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3 Years of Metal

May 21, 2020

by zeuxcg

Product & Tech

Three years ago, we ported our renderer to Metal. It didn’t take much time, it was a blast and it worked really well on iOS. So we wrote an article going through how we made our decision and how it ended up (spoilers: really well!). Most of that original retrospective still applies, but today Metal is in better shape than ever – so we’ve decided to republish it with our three-year update.

So let’s wind the clock back, pretend it’s December 2016 and we have just shipped a version of our Metal renderer on iOS.

Why Metal?

When Apple announced Metal at WWDC in 2014, my initial reaction was to ignore it. It was only available on the newest hardware which most of our users didn’t have, and while Apple said it solved CPU performance issues, optimizing for the smallest market would mean the gap between the fastest and slowest devices would grow even more. At the time we were running OpenGL ES 2 only on Apple, and also starting to port to Android.

Fast forward two and a half years, here’s how the Metal market share looks for our users:

This is much more appealing than it used to be. It is still the case that implementing Metal does not help the oldest devices, but the GL market on iOS keeps shrinking, and the content that we run on these old devices is frequently different from the content that runs on newest devices, so it makes sense to dedicate some effort to make it faster. Given that your iOS Metal code will run on Mac with very few changes, it could make sense to use it on Mac as well even if you are mobile-focused (we currently only ship Metal builds on iOS).

I think it is worthwhile to analyze the market share in a bit more detail. On iOS, we support Metal for iOS 8.3+; while there are some users who can’t run Metal because of OS version restrictions, most of the 25% who still run GL are simply using older devices that have SGX hardware. They also don’t have any OpenGL ES 3 features, and we’re content with running a lower-end rendering path there (although we’d love all devices to go Metal – fortunately the GL/Metal split will only improve). On Mac, Metal API is newer and the OS plays a pretty significant part – you have to use OSX 10.11+ to use Metal and half of our users simply have a more dated OS – it’s less about the hardware and more about the software (95% of our Mac users run OpenGL 3.2+).

So given the market share, we still have options that do not involve porting to Metal. One of them is to just use MoltenGL, which would use the OpenGL code we already have, but supposedly be faster; another is to port to Vulkan (to get better performance on PC, and eventually Android) and use MoltenVK. I have briefly evaluated MoltenGL and was not too thrilled with the results – it took some effort to make our code run at all, and while performance was a bit better compared to stock OpenGL I was hoping for more. As for MoltenVK, I think it is misguided to try to implement one low-level API as a layer above another one – you’re bound to get impedance mismatch that will result in suboptimal performance – maybe it will be better than the high-level API you used to use, but it’s unlikely to be as fast as possible, which supposedly is why you’re choosing a low-level API to begin with! One other important aspect is Metal implementation is much simpler than a Vulkan one – more on that later – so in some sense I’d prefer a Metal -> Vulkan wrapper instead of a Vulkan -> Metal.

It is also worth noting that apparently on iOS 10 on newest iPhones there is no GL driver – GL is implemented on top of Metal. Which means using OpenGL is only really saving you a bit of development effort – not that much, considering that the promise of “write once, run anywhere” that OpenGL has does not really work out on mobile.


Overall, porting to Metal was a breeze. We have a lot of experience working with different graphics APIs, ranging from high level APIs like Direct3D 9/11 to low level APIs like PS4 GNM. This gives a unique advantage of being able to comfortably use an API like Metal that is simultaneously reasonably high level but also leaves some tasks like CPU-GPU synchronization for the app developer to do.

