Simulation / Modeling / Design

EGL Eye: OpenGL Visualization without an X Server

If you’re like me, you have a GPU-accelerated in-situ visualization toolkit that you need to run on the latest-generation supercomputer. Or maybe you have a fantastic OpenGL application that you want to deploy on a server farm for offline rendering. Even though you have access to all that amazing GPU power, you’re often out of luck when it comes to GPU-accelerated rendering. The reason is that it’s not sufficient to enable OpenGL rendering on the GPUs (See my previous blog post for more details), but it also requires running an X server on each node. Especially in an HPC setting, system administrators are often reluctant to have X server processes running on the compute nodes. Until recently, this was the only way to manage an OpenGL context. That’s where EGL comes in.

Figure 1: The visualization toolkit VTK can use EGL for context management and off-screen rendering. Images courtesy of KitWare.
Figure 1: The visualization toolkit VTK can use EGL for context management and off-screen rendering. Images courtesy of KitWare.

Over the past few years, a new standard for managing OpenGL contexts has emerged: EGL. Initially driven by the requirements of the embedded space, the NVIDIA driver release 331 introduced EGL support, enabling context creation for OpenGL ES applications without the need for a running an X server. However, it was still not possible to run legacy OpenGL applications under such contexts.

With the release of NVIDIA Driver 355, full (desktop) OpenGL is now available on every GPU-enabled system, with or without a running X server. The latest driver (358) enables multi-GPU rendering support.

In this post, I will briefly describe the steps necessary to create an OpenGL context in order to enable OpenGL accelerated applications on systems without an X server.

Creating an OpenGL context

Electron flow in nanotransistor (Visualization Jean Favre, CSCS; Simulation: Mathieu Luisier, Mauro Caldelara, Joost VandeVondele , ETH Zurich.
Electron flow in nanotransistor (Visualization Jean Favre, CSCS; Simulation: Mathieu Luisier, Mauro Caldelara, Joost VandeVondele , ETH Zurich.

The most common use case for OpenGL on EGL is to create an OpenGL context and use it for off-screen rendering. Another use case is a CUDA or OpenACC application that performs an operation that can benefit from the graphics specific-functionality of the GPU as part of the computation. For example, solvers with domain boundaries expressed as triangulated surfaces; simulators that trace particle trajectories on a computational gird; or codes that need to perform visibility tests for geometrical structures.

The good news is that creating an OpenGL context with EGL is not rocket science! Just follow these five basic steps: Initialize EGL, select an appropriate screen, create a surface, bind the correct API and obtain a context from it. The following code outlines the steps.

  #include <EGL/egl.h>

  static const EGLint configAttribs[] = {
          EGL_BLUE_SIZE, 8,
          EGL_GREEN_SIZE, 8,
          EGL_RED_SIZE, 8,
          EGL_DEPTH_SIZE, 8,

  static const int pbufferWidth = 9;
  static const int pbufferHeight = 9;

  static const EGLint pbufferAttribs[] = {
        EGL_WIDTH, pbufferWidth,
        EGL_HEIGHT, pbufferHeight,

int main(int argc, char *argv[])
  // 1. Initialize EGL
  EGLDisplay eglDpy = eglGetDisplay(EGL_DEFAULT_DISPLAY);

  EGLint major, minor;

  eglInitialize(eglDpy, &major, &minor);

  // 2. Select an appropriate configuration
  EGLint numConfigs;
  EGLConfig eglCfg;

  eglChooseConfig(eglDpy, configAttribs, &eglCfg, 1, &numConfigs);

  // 3. Create a surface
  EGLSurface eglSurf = eglCreatePbufferSurface(eglDpy, eglCfg, 

  // 4. Bind the API

  // 5. Create a context and make it current
  EGLContext eglCtx = eglCreateContext(eglDpy, eglCfg, EGL_NO_CONTEXT, 

  eglMakeCurrent(eglDpy, eglSurf, eglSurf, eglCtx);

  // from now on use your OpenGL context

  // 6. Terminate EGL when finished
  return 0;

Let’s have a look at the individual steps of this minimal OpenGL context creation under EGL. The first step is to get a display object (eglGetDisplay()), which in this case is the default display. A display can, but doesn’t have to, represent a physical display attached to the system. So in the case of a headless node, this simply results in a display object for off-screen rendering.

Swine Flu A/H1N1 neuraminidase bound to Tamiflu. (Visualization: John Stone, UIUC, details at
Swine Flu A/H1N1 neuraminidase bound to Tamiflu. (Visualization: John Stone, UIUC, details at

Next we need to initialize EGL on this display (eglInitialize()). In addition to initializing EGL, this function returns the EGL version supported on the specified display. This can be handy if the application depends on a particular EGL version.

