Using OpenGL to Create 2D and 3D Graphics

by Joan Slottow
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The purpose of this article is to introduce you to OpenGL which is quickly becoming the next Graphics Standard API (Application Programming Interface).OpenGL consists of a set of functions that you can call from your own program to create 2D and 3D graphics on the workstation.

In addition to introducing you to OpenGL, it is hoped that this article will put OpenGL into context, so that you can get a better idea of whether or not you want to use it on the SP/cluster. Alternative ways of visualizing data are discussed, as well as competing products.

Brief Overview of OpenGL

OpenGL is a software interface that allows the programmer to create 2D and 3D graphics images. OpenGL is both a standard API and the implementation of that API. In other words, OpenGL is a set of functions which have the same syntax and which act the same on every platform, even though the actual subroutines which implement the standard have been written by different vendors. You can call the functions that comprise OpenGL from a program you write and expect to see the same results no matter where your program is running.

Graphics programming concepts underlie the functionality of OpenGL. These concepts are easy for the average application programmer to understand and use. OpenGL is independent of the hardware, operating, and windowing systems in use. The fact that it is windowing-system independent makes it portable. It also makes programming easier with OpenGL than with an API that is integrated with a windowing system, since learning how to program a windowing system is often quite complicated.

However, since graphics are normally displayed in a window, and since you have to have some way of obtaining input from the user, your OpenGL program must interface with the windowing system of the platform where the graphics are to be displayed. Therefore, a number of windowing toolkits have been developed for use with OpenGL. Some are simpler than others to use.

OpenGL functions in a client/server environment. That is, the application program producing the graphics may run on a machine other than the one on which the graphics are displayed. The server part of OpenGL, which runs on the workstation where the graphics are displayed, can access whatever physical graphics device or frame buffer is available on that machine. This makes OpenGL a software interface to the actual hardware.

The IBM implementation of OpenGL is available for your use on the SP/cluster.

Who uses OpenGL?

OpenGL can be used by anyone who writes an application which requires that graphics be displayed. Many commercially available software packages use OpenGL. For example, IBM Data Explorer (dx), a popular scientific visualization software package running on the SP/cluster, can render graphics in both hardware and software modes. For software rendering it uses X Window graphics. For hardware rendering it uses either GL, OpenGL's predecessor, or OpenGL. Graphics rendered in hardware are usually faster and of better quality than software-rendered graphics.

You can call the OpenGL functions directly from a program you are writing if you want to draw pictures directly from one of your own programs. This article should help you decide whether or not this is something you want to do.

The Nature of Graphics Programs and the SP/Cluster Environment

The SP/cluster nodes are divided into two categories: interactive and batch. You can run programs on the interactive nodes that require human interaction. However, all long-running and compute-intensive jobs must be submitted to LoadLeveler to be run on the batch nodes. Any program run on an interactive node that uses more than 30 cpu minutes in a 24-hour period is automatically killed. People who have long-running programs often use the interactive nodes to test them before submitting them to LoadLeveler.

The OpenGL specification, and IBM's implementation of OpenGL in particular, require that any program which uses OpenGL be run interactively. This is because OpenGL uses the graphic adapter which is part of your display to render the graphics. This makes it impossible to run an OpenGL application in batch under LoadLeveler because when you run a job under LoadLeveler there is no display.

The way we have visualized data produced by long-running jobs in the past (and still do), is to write the data out to disk files and to visualize it afterwards with a program such as IBM Data Explorer, GnuPlot, PV-Wave, or AVS.

When writing out the data for a large number of time steps in order to produce a movie, the amount of data produced can be very large. There are ways to save disk space and eliminate an extra step by producing the graphics images directly on disk from your program. This would only work, of course, in a case where the data is produced for the visualization only and is not needed for any other purpose.

One possible way to do this is to use OpenGL. This would require that you do all the graphics programming yourself and incorporate it into your simulation or other program. You could include calls to the OpenGL API and one of the windowing toolkits when you test the program interactively. This would allow you to see and debug the graphics. Then, when you are ready to run in batch, you can switch over to Mesa, an OpenGL API look-alike which includes off-screen rendering, which basically renders the image to memory. Off- screen rendering is accomplished with three function calls. They are documented on the SP/cluster in the header file:
A sample program can be found in /local/apps/mesa. This program renders an image off-screen and then writes it out in a .pnm file. From there you can convert it to any other image type you like using tools already on the system.

The newest version of Data Explorer, dx 3.1 provides another means to create image files directly from a long-running program. With it, you can execute a Data Explorer network under control of your program. The images need not be displayed and can be saved directly to the disk. A major difference in using dx versus OpenGL is that with dx you don't have to do any of the graphics programming yourself. You can test the graphics interactively by building a dx network with the normal dx GUI user interface and, when ready, run that network directly from your application program. We are planning to obtain dx 3.1 for the SP/cluster.

