Mandelbrot set

In this example we will compose an OpenCL program that calculates the Mandelbrot set. The Mandelbrot set is the set of points cc in the complex plane for which the limit of the infinite recursion z0=0z_0 = 0, zn+1=zn2+cz_{n + 1} = z_n^2 + c is bounded, i.e. |zn|<\lvert z_n\rvert < \infty as the number of recursions nn\to\infty.

Since our computer time is finite, we limit the problem to a finite number of recursions NN and introduce an escape radius RR: if the distance of the point znz_n from the origin |zn|>R\lvert z_n\rvert > R after n<Nn < N recursions, the point cc is not in the Mandelbrot set; otherwise, if |zn|R\lvert z_n\rvert\leq R after n=Nn = N recursions, the point cc is in the Mandelbrot set. The calculation of the Mandelbrot set is a good example for a numerical algorithm that is trivial to parallelize, since the recursion can be carried out independently for each point.

The figure shows the complex plane with points in the Mandelbrot set colored in black and points not in the Mandelbrot set colored according to the number of recursions nn before escaping RR, ranging from blue for n=0n = 0 to red for n=N1n = N - 1.

Mandelbrot set for N = 25 (left) and N = 250 (right) with R = 100.

Mandelbrot set for N=25N = 25 (left) and N=250N = 250 (right) with R=100R = 100.

After installing OpenCL for Lua and the Templet preprocessor, try running the program:

./mandelbrot.lua config.lua

This generates an image in the portable pixmap format, which can be shown using

display mandelbrot.ppm

or converted to a compressed image format with

convert mandelbrot.ppm mandelbrot.png

We begin with the file config.lua that contains the parameters.

-- range of x = Re(z)
X = {-1.401155 - 0.75, -1.401155 + 2.25}
-- range of y = Im(z)
Y = {-1.25, 1.25}
-- number of horizontal pixels
Nx = 5120
-- number of vertical pixels
Ny = math.ceil(Nx * (Y[2] - Y[1]) / (X[2] - X[1]))
-- number of recursions
N = 100
-- escape radius
R = 100
-- PPM image filename
output = "mandelbrot_N" .. N .. ".ppm"
-- OpenCL platform
platform = 1
-- OpenCL device
device = 1

Since the configuration is itself written in Lua, we may derive parameters in place, such as the number of vertical pixels needed for a proportional image, or an output filename that denotes the number of recursions. The ranges in the complex plane are given as coordinate offsets to a Feigenbaum point of the Mandelbrot set, z=(1.401155,0)z = (-1.401155\dots, 0). To explore the self-similarity of the Mandelbrot fractal, try zooming in around the Feigenbaum point by decreasing the offsets in X and Y while increasing N.

We begin the program mandelbrot.lua by loading the configuration into a table.

local config = setmetatable({}, {__index = _G})
loadfile(arg[1], nil, config)()

Setting the metatable of the table config to the global environment (_G) before invoking loadfile provides mathematical and other functions of the Lua standard library in the configuration.

Next we load the OpenCL C source code that contains the calculation:

local template = templet.loadfile("")
local source = template(config)

The source code is parsed by the Templet preprocessor, which substitutes the parameters of the table config in the source code. We will see later how the use of a template preprocessor may improve the efficiency and the readability of an OpenCL program.

The OpenCL environment is set up by selecting one of the available platforms, with each platform corresponding to a different OpenCL driver, selecting one of the devices available on that platform, and creating a context on that device.

local platform = cl.get_platforms()[config.platform]
local device = platform:get_devices()[config.device]
local context = cl.create_context({device})

Then we compile the OpenCL C source code to a binary program:

local program = context:create_program_with_source(source)
local status, err = pcall(function() return program:build() end)
io.stderr:write(program:get_build_info(device, "log"))
if not status then error(err) end

The function is invoked using a protected call to be able to write the build log to the standard error output, before raising an error in case the build has failed. The build log is useful in any case, since it includes non-fatal warning messages.