The only hurdle really was getting our shaders to compile – once that was done and it was time to write the code it became apparent that the API is so simple and self-explanatory that the code practically wrote itself. I got the port that rendered most things in a suboptimal fashion running in about 10 hours in a single day, and spent two more weeks cleaning up the code, fixing validation issues, profiling and optimizing and doing general polish. To get an API implementation in this time frame speaks volumes of the quality of the API and the toolset. I believe there are several aspects that contribute:

  • You can develop the code incrementally, with good feedback at every stage. Our code started by ignoring all CPU-GPU synchronization, being really suboptimal about certain parts of state setup, using built-in reference tracking for resources and never running CPU and GPU in parallel to avoid running into issues; the optimization/polish phase then converted this into something we could ship, never losing the ability to render in the process.
  • The tools are there for you, they work and they work well. This is not as much of a surprise for people who are used to Direct3D 11 – but this is the first time on mobile where I had a CPU profiler, a GPU profiler, a GPU debugger and a GPU API validation layer that all worked well in tandem, catching most issues during development and helping optimize the code.
  • While the API is somewhat lower level than Direct3D 11, and it leaves some key low-level decisions to the developer (such as the render pass configuration or the synchronization), it still uses a traditional resource model where each resource has certain “usage flags” it has been created with but does not require pipeline barriers or layout transitions, and a traditional binding model where each shader stage has several slots you can freely assign resources to. Both of these are familiar, easy to understand and require very limited amount of code to get going fast.

One other thing that helped is that our API interface was ready for Metal-like APIs – it is very lean but it exposes enough detail (such as render passes) to be able to easily write a performant implementation. At no point in our implementation did I need to save/restore state (many API interfaces suffer from this, particularly due to treating render target setup as state changes and resources/state binding persisting through that) or make complicated decisions about resource lifetime/synchronization. About the only “complicated” piece of code needed to render is one that creates the render pipeline state by hashing bits that are needed to create one – pipeline state objects are not part of our API abstraction. Even that is pretty straightforward and fast. I will write more about our API interface in a separate post.

So, a week to get the shaders compiling, two weeks to get a polished optimized implementation1 – what are the results? The results are great – Metal absolutely delivers on the performance promise. For one, the single threaded dispatch performance is noticeably better than with OpenGL (shrinking the draw dispatch part of our render frame by 2-3x depending on the workload), and this is given that our OpenGL implementation is pretty well tuned in terms of reducing redundant state setup and playing nice with the driver by using fast paths. But it does not stop there – multithreading in Metal is trivial to utilize provided that your rendering code is ready for it. We haven’t switched to threaded draw dispatch yet but are already converting some other parts that prepare resources to happen off the render thread, which, unlike with OpenGL, is pretty much effortless.

Beyond that, Metal allows us to fix some other performance issues by giving easily accessible and reliable tools. One of the central parts of our rendering code is the system that computes lighting data on the CPU in world space and uploads it to regions of a 3D texture (which we have to emulate on OpenGL ES 2 hardware). The updates are partial so we can’t duplicate the entire texture and have to rely on however the driver implements glTexSubImage3D. At one point we tried to use PBO to improve update performance but faced significant stability issues across the board, both on Android and iOS. On Metal there are two builtin ways to upload a region – MTLTexture.replaceRegion that you can use if GPU is not currently reading the texture, or MTLBlitCommandEncoder (copyFromBufferToTexture or copyFromTextureToTexture) that can upload the region asynchronously just in time for GPU to start using the texture.

Both of these methods were slower than I’d like – the first one wasn’t really available since we had to support efficient partial updates, and it worked purely on CPU using what looked like a very slow address translation implementation. The second one worked but seemed to use a series of 2D blits to fill the 3D texture which were both pretty expensive to set up commands for on the CPU side and also had a very high GPU overhead for whatever reason. If this were OpenGL it would be over – in fact, the performance of these two methods roughly matched the observed cost of a similar update in OpenGL. Fortunately, this being Metal, it has easy access to compute shaders – and a super simple compute shader gave us the capability to do a buffer -> 3D texture upload that was very fast on CPU and GPU and basically solved our performance problems in this part of the code for good2:

As a final general comment, maintaining Metal code is pretty much effortless as well – all extra features we had to add so far were easier to add there than on any other API we support, and I expect this trend to continue. There was a bit of a concern that adding one more API would require constant maintenance, but compared to OpenGL this does not really require much work; in fact, since we won’t have to support OpenGL ES 3 on iOS any more, this means we can simplify some OpenGL code we have as well.


