Slang CUDA Target Support

Making it easier to work with shaders

Slang CUDA Target Support

Slang has preliminary support for producing CUDA source, and PTX binaries using NVRTC.

NOTE! NVRTC is only available for 64-bit operating systems. On Windows Visual Studio make sure you are compiling for ‘x64’ and/or use 64 bit Slang binaries.


  • Can compile Slang source into CUDA source code
  • Supports compute style shaders
  • Supports a ‘bindless’ CPU like model
  • Can compile CUDA source to PTX through ‘pass through’ mechansism


These limitations apply to Slang transpiling to CUDA.

  • Only supports the ‘texture object’ style binding (The texture object API is only supported on devices of compute capability 3.0 or higher. )
  • Samplers are not separate objects in CUDA - they are combined into a single ‘TextureObject’. So samplers are effectively ignored on CUDA targets.
  • When using a TextureArray.Sample (layered texture in CUDA) - the index will be treated as an int, as this is all CUDA allows
  • Care must be used in using WaveGetLaneIndex wave intrinsic - it will only give the right results for appropriate launches
  • CUDA ‘surfaces’ are used for textures which are read/write (aka RWTexture).

The following are a work in progress or not implemented but are planned to be so in the future

  • Some resource types remain unsupported, and not all methods on all types are supported

How it works

For producing PTX binaries Slang uses NVRTC. NVRTC dll/shared library has to be available to Slang (for example in the appropriate PATH for example) for it to be able to produce PTX.

The NVRTC compiler can be accessed directly via the pass through mechanism and is identifed by the enum value SLANG_PASS_THROUGH_NVRTC.

Much like other targets that use downstream compilers Slang can be used to compile CUDA source directly to PTX via the pass through mechansism. The Slang command line options will broadly be mapped down to the appropriate options for the NVRTC compilation. In the API the SlangCompileTarget for CUDA is SLANG_CUDA_SOURCE and for PTX is SLANG_PTX. These can also be specified on the Slang command line as -target cuda and -target ptx.

Locating NVRTC

Finding NVRTC can require some nuance if a specific version is required. On the command line the -nvrtc-path option can be used to set the path to NVRTC. Also spProcessCommandLineArguments/processCommandLineArguments with -nvrtc-path or setDownstreamCompilerPath with SLANG_PASS_THROUGH_NVRTC can be used to set the location and/or name of NVRTC via the API.

Important points of note are

  • The name of the shared library should not include any extension (such as .dll/.so/.dynlib) or prefix (such as lib).
  • The path also doesn’t have to be path, it can just be the shared library name. Doing so will mean it will be searched for by whatever the default mechanism is on the target.
  • If a path and/or name is specified for NVRTC - this will be the only version searched for.

If a path/name is not specified for NVRTC, Slang will attempt to load a shared library called nvrtc. For non Windows targets this should be enough to find and load the latest version.

On Windows NVRTC dlls have a name the contains the version number, for example nvrtc64_102_0.dll. This will lead to the load of just nvrtc to fail. One approach to fix this is to place the NVRTC dll and associated files in the same directory as slang.dll, and rename the main dll to nvrtc.dll. Another approach is to specify directly on the command line the name including the version, as previously discussed. For example

-nvrtc-path nvrtc64_102_0

will load NVRTC 10.2 assuming that version of the dll can be found via the normal lookup mechanism.

On Windows if NVRTC is not loadable directly as ‘nvrtc’ Slang will attempt to search for the newest version of NVRTC on your system. The places searched are…

  • The instance directory (where the slang.dll and/or program exe is)
  • The CUDA_PATH enivonment variable (if set)
  • Directories in PATH that look like a CUDA installation.

If a candidate is found via an earlier mechanism, subsequent searches are not performed. If multiple candidates are found, Slang tries the newest version first.


Say we have some Slang source like the following:

struct Thing { int a; int b; }

Texture2D<float> tex;
SamplerState sampler;
RWStructuredBuffer<int> outputBuffer;        
ConstantBuffer<Thing> thing3;        
[numthreads(4, 1, 1)]
void computeMain(
    uint3 dispatchThreadID : SV_DispatchThreadID, 
    uniform Thing thing, 
    uniform Thing thing2)
   // ...

