesn’t carry any information about itself. In order to find out more about what the device is and what features of the API it supports you need to call additional functions such as

Typically as part of your program’s setup you would call a number of these to gather information about support for features that matter to you to help decide which device is best suited to your use case. However for this toy program we’re only going to call vkGetPhysicalDeviceProperties for each device which will give us information such as its name.

for (uint32_t i = 0; i < count; i++) {
    VkPhysicalDeviceProperties properties = {};
    vkGetPhysicalDeviceProperties(physical_devices[i], &properties);

Version numbers (MAJOR.MINOR.PATCH) in the Vulkan API are encoded into a single 32bit integer as defined in the specification. Thankfully the spec also defines a number of macros that make decoding them nice and easy for us.

    uint32_t vk_major = VK_VERSION_MAJOR(properties.apiVersion);
    uint32_t vk_minor = VK_VERSION_MINOR(properties.apiVersion);
    uint32_t vk_patch = VK_VERSION_PATCH(properties.apiVersion);

    uint32_t driver_major = VK_VERSION_MAJOR(properties.driverVersion);
    uint32_t driver_minor = VK_VERSION_MINOR(properties.driverVersion);
    uint32_t driver_patch = VK_VERSION_PATCH(properties.driverVersion);

All that’s left to do is to print out the information we have gathered.

    printf("Device Name:     \t%s\n", properties.deviceName);
    printf("  Type:          \t%s\n", vkPhysicalDeviceType_as_string(properties.deviceType));
    printf("  Vendor ID:     \t%d\n", properties.vendorID);
    printf("  Device ID:     \t%d\n", properties.deviceID);
    printf("  API Version:   \tv%d.%d.%d\n", vk_major, vk_minor, vk_patch);
    printf("  Driver Version:\tv%d.%d.%d\n", driver_major, driver_minor, driver_patch);

I should also note that vkPhysicalDeviceType_as_string is a helper function I defined that converts a member of the vkPhysicalDeviceType enum into a string representation with a switch statement.


And that’s that! I’ve taken my first few baby steps with the Vulkan API and I hope that if you’ve read this far then this post was as useful to you as it was to me! If you are interested then you can see the full code listing here and I’ll see you in the next one.

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