We allocate a memory buffer to store the Mandelbrot image:

local Nx, Ny = config.Nx, config.Ny
local d_image = context:create_buffer(Nx * Ny * ffi.sizeof("cl_uchar3"))

The pixels of the image are represented as red-green-blue tuples (RGB), with each color intensity in the integer range 0 to 255. A pixel is stored as a 3-component vector of type cl_uchar3. Vector types are aligned to powers of two bytes in memory space for efficiency reasons; which means cl_uchar3 is aligned to 4 bytes, and each pixel within the buffer is padded with an unused byte. This becomes important later when we save the image to a file.

We create a kernel object for the device function mandelbrot:

local kernel = program:create_kernel("mandelbrot")
kernel:set_arg(0, d_image)

The function receives the memory buffer as its sole argument; recall we substituted constant parameters earlier using the template preprocessor. For parameters that vary in time, kernel arguments may also be passed by value.

To execute the device function we enqueue the kernel in a command queue:

local queue = context:create_command_queue(device, "profiling")
local event = queue:enqueue_ndrange_kernel(kernel, nil, {Nx,  Ny}, {64, 1})

Queue functions are asynchronous or non-blocking with only few exceptions, i.e., the function that enqueues the command returns immediately while the command is executed in the background. Enqueued commands are executed in order by default. A queue function returns an event associated with the enqueued command, which other commands enqueued in different queues may depend on. Here we store the event associated with the kernel to later query its execution time.

The mandelbrot kernel is executed on a two-dimensional grid of dimensions {Nx, Ny}, where each pixel of the image is mapped to one work item. Work items are divided into work groups, and the number of work items per work group can be specified explicitly. Work items that belong to the same work group may communicate via synchronization points and local memory.

Next we map the memory buffer containing the image to a host pointer:

local image = ffi.cast("cl_uchar3 *", queue:enqueue_map_buffer(d_image, true, "read"))

By passing true as the second argument we specify that the map command is synchronous: the function will block until the data is available for reading on the host. The function returns a void pointer, which we cast to the vector type cl_char3 to read the elements of the buffer.

Mapping a buffer for reading and/or writing has the advantage that the data is only copied between the device and the host if needed; for instance the data need not be copied when the device and the host share the same memory, which is the case for a CPU device or an integrated GPU device.

We output the image of the Mandelbrot set to a file:

local f =, "w")
f:write("P6\n", Nx, " ", Ny, "\n", 255, "\n")
local row ="struct { char r, g, b; }[?]", Nx)
for py = 0, Ny - 1 do
  for px = 0, Nx - 1 do
    row[px].r = image[px + py * Nx].s0
    row[px].g = image[px + py * Nx].s1
    row[px].b = image[px + py * Nx].s2
  f:write(ffi.string(row, Nx * 3))

Recall that cl_char3 is aligned to 4 bytes, while the binary portable pixmap format requires pixels to be aligned to 3 bytes. For each row of pixels we copy the color intensities from the OpenCL buffer to an intermediate array before writing the row to the file.

The buffer is unmapped after use:

queue:enqueue_unmap_mem_object(d_image, image)

To measure the run-time of the kernel, we query the captured events:

local start = event:get_profiling_info("start")
local stop = event:get_profiling_info("end")
io.write(("%.4g s\n"):format(tonumber(stop - start) * 1e-9))

The profiling times are returned in nano-seconds since an arbitrary reference time on the device. After calculating the interval between "start" and "end" times, which are 64 bit integers, we convert it to a Lua number and output the time in seconds.

Finally we consider the OpenCL C code in the file

__kernel void mandelbrot(__global uchar3 *restrict d_image)

The kernel receives the output buffer for the image as an argument. Note the element type is uchar3 in the kernel code, while we used cl_uchar3 in the host code above. OpenCL defines a comprehensive set of scalar and vector data types, where the types are used without a cl_ prefix in the kernel code and with a cl_ prefix in the host code. OpenCL data types maintain the same sizes across platforms, e.g., cl_int always has 32 bits and cl_long always has 64 bits.

