Getting Started with GLSL

15 min read

(For more resources related to this topic, see here.)

In this article, we will cover the following recipes:

  • Using a function loader to access the latest OpenGL functionality
  • Using GLM for mathematics
  • Determining the GLSL and OpenGL version
  • Compiling a shader
  • Linking a shader program

The OpenGL Shading Language(GLSL) Version 4 brings unprecedented power and flexibility to programmers interested in creating modern, interactive, and graphical programs. It allows us to harness the power of modern Graphics Processing Units(GPUs) in a straightforward way by providing a simple yet powerful language and API. Of course, the first step towards using GLSL is to create a program that utilizes the latest version of the OpenGL API. GLSL programs don’t stand on their own; they must be a part of a larger OpenGL program. In this article, we will provide some tips and techniques for getting a basic program up and running. First, let’s start with some background.

The OpenGL Shading Language

The GLSL is now a fundamental and integral part of the OpenGL API. Going forward, every program written using the OpenGL API will internally utilize one or several GLSL programs. These “mini-programs” are often referred to as shader programs. A shader program usually consists of several components called shaders. Each shader executes within a different section of the OpenGL pipeline. Each shader runs on the GPU, and as the name implies, (typically) implement the algorithms related to the lighting and shading effects of an image. However, shaders are capable of doing much more than just implementing a shading algorithm. They are also capable of performing animation, tessellation, or even generalized computation.

The field of study dubbed GPGPU(General Purpose Computing on Graphics Processing Units) is concerned with utilization of GPUs (often using specialized APIs such as CUDA or OpenCL) to perform general purpose computations such as fluid dynamics, molecular dynamics, cryptography, and so on. With compute shaders, introduced in OpenGL 4.3, we can now do GPGPU within OpenGL.

Shader programs are designed for direct execution on the GPU and are executed in parallel. For example, a fragment shader might be executed once for every pixel, with each execution running simultaneously on a separate GPU thread. The number of processors on the graphics card determines how many can be executed at one time. This makes shader programs incredibly efficient, and provides the programmer with a simple API for implementing highly parallel computation.

The computing power available in modern graphics cards is impressive. The following table shows the number of shader processors available for several models in the NVIDIA GeForce series cards (source:


Unified Shader Processors

GeForce GTS 450


GeForce GTX 480


GeForce GTX 780


Shader programs are intended to replace parts of the OpenGL architecture referred to as the fixed-function pipeline. Prior to OpenGL Version 2.0, the shading algorithm was “hard-coded” into the pipeline and had only limited configurability. This default lighting/shading algorithm was a core part of the fixed-function pipeline. When we, as programmers, wanted to implement more advanced or realistic effects, we used various tricks to force the fixed-function pipeline into being more flexible than it really was. The advent of GLSL will help by providing us with the ability to replace this “hard-coded” functionality with our own programs written in GLSL, thus giving us a great deal of additional flexibility and power.

In fact, recent (core) versions of OpenGL not only provide this capability, but they require shader programs as part of every OpenGL program. The old fixed-function pipeline has been deprecated in favor of a new programmable pipeline, a key part of which is the shader program written in GLSL.

Profiles – Core vs. Compatibility

OpenGL Version 3.0 introduced a deprecation model, which allowed for the gradual removal of functions from the OpenGL specification. Functions or features can be marked as deprecated, meaning that they are expected to be removed from a future version of OpenGL. For example, immediate mode rendering using glBegin/glEndwas marked deprecated in version 3.0 and removed in version 3.1.

In order to maintain backwards compatibility, the concept of compatibility profiles was introduced with OpenGL 3.2. A programmer that is writing code intended to be used with a particular version of OpenGL (with older features removed) would use the so-called core profile. Someone who also wanted to maintain compatibility with older functionality could use the compatibility profile.

It may be somewhat confusing that there is also the concept of a forward compatible context, which is distinguished slightly from the concept of a core/compatibility profile. A context that is considered forward compatible basically indicates that all deprecated functionality has been removed. In other words, if a context is forward compatible, it only includes functions that are in the core, but not those that were marked as deprecated. Some window APIs provide the ability to select forward compatible status along with the profile.

The steps for selecting a core or compatibility profile are window system API dependent. For example, in GLFW, one can select a forward compatible, 4.3 core profile using the following code:

glfwWindowHint( GLFW_CONTEXT_VERSION_MAJOR, 4 ); glfwWindowHint( GLFW_CONTEXT_VERSION_MINOR, 3 ); glfwWindowHint(GLFW_OPENGL_FORWARD_COMPAT, GL_TRUE); glfwWindowHint(GLFW_OPENGL_PROFILE, GLFW_OPENGL_CORE_PROFILE); GLFWwindow *window = glfwCreateWindow(640, 480, "Title", NULL, NULL);

All programs in this article are designed to be compatible with a forward compatible OpenGL 4.3 core profile.