OpenGL would also be very good to use in interactive applications in which the user has to interact with the graphics. An example would be an application in which the user interacts with a graphic to sample or subset the data and to compute new data based upon a selection.

Before you rush out to write your own graphic application however, you should look into the software that is already installed and see if any of it is useful to you. The following software packages on the SP/cluster can create visualizations or graphs from data: The following packages consist of subroutines that can be called to produce visualizations or graphs directly from your program: The following packages are discipline-specific and do graphics in addition to doing something else: SAS, for example, allows you to interact graphically with data, find and eliminate outliers and select alternate statistical analyses.

Detailed Description of OpenGL

OpenGL functions (which are called commands) are designed to provide 2D and 3D graphics with the emphasis on 3D. The program is fully functional, including everything that users usually want out of 3D graphics. This includes: OpenGL's rendering commands, however are "primitive". You can tell the program to draw points, lines, and polygons, and you have to build more complex entities upon these. There are no special-purpose functions that you can call to create graphs, contour plots, maps, or any of the other elements we are used to getting from "old standby programs" like the Calcomp/Versatec subroutine library, DISSPLA, and DI/3000. With OpenGL, you have to build these things up yourself. Again, with the programs just mentioned you could not do "real" 3D graphics, nor could you get shading, lighting, texture mapping and all the other features that OpenGL offers.

Open Inventor, a separate product, is available if a higher- level of functionality is desired. Open Inventor is an object-oriented toolkit written in C++ on top of OpenGL. It provides pre-built objects, a built-in event model for user interaction, and other components that can be used by higher- level applications that do interactive 3D graphics.

Immediate and Display List Execution

With OpenGL any commands that you execute are executed immediately. That is, when you tell the program to draw something, it does it right away. You also have the option of putting commands into display lists. A display list is a not-editable list of OpenGL commands stored for later execution. You can execute the same display list more than once. For example, you can use display lists to redraw the graphics whenever the user resizes the window. You can use a display list to draw the same shape more than once if it repeats as an element of the picture.

Display lists reside with the OpenGL server. If the client and server machines are different, as they are when you use the SP/cluster as the client, this minimizes network traffic. Also, the display lists can be optimized on the server side for the specific hardware.

OpenGL Components on the RS/6000

OpenGL is divided into several libraries:
Base library
This library includes all the basic 3D rendering functions, including depth (Z) buffering, matrix and attribute stacks, and display list creation and manipulation facilities. It also includes anti-aliasing, user-defined clipping planes, and fog and atmospheric effects.
OpenGL Utility Library
This library includes functions for creating orthographic and perspective projections, converting between world and window coordinates, transforming coordinates, texture mapping, error reporting, rendering canonical shapes such as spheres and cylinders and tessellating concave and multicontour polygons.
OpenGL X Windows Extension
This library is the marriage of OpenGL and X. You need it to perform windowing functions if your server machine is running X Windows. Its design integrates OpenGL into X in a way that is consistent with the way X works. OpenGL works with sophisticated frame buffer types: double and single buffering, depth buffers, stereo windows, stencil, and accumulation buffers, none of which are defined in X Windows. The GLX library extends X so that it can allow OpenGL and X to write into the same window if that is what is desired.
OpenGL Motif Widget Library
This library is new with AIX 4.1. It includes just a few functions that you can use to create a Motif widget that can be used as a canvas for OpenGL to draw into.

OpenGL Functions Independently of Hardware and Windowing System

OpenGL is hardware-independent. Many different vendors have written implementations that run on different hardware. These implementations are all written to the same OpenGL standard and are required to pass strict conformance tests. Vendors with licenses include SGI, AT&T, DEC, Evans & Sutherland, Hitachi, IBM, Intel, Intergraph, Kendall Square Research, Kubota Pacific, Microsoft, NEC, and RasterOps. The RS/6000 version comes with X and Motif extensions. However X is not required to run OpenGL since OpenGL also runs with other windowing systems.

The Architecture Review Board

The OpenGL standard is set by the OpenGL Architecture Review Board. The board controls changes to the API and licensing and conformance testing. Members of the board, which each have one vote, are as follows: DEC, Evans & Sutherland, IBM, Intel, Intergraph, Microsoft, and SGI.

