What exactly is a VBO in OpenGL?

I think you are mixing up lots of different things and have several confusions, so I’m try to work through most of them in the order you brought them up:

when we declare a series of vertices, let’s say 3 vertices that form a triangle primitive, we basically store those nowhere, they’re simply declared in code.

No. If you store data “nowhere”, then you don’t have it. Also you are mixing up declaration, definiton and initialization of variables here. For vertex data (like all other forms of data), there are two basic strategies:

  1. You store the data somewhere, typically in a file. Specifying it directly in source code just means that it is stored in some binary file, potentially the executable itself (or some shared library used by it)
  2. You procedurally generate the data through some mathematical formula or more general by some algortihm

Methods 1. and 2 can of course be mixed, and usually, method 2 will need some parameters (which itself need to be stored somewhere, so the parameters are just case 1 again).

And, through the same VBO we send all that vertex info to the Vertex Shader (which is a bunch of code). Now, the VBO is located in the GPU, so we are basically storing all that info on the GPU’s memory when we call the VBO.

OpenGL is actually just a specification which is completely agnostic about the existence of a GPU and the existence of VRAM. And as such, OpenGL uses the concept of buffer objects (BOs) as some continuous block of memory of a certain size which is completely managed by the GL implementation. You as the user can ask the GL to create or destroy such BOs, specify their size, and have complete control of the contents – you can put an MP3 file into a BO if you like (not that there would be a good use case for this).

The GL implementation on the other hand controls where this memory is actually allocated, and GL implementations for GPUs which actually have dedicated video memory have the option to store a BO directly in VRAM. The hints like GL_STATIC_DRAW are there to help the GL implementation decide where to best put such a buffer (but that hint system is somewhat flawed, and better alternatives exist in modern GL, but I’m not going into that here). GL_STATIC_DRAW means you intent to specify the contents once and use the may times as the source of a drawing option – so the data won’t change often (and certainly not on a per-frame basis or even more often), and it might be a very good idea to store it in VRAM if such a thing exists.

Then the Vertex Shader, which is part of the Pipeline Rendering process, “comes” to the GPU’s memory, “looks” into the VBO and retrieves all that info.

I think one could put it that way, although some GPUs have a dedicated “vertex fetch” hardware stage which actually reads the vertex data which is then fed to the vertex shaders. But that’s not a really important point – the vertex shader needs to access each vertex’ data, and that means the GPU will read that memory (VRAM or system memory or whatever) at some point before or during the execution of a vertex shader.

In other words, the VBO stores the vertex data (triangle vertices)

Yes. A buffer object which is used as source for the vertex shader’s per-vertex inputs (“vertex attributes”) is called a vertex buffer object (“VBO”), so that just follows directly from the definition of the term.

and sends it to the Vertex Shader.

I wouldn’t put it that way. A BO is just a block of memory, it doesn’t actively do anything. It is just a passive element: it is being written to or being read from. That’s all.

// here I declare the VBO 
unsigned int VBO;

No, you are declaring (and defining) a variable in the context of your programming language, and this variable is later used to hold the name of a buffer object. And in the GL, object names are just positive integers (so 0 is reserved for the GL as “no such object” or “default object”, depending on the object type).

// we have 1 VBO, so we generate an ID for it, and that ID is: GL_ARRAY_BUFFER 
glGenBuffers(1, &VBO) 

No. glGenBuffers(n,ptr) just generates names for n new buffer objects, so it will generate n previously unused buffer names (and mark them as used) and returns them by writing them to the array pointed to byptr. So in this case, it just creates one new buffer object name and stores it in your VBO variable.

GL_ARRAY_BUFFER has nothing to do with this.

// GL_ARRAY_BUFFER is the VBO's ID, which we are going to bind to the VBO itself 

No, GL_ARRAY_BUFFER is not the VBO’s ID, the value of yourVBO variable is the VBO’s ID (name!). GL_ARRAY_BUFFER is the binding target. OpenGL buffer objects can be used for different purposes, and using them as the source for vertex data is just one of them, and GL_ARRAY_BUFFER refers to that use case.

Note that classic OpenGL uses the concept of binding for two purposes:

  1. bind-to-use: Whenever you issue a GL call which depends on some GL objects, the objects you want to work with have to be currently bound to some (specific, depending on the use case) binding target (not only buffer objects, but also textures and others).
  2. bind-to_modify: Whenever you as the user want to modify the state of some object, you have to bind it first to some binding target, and all the object state modify functions don’t directly take the name of the GL object to work on as parameter, but the binding target, and will affect the object which is currently bound at that target. (Modern GL also has direct state access which allows you to modify objects without having to bind them first, but I’m also not going into details about that here).

Binding a buffer object to some of the buffer object binding targets means that you can use that object for the purpose defined by the target. But note that a buffer object doesn’t change because it is bound to a target. You can bind a buffer object to different targets even at the same time. A GL buffer object doesn’t have a type. Calling a buffer a “VBO” usually just means that you intent to use it as GL_ARRAY_BUFFER, but the GL doesn’t care. It does care about what is buffer is bound as GL_ARRAY_BUFFER at the time of the glVertexAttribPointer() call.

// bunch of info in here that basically says: I want to take the vertex data (the 
// triangle that I declared as a float) and send it to the VBO's ID, which is 
// GL_ARRAY_BUFFER, then I want to specify the size of the vertex 
// data, the vertex data itself and the 'static draw' thingy

Well, glBufferData just creates the actual data storage for a GL buffer object (that is, the real memory), meaning you specify the size of the buffer (and the usage hint I mentioned earlier where you tell the GL how you intend to use the memory), and it optionally allows you to initialize the buffer by copying data from your application’s memory into the buffer object. It doesn’t care about the actual data, and the types you use).

Since you use GL_ARRAY_BUFFER here as the target parameter, this operation will affect the BO which is currently bound as GL_ARRAY_BUFFER.

After doing all that, the VBO now contains all the vertex data within.

Basically, yes.

So we tell the VBO, ok now send it to the Vertex Shader.

No. The GL uses Vertex Array Objects (VAOs) which store for each vertex shader input attribute where to find the data (in which buffer object, at which offset inside the buffer object) and how to interpret this data (by specifying the data types).

Later during the the draw call, the GL will fetch the data from the relevant locations within the buffer objects, as you specified it in the VAO. If this memory access is triggered by the vertex shader itself, or if there is a dedicated vertex fetch stage which reads the data before and forwards it to the vertex shader – or if there is a GPU at all – is totally implementation-specific, and none of your concern.

And that’s the start of the Pipeline, just the beginning.

Well, depends on how you look at things. In a traditional rasterizer-based rendering pipline, the “vertex fetch” is more or less the first stage, and vertex buffer objects will just hold the memory where to fetch the vertex data from (and VAOs telling it which buffer objects to use, and which actual locations, and how to interpret them).

Leave a Comment