Using a function loader to access the latest OpenGL functionality

The OpenGL ABI (application binary interface) is frozen to OpenGL version 1.1 on Windows. Unfortunately for Windows developers, that means that it is not possible to link directly to functions that are provided in newer versions of OpenGL. Instead, one must get access to these functions by acquiring a function pointer at runtime. Getting access to the function pointers is not difficult, but requires somewhat tedious work, and has a tendency to clutter your code. Additionally, Windows typically comes with a standard OpenGL gl.h file that also conforms to OpenGL 1.1. The OpenGL wiki states that Microsoft has no plans to ever update the gl.hand opengl32.lib that come with their compilers. Thankfully, others have provided libraries that manage all of this for us by transparently providing the needed function pointers, while also exposing the needed functionality in header files. There are several libraries available that provide this kind of support. One of the oldest and most common is GLEW (OpenGL Extension Wrangler). However, there are a few serious issues with GLEW that might make it less desirable, and insufficient for my purposes when writing this article. First, at time of writing, it doesn’t yet support core profiles properly, and for this article, I want to focus only on the latest non-deprecated functionality. Second, it provides one large header file that includes everything from all versions of OpenGL. It might be preferable to have a more streamlined header file that only includes functions that we might use. Finally, GLEW is distributed as a library that needs to be compiled separately and linked into our project. It is often preferable to have a loader that can be included into a project simply by adding the source files and compiling them directly into our executable, avoiding the need to support another link-time dependency.

In this recipe, we’ll use the OpenGL Loader Generator (GLLoadGen), available from This very flexible and efficient library solves all three of the issues described in the previous paragraph. It supports core profiles and it can generate a header that includes only the needed functionality, and also generates just a couple of files (a source file and a header) that we can add directly into our project.

Getting ready

To use GLLoadGen, you’ll need Lua. Lua is a lightweight embeddable scripting language that is available for nearly all platforms. Binaries are available at, and a fully packaged install for Windows (LuaForWindows) is available at:

Download the GLLoadGen distribution from: The distribution is compressed using 7zip, which is not widely installed, so you may need to install a 7zip utility, available at Extract the distribution to a convenient location on your hard drive. Since GLLoadGen is written in Lua, there’s nothing to compile, once the distribution is uncompressed, you’re ready to go.

How to do it…

The first step is to generate the header and source files for the OpenGL version and profile of choice. For this example, we’ll generate files for an OpenGL 4.3 core profile. We can then copy the files into our project and compile them directly alongside our code:

  1. To generate the header and source files, navigate to the GLLoadGen distribution directory, and run GLLoadGen with the following arguments:

    lua LoadGen.lua -style=pointer_c -spec=gl -version=4.3 -profile=core core_4_3

  2. The previous step should generate two files: gl_core_4_3.c and gl_core_4_3.h. Move these files into your project and include gl_core_4_3.c in your build. Within your program code, you can include the gl_core_4_3.h file whenever you need access to the OpenGL functions. However, in order to initialize the function pointers, you need to make sure to call a function to do so. The needed function is called ogl_LoadFunctions. Somewhere just after the GL context is created (typically in an initialization function), and before any OpenGL functions are called, use the following code:

    int loaded = ogl_LoadFunctions(); if(loaded == ogl_LOAD_FAILED) { //Destroy the context and abort return; } int num_failed = loaded - ogl_LOAD_SUCCEEDED; printf("Number of functions that failed to load: %i.n", num_failed);

That’s all there is to it!

How it works…

The lua command in step 1 generates a pair of files, that is; a header and a source file. The header provides prototypes for all of the selected OpenGL functions and redefines them as function pointers, and defines all of the OpenGL constants as well. The source file provides initialization code for the function pointers as well as some other utility functions. We can include the gl_core_4_3.h header file wherever we need prototypes for OpenGL functions, so all function entry points are available at compile time. At run time, the ogl_LoadFunctions()function will initialize all available function pointers. If some functions fail to load, the number of failures can be determined by the subtraction operation shown in step 2. If a function is not available in the selected OpenGL version, the code may not compile, because only function prototypes for the selected OpenGL version and profile are available in the header (depending on how it was generated).

The command line arguments available to GLLoadGen are fully documented here: The previous example shows the most commonly used setup, but there’s a good amount of flexibility built into this tool.

Now that we have generated this source/header pair, we no longer have any dependency on GLLoadGen and our program can be compiled without it. This is a significant advantage over tools such as GLEW.

There’s more…

GLLoadGen includes a few additional features that are quite useful. We can generate more C++ friendly code, manage extensions, and generate files that work without the need to call an initialization function.

Generating a C++ loader

GLLoadGen supports generation of C++ header/source files as well. This can be selected via the -style parameter. For example, to generate C++ files, use -style=pointer_cpp as in the following example:

lua LoadGen.lua -style=pointer_cpp -spec=gl -version=4.3
-profile=core core_4_3

This will generate gl_core_4_3.cpp and gl_core_4_3.hpp. This places all OpenGL functions and constants within the gl::namespace, and removes their gl(or GL) prefix. For example, to call the function glBufferData, you might use the following syntax.

gl::BufferData(gl::ARRAY_BUFFER, size, data, gl::STATIC_DRAW);

Loading the function pointers is also slightly different. The return value is an object rather than just a simple integer and LoadFunctions is in the gl::sys namespace.

gl::exts::LoadTest didLoad = gl::sys::LoadFunctions(); if(!didLoad) { // Clean up (destroy the context) and abort. return; } printf("Number of functions that failed to load: %i.n", didLoad.GetNumMissing());

-load styles

GLLoadGen supports the automatic initialization of function pointers. This can be selected using the noload_c or noload_cpp options for the style parameter. With these styles, there is no need to call the initialization function ogl_LoadFunctions. The pointers are loaded automatically, the first time a function is called. This can be convenient, but there’s very little overhead to loading them all at initialization.