This will be turned into a CUDA entry point with

struct UniformEntryPointParams
    Thing thing;
    Thing thing2;

struct UniformState
    CUtexObject tex;                // This is the combination of a texture and a sampler(!)
    SamplerState sampler;           // This variable exists within the layout, but it's value is not used.
    RWStructuredBuffer<int32_t> outputBuffer;    // This is implemented as a template in the CUDA prelude. It's just a pointer, and a size
    Thing* thing3;                  // Constant buffers map to pointers

// [numthreads(4, 1, 1)]
extern "C" __global__  void computeMain(UniformEntryPointParams* params, UniformState* uniformState)

With CUDA - the caller specifies how threading is broken up, so [numthreads] is available through reflection, and in a comment in output source code but does not produce varying code.

The UniformState and UniformEntryPointParams struct typically vary by shader. UniformState holds ‘normal’ bindings, whereas UniformEntryPointParams hold the uniform entry point parameters. Where specific bindings or parameters are located can be determined by reflection. The structures for the example above would be something like the following…

StructuredBuffer<T>,RWStructuredBuffer<T> become

    T* data;
    size_t count;

ByteAddressBuffer, RWByteAddressBuffer become

    uint32_t* data;
    size_t sizeInBytes;


Read only textures will be bound as the opaque CUDA type CUtexObject. This type is the combination of both a texture AND a sampler. This is somewhat different from HLSL, where there can be separate SamplerState variables. This allows access of a single texture binding with different types of sampling.

If code relys on this behavior it will be necessary to bind multiple CtexObjects with different sampler settings, accessing the same texture data.

Slang has some preliminary support for TextureSampler type - a combined Texture and SamplerState. To write Slang code that can target CUDA and other platforms using this mechanism will expose the semantics appropriately within the source.

Load is only supported for Texture1D, and the mip map selection argument is ignored. This is because there is tex1Dfetch and no higher dimensional equivalents. CUDA also only allows such access if the backing array is linear memory - meaning the bound texture cannot have mip maps - thus making the mip map parameter superflous anyway. RWTexture does allow Load on other texture types.


RWTexture types are converted into CUsurfObject type.

In regular CUDA it is not possible to do a format conversion on an access to a CUsurfObject. Slang does add support for hardware write conversions where they are available. To enable the feature it is necessary to attribute your RWTexture with format. For example

RWTexture2D<float2> rwt2D_2;

The format names used are the same as for GLSL layout format types. If no format is specified Slang will assume that the format is the same as the type specified.

Note that the format attribution is on variables/paramters/fields and not part of the type system. This means that if you have a scenario like…

RWTexture2d<float2> g_texture;

float2 getValue(RWTexture2D<float2> t)
    return t[int2(0, 0];

void doThing()
    float2 v = getValue(g_texture);

Even getValue will receive t without the format attribute, and so will access it, presumably erroneously. A work around for this specific scenario would be to attribute the parameter

float2 getValue([format("rg16f")] RWTexture2D<float2> t)
    return t[int2(0, 0];

This will only work correctly if getValue is called with a t that has that format attribute. As it stands no checking is performed on this matching so no error or warning will be produced if there is a mismatch.

There is limited software support for doing a conversion on reading. Currently this only supports only 1D, 2D, 3D RWTexture, backed with half1, half2 or half4. For this path to work NVRTC must have the cuda_fp16.h and associated files available. Please check the section on Half Support.

If hardware read conversions are desired, this can be achieved by having a Texture that uses the surface of a RWTexture. Using the Texture not only allows hardware conversion but also filtering.

It is also worth noting that CUsurfObjects in CUDA are NOT allowed to have mip maps.

By default surface access uses cudaBoundaryModeZero, this can be replaced using the macro SLANG_CUDA_BOUNDARY_MODE in the CUDA prelude. For HW format conversions the macro SLANG_PTX_BOUNDARY_MODE. These boundary settings are in effect global for the whole of the kernel.