Supported Platforms

The information here on the supported platforms may not be entirely up to date and should be taken as a minimal subset of the supported platforms. Supported platforms include:
OpenGL is supported by the DEC Open3D layered product for OSF/1 AXP and OpenVMS AXP workstations. It is not offered on VAXstations or DECstations.
IBM RS/6000
OpenGL is supplied for RS/6000 IBM. It is implemented for almost every graphics adapter available for RS/6000.
IBM has partnered with Portable Graphics and provides their implementation of Open Inventor for IBM RS/6000 platforms. OAC, however, does not have Open Inventor available on the SP/cluster.
Template Graphics Software also has a version of Open Inventor for RS/6000.
OpenGL is part of the base operating system for OS/2 2.1 and OS/2 Warp.
OpenGL is offered as a standard feature of Microsoft Windows NT Workstation version 3.5 and later.
Portable Graphics, Inc., also has versions available for Windows NT, OS/2 and Windows 95.
Silicon Graphics
OpenGL and Open Inventor are supported by SGI for various SGI platforms under IRIX 5.2 and 5.3 including: Indy, Indigo, Indigo2, Crimson, Onyx.
Hewlett Packard
Evans & Sutherland is the supplier of OpenGL for Hewlett Packard machines.
Template Graphics Software is providing OpenGL for Power Macintosh.
Portable Graphics, Inc., a subsidiary of Evans & Sutherland Computer has a version for Sun which is optimized for SPARC/Solaris.
Template Graphics Software, Inc. (TGS) is providing OpenGL for Sun SPARC Solaris 2.x acceleration hardware.

OpenGL Documentation

OpenGL is documented in the two-volume printed set from Addison-Wesley, which is available at the ASUCLA Student Store:
  "OpenGL Reference Manual ISBN 0-201-63276-4"
  "OpenGL Programming Guide ISBN 0-2-1-63274-8"


Mesa is a 3-D graphics library based on OpenGL. It was written by Brian Paul of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He makes no claim that it is in any way a compatible replacement for OpenGL, however, it is extremely similar. One major difference between Mesa and OpenGL is that Mesa uses regular X Windows graphics on Unix machines and is therefore not a software interface to any specific hardware graphics devices. Mesa works on most Unix platforms that have X11, including recently added Linux, and drivers for Microsoft Windows and for Mac OS are available. There will be additional discussion of Mesa later in this article.

GL, Predecessor to OpenGL -- Some History

GL, OpenGL's predecessor, also called Iris GL, was developed by Silicon Graphics in 1982. GL stands for Graphics Library. GL was selected by IBM as the API to drive the graphics adapters (frame buffers) that were installed in its RS/6000 series of workstations when the RS/6000 was initially developed. GL is used by more than 1500 applications including IBM Data Explorer, AVS, Biosym Insight II, Grass, and more.

GL subroutines make direct use of the graphics adapter hardware installed on the workstation. As such, GL graphics is usually referred to as hardware graphics, as opposed to X Windows graphics, which is referred to as software graphics (or software rendering). When software rendering is performed, the graphical image is created via the software running on the machine. The rendered image is then displayed in a window via calls to X. With hardware rendering, much of the work of creating the image is carried out via special hardware, the graphics adapter.

GL includes support for getting input from input devices, creating and drawing into windows, frame buffer configuration and control, and basic and advanced 3D rendering. GL subroutines have both C and Fortran bindings.

The use of GL also has certain disadvantages. Most notable are: OpenGL fixes at least the first of these disadvantages. OpenGL works across the network. Major changes made with the implementation of OpenGL include:

OpenGL on IBM RS/6000

Client/Server Has Important Implications for You

Because OpenGL operates on the client/server model, the fact that the IBM implementation of OpenGL is available for your use on the SP/cluster is not sufficient for you to use it there. Any program which runs on the SP/cluster and which uses OpenGL to produce graphical output would be the client program. The server of the client/server model, in this case, is the X Windows server which is supporting your local display. There are a number of cases:
  1. Your server is running on another IBM RS/6000
  2. You are using another vendor's Unix workstation
  3. You are using an Xstation (X terminal) in the public area
  4. You are using an IBM PC with some X Windows support software, such as X-Win.
  5. You are using a Macintosh with some X Windows support software, such as Mac X.
In all of these cases, if you do not have OpenGL support in your server, you cannot view the OpenGL graphics. If that is so, you can recompile and relink the program (if you have the source code) with the libraries provided with Mesa. You will now be running with ordinary X Windows graphics, which is provided for in all of the cases outlined above.

Let's take the cases one by one:

1. Your server is running on another IBM RS/6000
IBM has implemented OpenGL on almost every graphics adapter available for RS/6000 machines. Because computer processors have become faster, it is now possible to implement 3D graphics entirely in software, without hardware. Therefore, IBM has implemented Soft3D, which is their OpenGL server software for low-end configurations, those without overlay planes and with only one hardware colormap.