Using Extensions

GLLoadGen does not automatically support extensions. Instead, you need to ask for them with command line parameters. For example, to request ARB_texture_view and ARB_vertex_attrib_binding extensions, you might use the following command.

lua LoadGen.lua -style=pointer_c -spec=gl -version=3.3 -profile
=core core_3_3 -exts ARB_texture_view ARB_vertex_attrib_binding

The -exts parameter is a space-separated list of extensions. GLLoadGen also provides the ability to load a list of extensions from a file (via the -extfile parameter) and provides some common extension files on the website.

You can also use GLLoadGen to check for the existence of an extension at run-time. For details, see the GLLoadGen wiki.

See also

  • GLEW, an older, and more common loader and extension manager, available from

Using GLM for mathematics

Mathematics is core to all of computer graphics. In earlier versions, OpenGL provided support for managing coordinate transformations and projections using the standard matrix stacks (GL_MODELVIEW and GL_PROJECTION). In recent versions of core OpenGL however, all of the functionality supporting the matrix stacks has been removed. Therefore, it is up to us to provide our own support for the usual transformation and projection matrices, and then to pass them into our shaders. Of course, we could write our own matrix and vector classes to manage this, but some might prefer to use a ready-made, robust library.

One such library is GLM(OpenGL Mathematics) written by Christophe Riccio. Its design is based on the GLSL specification, so the syntax is very similar to the mathematical support in GLSL. For experienced GLSL programmers, this makes GLM very easy to use and familiar. Additionally, it provides extensions that include functionality similar to some of the much missed OpenGL functions such as glOrtho, glRotate, or gluLookAt.

Getting ready

Since GLM is a header-only library, installation is simple. Download the latest GLM distribution from Then, unzip the archive file, and copy the glm directory contained inside to anywhere in your compiler’s include path.

How to do it…

To use the GLM libraries, it is simply a matter of including the core header file, and headers for any extensions. For this example, we’ll include the matrix transform extension as follows:

#include <glm/glm.hpp> #include <glm/gtc/matrix_transform.hpp>

Then the GLM classes are available in the glm namespace. The following is an example of how you might go about making use of some of them:

glm::vec4 position = glm::vec4( 1.0f, 0.0f, 0.0f, 1.0f ); glm::mat4 view = glm::lookAt( glm::vec3(0.0,0.0,5.0), glm::vec3(0.0,0.0,0.0), glm::vec3(0.0,1.0,0.0) ); glm::mat4 model(1.0f); // The identity matrix model = glm::rotate( model, 90.0f, glm::vec3(0.0f,1.0f,0.0) ); glm::mat4 mv = view * model; glm::vec4 transformed = mv * position;

How it works…

The GLM library is a header-only library. All of the implementation is included within the header files. It doesn’t require separate compilation and you don’t need to link your program to it. Just placing the header files in your include path is all that’s required!

The previous example first creates a vec4(four coordinate vector) representing a position. Then it creates a 4 x 4 view matrix by using the glm::lookAt function. This works in a similar fashion to the old gluLookAt function. Here, we set the camera’s location at (0, 0, 5), looking towards the origin, with the “up” direction in the direction of the y-axis. We then go on to create the model matrix by first storing the identity matrix in the variable model(via the single argument constructor), and multiplying by a rotation matrix using the glm::rotate function. The multiplication here is implicitly done by the glm::rotate function. It multiplies its first parameter by the rotation matrix (on the right) that is generated by the function. The second parameter is the angle of rotation (in degrees), and the third parameter is the axis of rotation. Since before this statement, model is the identity matrix, the net result is that model becomes a rotation matrix of 90 degrees around the y-axis.

Finally, we create our modelview matrix (mv) by multiplying the view and model variables, and then using the combined matrix to transform the position. Note that the multiplication operator has been overloaded to behave in the expected way.

There’s more…

It is not recommended to import all of the GLM namespace by using the following command:

using namespace glm;

This will most likely cause a number of namespace clashes. Instead, it is preferable to import symbols one at a time, as needed. For example:

#include <glm/glm.hpp> using glm::vec3; using glm::mat4;

Using the GLM types as input to OpenGL

GLM supports directly passing a GLM type to OpenGL using one of the OpenGL vector functions (with the suffix v). For example, to pass a mat4 named proj to OpenGL we can use the following code:

glm::mat4 proj = glm::perspective( viewAngle, aspect, nearDist, farDist ); glUniformMatrix4fv(location, 1, GL_FALSE, &proj[0][0]);

See also

  • The Qt SDK includes many classes for vector/matrix mathematics, and is another good option if you’re already using Qt
  • The GLM website has additional documentation and examples


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