  • cudaBoundaryModeZero causes an execution trap on out-of-bounds addresses
  • cudaBoundaryModeClamp stores data at the nearest surface location (sized appropriately)
  • cudaBoundaryModeTrap drops stores to out-of-bounds addresses

SLANG_PTX_BOUNDARY_MODE can be one of trap, clamp or zero. In general it is recommended to have both set to the same type of value, for example cudaBoundaryModeZero and zero.


Samplers are in effect ignored in CUDA output. Currently we do output a variable SamplerState, but this value is never accessed within the kernel and so can be ignored. More discussion on this behavior is in Texture section.

Unsized arrays

Unsized arrays can be used, which are indicated by an array with no size as in []. For example

    RWStructuredBuffer<int> arrayOfArrays[];

With normal ‘sized’ arrays, the elements are just stored contiguously within wherever they are defined. With an unsized array they map to Array<T> which is…

    T* data;
    size_t count;

Note that there is no method in the shader source to get the count, even though on the CUDA target it is stored and easily available. This is because of the behavior on GPU targets

  • That the count has to be stored elsewhere (unlike with CUDA)
  • On some GPU targets there is no bounds checking - accessing outside the bound values can cause undefined behavior
  • The elements may be laid out contiguously on GPU

In practice this means if you want to access the count in shader code it will need to be passed by another mechanism - such as within a constant buffer. It is possible in the future support may be added to allow direct access of count work across targets transparently.


For CUDA the code to support the code generated by Slang is partly defined within the ‘prelude’. The prelude is inserted text placed before the generated CUDA source code. For the Slang command line tools as well as the test infrastructure, the prelude functionality is achieved through a #include in the prelude text of the prelude/slang-cuda-prelude.h specified with an absolute path. Doing so means other files the slang-cuda-prelude.h might need can be specified relatively, and include paths for the backend compiler do not need to be modified.

The prelude needs to define

  • ‘Built in’ types (vector, matrix, ‘object’-like Texture, SamplerState etc)
  • Scalar intrinsic function implementations
  • Compiler based definations/tweaks

For a client application - as long as the requirements of the generated code are met, the prelude can be implemented by whatever mechanism is appropriate for the client. For example the implementation could be replaced with another implementation, or the prelude could contain all of the required text for compilation. Setting the prelude text can be achieved with the method on the global session…

/** Set the 'prelude' for generated code for a 'downstream compiler'.
@param passThrough The downstream compiler for generated code that will have the prelude applied to it. 
@param preludeText The text added pre-pended verbatim before the generated source

That for pass-through usage, prelude is not pre-pended, preludes are for code generation only. 

void setDownstreamCompilerPrelude(SlangPassThrough passThrough, const char* preludeText);

The code that sets up the prelude for the test infrastucture and command line usage can be found in TestToolUtil::setSessionDefaultPrelude. Essentially this determines what the absolute path is to slang-cpp-prelude.h is and then just makes the prelude #include "the absolute path".

Half Support

Slang supports the half/float16 types on CUDA. To do so NVRTC must have access to the cuda_fp16.h and cuda_fp16.hpp files that are typically distributed as part of the CUDA SDK. When Slang detects the use of half in source, it will define SLANG_CUDA_ENABLE_HALF when slang-cuda-prelude.h is included. This will in turn try to include cuda_fp16.h and enable extra functionality within the prelude for half support.

Slang tries several mechanisms to locate cuda_fp16.h when NVRTC is initiated. The first mechanism is to look in the include paths that are passed to Slang. If cuda_fp16.h can be found in one of these paths, no more searching will be performed.

If this fails, the path where NVRTC is located will be searched. In that path “include” and “CUDA/include” paths will be searched. This is probably most suitable for Windows based targets, where NVRTC dll is placed along with other binaries. The “CUDA/include” path is used to try and make clear in this scenario what the contained files are for.

If this fails Slang will look for the CUDA_PATH environmental variable, as is typically set during a CUDA SDK installation.

If this fails - the prelude include of cuda_fp16.h will most likely fail on NVRTC invocation.