First, you must have OpenGL installed on your server machine. Then you must request the OpenGL extensions to X when you start up X. This can be done with the command:
           xinit -- -x GLX -x abx -x mbx
If you are using the Common Desktop Environment you can modify the file /usr/dt/config/Xservers to add the extensions, or the file /usr/lpp/X11/defaults/xserverrc changing EXTENSIONS="" to EXTENSIONS=" -x GLX -x abx -x mbx". In both cases, you have to logon as root.
2. You are using another vendor's Unix workstation
You have to install OpenGL and follow the instructions given by your OpenGL vendor.
3. You are using an Xstation (X terminal) in the public area.
We haven't gotten that to work yet, but are still attempting to resolve it.
4. You are using an IBM PC with some X Windows support software, such as X-Win.
X-Win does not support OpenGL but may do so at a future date.
5. You are using a Macintosh with some X Windows support software, such as Mac X.
Mac X does not support OpenGL.

Color Flashing

Applications that use colors deal with them in one of two ways: The use of a color lookup table takes significantly less memory but provides for fewer colors. Most 3D applications, and OpenGL in particular, operate using RGB colors because it is the natural color space for colors and lighting and shading. However, under AIX, X Windows and the Motif Window Manager use color index mode because they are working with a limited number of solid colors. Therefore, unless you specifically start your X server in RGB mode, which isn't recommended since many simple X clients then won't work, or have a GXT 150 graphics adapter, color flashing will occur when you run OpenGL.

When the focus shifts to an OpenGL window, either by clicking on it or by moving the mouse pointer to it, the way you have instructed X to change focus, the colors of the rest of the windows will change dramatically. When a non-OpenGL window is in focus, the colors in the OpenGL window will change. This is what IBM calls color flashing and what I call steeling the colors.

Capturing and Printing the OpenGL Window

You can capture a graphic image created by a program using OpenGL from the display and save it into an xwd file using either the command xwd -out filename, or the xgrab utility which presents you with a GUI interface. Specify that you want an X Window Dump for the output format, To file, and a file name. Note that you cannot use the general purpose image converter from the San Diego Supercomputing facility, imconv, to convert the xwd image to another format, but you can use Jef Poskanzer's xwdtopnm, to convert it to a portable anymap and from there, convert it to something else.

You can also print any OpenGL image you see on the screen. Use xgrab. Specify PostScript for the output format, Color Output under PostScript Options "To file", and a file name. Since we currently don't have a color PostScript printer connected to the SP/cluster, you will have to ftp the PostScript file elsewhere before printing it.

Windowing Toolkits

auxlib, the auxiliary toolkit library, used in the examples in the Addison-Wesley books comes with the IBM version of OpenGL and is available on the SP/cluster. The auxiliary library also comes with Mesa. This toolkit is easy to use but also limited in functionality. For example, it only allows for one graphics window.

In addition, we have installed GLUT, a windowing toolkit by Mark Kilgard. GLUT includes: Two versions of GLUT are available: one for IBM's OpenGL and the other for Mesa

How to Compile and Link OpenGL Applications

When using IBM's OpenGL with auxlib, specify the following:
    include files:               <GL/aux.h> 
    OpenGL libraries:            -lGL, -lGLU
    windowing toolkit libraries: -laux
    X Windows libraries:         -lXm, -lXt -lX11 
When using IBM's OpenGL with GLUT, specify the following:
    include files:                <GL/glut.h> 
    OpenGL libraries:             -lGL, -lGLU
    windowing toolkit libraries:  -lglut
    X Windows libraries:          -lXmu, -lX11 
When using IBM's OpenGL with GLX library, specify the following:
    include files:        <GL/gl.h>, <GL/glx.h>
    OpenGL libraries:     -lGL, -lGLU
    X Windows libraries:  -lX11 
When using Mesa with auxlib, specify the following:
   include files:                "glaux.h"
   include files:                -I/local/include/mesa, 
   Mesa libraries                -L/local/lib/mesa, -lMesaGL,
   windowing toolkit libraries:  -lMesaaux 
When using Mesa with GLUT, specify the following:
   include files:                <GL/glut.h>
   include files:                -I/local/include/mesa
   Mesa libraries:               -L/local/lib/mesa, -lMesaGL,
   windowing toolkit libraries:  -L/local/lib/mesa, -lglut
   X Windows libraries:          -lXmu, -lX11
When using Mesa with off-screen rendering, specify the following:
    include files:    <GL/osmesa.h>, <GL/gl.h>, 
    include files     -I/local/include/mesa
    Mesa libraries:   -L/local/lib/mesa, 
                        -lMesaGL -lMesaGLU 17

OpenGL References:

Joan Slottow is the OAC Consultant in charge of the OAC Visualization Laboratory. Contact OAC Vis Lab Consulting

01 May 96; Rev. 23 Jan 97