Kernel arguments for arrays should always include the pointer qualifier restrict, which hints the compiler that the memory of one array does not overlap with the memory of other arrays, i.e., the respective pointers do not alias. This allows the compiler to generate efficient code, for instance reading an array element that is used multiple times only once.

The kernel begins by querying the coordinates of the work item on the grid:

  const uint px = get_global_id(0);
  const uint py = get_global_id(1);
  const double x0 = ${X[1]} + ${(X[2] - X[1]) / Nx} * px;
  const double y0 = ${Y[1]} + ${(Y[2] - Y[1]) / Ny} * (${Ny - 1} - py);

The coordinates px and py correspond to the horizontal and vertical pixel coordinate within the image, which are converted to the point c=(x0,y0)c = (x_0, y_0) in the complex plane. Here we make use of the template preprocessor to substitute the ranges in the complex plane and precompute the conversion factors. The expressions enclosed in ${...} contain Lua code that is evaluated during template preprocessing.

After template preprocessing the above kernel code may look as follows:

  const uint px = get_global_id(0);
  const uint py = get_global_id(1);
  const double x0 = -2.151155 + 0.0006 * px;
  const double y0 = -1.25 + 0.00059995200383969 * (4166 - py);

The expanded code no longer contains any division, which is usually slower than multiplication. We avoid passing many constants as additional kernel arguments, or scattering the precomputation of constants in the host code. Besides yielding a compact kernel that aids the compiler with optimization, the code is closer to the mathematical formulation of the algorithm and becomes easier to understand and maintain.

We proceed with the Mandelbrot recursion:

  double x = 0;
  double y = 0;
  uchar3 rgb = (uchar3)(0, 0, 0);
  for (int n = 0; n < ${N}; ++n) {
    const double x2 = x * x;
    const double y2 = y * y;
    const float r2 = x2 + y2;
    if (r2 > (float)(${R ^ 2})) {
      const float f = log2(log(r2) * (float)(${0.5 / math.log(R)}));
      const float s = (n + 1 - f) * (float)(${1 / N});
      rgb = colormap(s);
    y = 2 * x * y + y0;
    x = x2 - y2 + x0;

If the point exceeds the escape radius RR, the number of recursions is converted to a color using smooth coloring, which avoids visible bands by converting the radius of the escaped point to a scale-invariant value in [0,1][0, 1] that is added to the recursion count. The fractional number of recursions is converted to an RGB tuple using the colormap function.

uchar3 colormap(float s)
  const float3 t = s - (float3)(0.75, 0.5, 0.25);
  const float3 c = (float)(${1.5 * 256}) - fabs(t) * (float)(${4 * 256});
  return convert_uchar3_sat(c);

Note that calls to device functions within a kernel are inlined by the compiler. The function takes a scalar intensity and returns an RGB tuple obtained from the superposition of linear segments of red, green, and blue. OpenCL provides vector algebra functions for vector types, which we use to derive the three color intensities. The conversion function convert_uchar3_sat truncates each intensity to [0,255][0, 255] before converting from floating point to 8 bit integer.

The Mandelbrot code serves as an example for mixed-precision floating-point calculation. The recursion is evaluated in double precision to maintain numerical stability of the algorithm. For the color conversion we resort to single precision, which matches the accuracy of an RGB tuple. Note the pre-computed constants are enclosed in (float)(...), which converts double-precision numbers generated by the template preprocessor to single precision.

We end the kernel by storing the RGB tuple to the output buffer:

  d_image[px + py * ${Nx}] = rgb;

Note how work items with consecutive coordinate px access global memory in a contiguous manner. The linear pattern allows the device to group the memory accesses of multiple work items into one collective memory access. Global memory may have a latency on the order of 1000 clock cycles; therefore it should be used as sparingly and efficiently as the algorithm allows.