Today on iOS Metal feels very stable. I am not sure what the situation was like at launch in 2014, or what it is like on Mac today, but both the drivers and the tools for iOS feel pretty solid.

We had one driver issue on iOS 10 that had to do with loading shaders compiled with Xcode 7 (which we fixed by switching to Xcode 8), and one driver crash on iOS 9 that turned out to be a result of misusing nextDrawable API. Other than that we haven’t seen any behavioral bugs or any crashes – for a relatively new API Metal has been very solid across the board.

Additionally, the tools you get with Metal are varied and rich; specifically, you can use:

  • A pretty comprehensive validation layer that will identify common issues in using the API. It’s basically like Direct3D debug – which is familiar for Direct3D but pretty much unheard of in OpenGL land (in theory ARB_debug_callback is supposed to solve this, in practice it’s mostly unavailable and when it is, not terribly helpful)
  • A working GPU debugger which shows all commands you have dispatched along with their state, the render target contents, the texture contents, etc. I don’t know if it has a functioning shader debugger because I never needed that, and the buffer inspection could be a bit easier, but it mostly does the job.
  • A working GPU profiler which shows per-pass performance stats (time, bandwidth) and also per-shader execution time. Since the GPU is a tiler you can’t really expect per-drawcall timings, of course. Having this level of visibility – especially considering the complete lack of any GPU timing information in graphics APIs on iOS – is great.
  • A working CPU/GPU timeline trace (Metal System Trace) which shows the scheduling of CPU and GPU rendering workload, similar to GPUView but actually easy to use, modulo some UI idiosyncrasies.
  • An offline shader compiler that validates your shader syntax, occasionally gives you useful warnings, converts your shader into a binary blob that’s pretty fast to load at runtime and additionally reasonably well optimized beforehand, reducing the load times since driver compiler can be faster.

If you come from Direct3D or console world, you may take every single one of these for granted – trust me, in OpenGL every single one of these is unusual and is met with excitement, especially on mobile where you are used to dealing with occasionally broken drivers, no validation, no GPU debugger, no GPU profiler that is helpful, no ability to gather GPU scheduling data and being forced to work with a text-based shader language that each vendor has a slightly different parser for.

Metal is a great API to both write code for, and ship applications with. It’s easy to use, it has predictable performance, it has robust drivers and solid toolset. It beats OpenGL in every single aspect except for portability, but the reality with OpenGL is that you really only should have used it on three platforms (iOS, Android and Mac), and two of those now support Metal; additionally, the portability promise of OpenGL is largely not fulfilled as the code that you write on one platform very frequently ends up not working on another for different reasons.

If you are using a third-party engine like Unity or UE4, Metal is already supported there; if you aren’t and you enjoy graphics programming or care deeply about performance and take iOS or Mac seriously, I strongly urge you to give Metal a try. You will not be disappointed.

Metal Now

The biggest changes that happened to Metal from our point of view in the last three years are about adoption at a massive scale.

Three years ago, a quarter of devices had to use OpenGL. Today, for our audience, this number is ~2% – which means our OpenGL backend barely matters anymore. We still maintain it but this will not continue for long.

The drivers are also better than ever – generally speaking we don’t see driver issues on iOS, and when we do they often happen on early prototypes, and by the time the prototypes make their way to production, the issues are usually fixed.

We’ve also spent some time improving our Metal backend, focusing on three areas:

Reworking the shader compilation toolchain

One other thing that happened in the last three years is the release and development of Vulkan. While it would seem that the APIs are completely different (and they are), Vulkan ecosystem gave the rendering community a fantastic set of open-source tools that, when combined, result in an easy-to-use production quality compilation toolset.