A display can support a range of configurations, so we need to specify the configuration used in this application. In our sample, we hard-coded a requested set of attributes for the configuration, like 8-bit color channels and the ability to generate an off-screen rendering pbuffer (we will get to this in a second) or the size of the resulting surface. EGL then returns a set of configurations matching these requirements. In this case, we limit ourselves to a single configuration.

Now we can start creating surfaces. What is a surface?  Roughly speaking, a surface represents a window on your screen. Just that you don’t need to have a screen. So it’s a limited size canvas to render into. In addition to the actual pixel data, a surface can contain auxiliary buffers, like a stencil or depth buffer. Here we just create an EGL surface for off-screen rendering, a so-called pbuffer (eglCreatePBufferSurface()).

Now we have almost all pieces in place. The only thing that’s missing is that we need to tell EGL what API we would like to use for rendering to this surface. In our case, we select standard OpenGL (eglBindAPI()). An alternative would be to use OpenGL ES.

At this point we can create the OpenGL context on this surface (eglCreateContext()) and make it current (eglMakeCurrent()) for future OpenGL operations.

EGL with multiple GPUs

The previous example assumes that we want to target the default display obtained via eglGetDisplay(). But what if we have multiple GPUs in our system and we want to use a specific one (possibly not managed by the X server) for our rendering tasks? Or what if we want to create an off-screen context and buffer not managed by the X server on a workstation with an attached display?

Birth of a star: magnetic jet from a young stellar object crashing into molecular cloud (Visualization Jean Favre, CSCS; Simulation Rolf Walder, Doris Folini, ENS Lyon).
Birth of a star: magnetic jet from a young stellar object crashing into molecular cloud (Visualization Jean Favre, CSCS; Simulation Rolf Walder, Doris Folini, ENS Lyon).

EGL provides an alternative, more powerful mechanism to obtain a display,  eglGetPlatformDisplay(), which allows you to specify the exact display device to use, so you can select the GPU to work on in a multi-GPU configuration.

The following example code shows the process to obtain a display with eglGetPlatformDisplay().

#include <EGL/egl.h>
#include <EGL/eglext.h>

  static const int MAX_DEVICES = 4;
  EGLDeviceEXT eglDevs[MAX_DEVICES];
  EGLint numDevices;


  eglQueryDevicesEXT(MAX_DEVICES, eglDevs, &numDevices);

  printf(“Detected %d devices\n”, numDevices);


  eglDpy = eglGetPlatformDisplayEXT(EGL_PLATFORM_DEVICE_EXT, 
                                    eglDevs[0], 0);

  // ...

This example first queries the available EGL devices via eglQueryDevicesEXT(). Like all of the EGL introspection routines, eglQueryDevicesEXT populates an array of devices and returns the number of devices found.

Note that eglQueryDevicesEXT() is an EGL extension, which may or may not be supported by a specific EGL implementation. So you need to include the EGL extension header, eglext.h, and enable extensions by setting the EGL_EXT_PROTOTYPES preprocessor macro. In order to get the desired extension function, we have to obtain the function pointers at runtime via eglGetProcAddress(), which takes the name of a function and returns a function pointer. Note that I’m omitting all error checking here for the sake of clarity, but production-quality code should gracefully handle the situation where eglGetProcAddress() returns a NULL pointer.

After obtaining a list of all available devices, we can select one that fits our purposes. Another extension, eglGetPlatformDisplayEXT(), allows us to use this device as the EGL display. All subsequent steps for creating the OpenGL context are then identical to the first example.

Managing your own OpenGL resources

In the first example, we used a pbuffer surface target for rendering, and let EGL manage all the buffers transparently, similar to the default frame buffer in a window. Instead of using an EGL surface, you can also manage all the OpenGL resources yourself.

In this case, you can skip eglCreatePbufferSurface()  and after creating the OpenGL context, make it the current context via

eglMakeCurrent(eglDpy, EGL_NO_SURFACE, EGL_NO_SURFACE, eglCtx);

Note that in this case you specify EGL_NO_SURFACE instead of passing an appropriate surface. Managing OpenGL resources yourself—for example creating a Frame Buffer Object (FBO) and attaching the appropriate textures and render buffers—can be particularly useful for CUDA/OpenGL interop because you can avoid an extra copy from the EGL surface to the CUDA-accessible OpenGL buffer.

Concluding Remarks

EGL provides valuable facilities for generating OpenGL contexts without the need for a running X server. This is particularly useful in HPC applications that need to render in a distributed fashion and eventually copy the rendered images off of the GPUs. Packages like Kitware’s Visualization Toolkit VTK or the molecular visualization toolkit VMD are already set up to use EGL for OpenGL context management and therefore no longer require a running X server for GPU-accelerated OpenGL.

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