CUDA has the __half and __half2 types defined in cuda_fp16.h. The __half2 can produce results just as quickly as doing the same operation on __half - in essence for some operations __half2 is SIMD like. The half implementation in Slang tries to take advantage of this optimization.

Since Slang supports up to 4 wide vectors Slang has to build on CUDAs half support. The types __half3 and __half4 are implemented in slang-cuda-prelude.h for this reason. It is worth noting that __half3 is made up of a __half2 and a __half. As __half2 is 4 byte aligned, this means __half3 is actually 8 bytes, rather than 6 bytes that might be expected.

One area where this optimization isn’t fully used is in comparisons - as in effect Slang treats all the vector/matrix half comparisons as if they are scalar. This could be perhaps be improved on in the future. Doing so would require using features that are not directly available in the CUDA headers.

Wave Intrinsics

There is broad support for HLSL Wave intrinsics, including support for SM 6.5 intrinsics.

Most Wave intrinsics will work with vector, matrix or scalar types of typical built in types - uint, int, float, double, uint64_t, int64_t.

The support is provided via both the Slang stdlib as well as the Slang CUDA prelude found in ‘prelude/slang-cuda-prelude.h’. Many Wave intrinsics are not directly applicable within CUDA which supplies a more low level mechanisms. The implementation of most Wave functions work most optimally if a ‘Wave’ where all lanes are used. If all lanes from index 0 to pow2(n) -1 are used (which is also true if all lanes are used) a binary reduction is typically applied. If this is not the case the implementation fallsback on a slow path which is linear in the number of active lanes, and so is typically significantly less performant.

For more a more concrete example take

int sum = WaveActiveSum(...);

When computing the sum, if all lanes (32 on CUDA), the computation will require 5 steps to complete (2^5 = 32). If say just one lane is not being used it will take 31 steps to complete (because it is now linear in amount of lanes). So just having one lane disabled required 6 times as many steps. If lanes with 0 - 15 are active, it will take 4 steps to complete (2^4 = 16).

In the future it may be possible to improve on the performance of the ‘slow’ path, however it will always remain the most efficient generally for all of 0 to pow2(n) - 1 lanes to be active.

It is also worth noting that lane communicating intrinsics performance will be impacted by the ‘size’ of the data communicated. The size here is at a minimum the amount of built in scalar types used in the processing. The CUDA language only allows direct communication with built in scalar types.


int3 v = ...;
int3 sum = WaveActiveSum(v);

Will require 3 times as many steps as the earlier scalar example just using a single int.


‘WaveGetLaneIndex’ defaults to (threadIdx.x & SLANG_CUDA_WARP_MASK). Depending on how the kernel is launched this could be incorrect. There other ways to get lane index, for example using inline assembly. This mechanism though is apparently slower than the simple method used here. There is support for using the asm mechnism in the CUDA prelude using the SLANG_USE_ASM_LANE_ID preprocessor define to enable the feature.

There is potential to calculate the lane id using the [numthreads] markup in Slang/HLSL, but that also requires some assumptions of how that maps to a lane index.

Unsupported Intrinsics

  • Intrinsics which only work in pixel shaders
    • QuadXXXX intrinsics


Some features are not available because they cannot be mapped with appropriate behavior to a target. Other features are unavailable because of resources to devote to more unusual features.

  • Not all Wave intrinsics are supported
  • There is not complete support for all methods on ‘objects’ like textures etc.
  • Does not currently support combined ‘TextureSampler’. A Texture behaves equivalently to a TextureSampler and Samplers are ignored.
  • Half type is not currently supported
  • GetDimensions is not available on any Texture type currently - as there doesn’t appear to be a CUDA equivalent

Language aspects

Arrays passed by Value

Slang follows the HLSL convention that arrays are passed by value. This is in contrast with CUDA where arrays follow C++ conventions and are passed by reference. To make generated CUDA follow this convention an array is turned into a ‘FixedArray’ struct type.

To get something more similar to CUDA/C++ operation the array can be marked in out or inout to make it passed by reference.