We used the libraries to build a compilation toolchain that can take HLSL source code (using various DX11 features including compute shaders), compile it to SPIRV, optimize the said SPIRV, and convert the resulting SPIRV to MSL (Metal Shading Language). It replaces our previous toolchain that could only use DX9 HLSL source as an input and had various correctness issues for complicated shaders.

It is somewhat ironic that Apple didn’t have anything to do with this, but here we are. Huge thanks to the contributors and maintainers of glslang (, spirv-opt ( and SPIRV-Cross ( We have contributed a set of patches to these libraries to help us ship the new toolchain as well, and use it to retarget our shaders to Vulkan, Metal and OpenGL APIs.

macOS Support

A macOS port was always a possibility but wasn’t a big focus for us until we started missing some features. So we decided that we should invest into Metal on macOS to get faster rendering and unlock some possibilities for the future.

From the implementation perspective, this wasn’t very hard at all. Most of the API is exactly the same; other than window management, the only area that required substantial tweaks was memory allocation. On mobile, there’s a shared memory space for buffers and textures whereas on desktop, the API assumes a dedicated GPU with its own video memory.

It’s possible to quickly work around that by using managed resources, where the Metal runtime takes care of copying the data for you. This is how we shipped our first version, but we later reworked the implementation to more explicitly copy resource data using scratch buffers so that we could minimize the system memory overhead.

The biggest difference between macOS and iOS was stability. On iOS we were dealing with just one driver vendor on one architecture, whereas on macOS we had to support all three vendors (Intel, AMD, NVidia). Additionally, on iOS we – luckily! – skipped the *first* version of iOS where Metal was available, iOS 8, and on macOS this was not practical because we would get too few users to use Metal at the time. Because of the combination of these issues, we have hit many more driver issues in both relatively innocuous and relatively obscure areas of the API on macOS.

We still support all versions of macOS Metal (10.11+), although we started removing support and switching to legacy OpenGL backend for some versions with known shader compiler bugs that are hard for us to work around, e.g. on 10.11 we now require macOS 10.11.6 for Metal to work.

The performance benefits were inline with our expectations; in terms of market share, today we are at ~25% OpenGL and ~75% Metal users on macOS platform, which is a pretty healthy split. This means that at some point in the future it may be practical for us to stop supporting desktop OpenGL at all, as no other platforms we support use it, which is great in terms of being able to focus on APIs that are easier to support and get good performance with.

Iterating on Performance and Memory Consumption

We are historically pretty conservative with the graphics API features that we use, and Metal is no exception. There are several big feature updates that Metal has acquired over the years, including improved resource allocation APIs with explicit heaps, tile shaders with Metal 2, argument buffers and GPU-side command generation, etc.

We mostly don’t use any of the newer features. So far, the performance has been reasonable, and we’d like to focus on improvements that apply across the board, so something like tile shaders, that requires us to implement very special support for it throughout the renderer and is only accessible on newer hardware, is less interesting.

Having said that, we spend some amount of time tuning various parts of the backend to just run *faster* – using completely asynchronous texture uploads to reduce stuttering during level loads, which was completely painless, doing the aforementioned memory optimizations on macOS, optimizing CPU dispatch in various places of the backend by reducing cache misses etc., and – one of the only newer features we have explicit support for – using memoryless texture storage when available to significantly reduce the memory required for our new shadow system.

The Future

Overall, the fact that we didn’t have to spend too much time on Metal improvements is actually a good thing – the code that was written 3 years ago, largely speaking, works and is fast and stable, which is a great sign of a mature API. Porting to Metal was a great investment, given the amount of time it took and the continuous benefits it gives us and our users.

We constantly reevaluate the balance between the amount of work we do for different APIs – it is very likely that we will need to dive deeper into more modern parts of Metal API for some of the future rendering projects; if it does happen, we will make sure to write another post about this!

  1. Yeah, okay, and maybe a week to fix a few bugs discovered during testing
  2. The numbers are for 128 KB worth of data updated per frame (two 32x16x32 RGBA8 regions) on A10

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This blog post was originally published on the Roblox Tech Blog.