"Because of the nature of Moore's law, anything that an extremely clever graphics programmer can do at one point can be replicated by a merely competent programmer some number of years later." - John Carmack

In a nutshell, PortableGL is an implementation of OpenGL 3.x core in clean C99 as a single header library (in the style of the stb libraries).

It can theoretically be used with anything that takes a framebuffer/texture as input (including just writing images to disk manually or using something like stb_image_write) but all the demos use SDL2 and it currently only supports 8-bits per channel RGBA as a target (and also for textures).

Its goals are,

  1. Portability
  2. Matching the API within reason, at the least matching features/abilities
  3. Ease of Use
  4. Straightforward code
  5. Speed

Obviously there are tradeoffs between several of those. An example where 4 trumps 2 (and arguably 3) is with shaders. Rather than write or include a glsl parser and have a built in compiler or interpreter, shaders are just special C functions that match a specific prototype. Uniforms are another example where 3 and 4 beat 2 because it made no sense to match the API because we can do things so much simpler by just passing a pointer to a user defined struct (see the examples).


Get the source from Github.


gears pointsprites modelviewer craft

The last is a PortableGL port of Michael Fogleman's Craft.


PortableGL started as a very simple wireframe software renderer based on a tutorial in summer 2011. I kept playing with it and adding minor features over the next year and then in early 2013 I decided I should turn it into a software implementation of OpenGL. This would save me a huge amount of time and energy on API design since I'd just be implementing an existing good API (though some disagree) and also make the project more useful both to me and potentially others. Also, at the time Mesa3D was still years away from full 3.x support, not that I'm really competing but just the fact that there was no finished implementation was a little motivating. I made a lot of progress that year and had a few bursts here and there since, but once I got it mostly working, I was less motivated and when I did work on it I spent my time on creating new demos/examples and tweaking or fixing minor things. I could have released an MVP back in 2014 at the earliest but late 2016 would have been the best compromise. Anyway after somewhere between 400 and 1200+ hours (depending on what/how you count) spread out over 9 years, I've finally finished the the last 90% or at least enough to justify sharing it. Software is never finished, and I'll be the first to admit PortableGL could use more polish.


Aside from the fact that I just wrote it for fun and because I thought it was cool (maybe others will too), I can think of a few semi-practical purposes.


I took a 400 level 3D Graphics course in college in fall 2010 months after OpenGL 3.3/4.0 was released. It was taught based on the original Red Book using OpenGL 1.1. Fortunately, the professor let me use OpenGL 3.3 as long as I met the assignment requirements. Sadly, college graphics professors still teach 1.x and 2.x OpenGL today in 2020 far more commonly than 3.x/4.x (or Vulkan). A few are using WebGL 2.0 which I kind of consider 1 step forward 2 steps back.

While Vulkan is the newest thing (already 4 years old time flies), it really is overkill for learning 3D graphics. There is rarely anything that students make in your standard intro to 3D graphics that remotely stresses the performance of any laptop built in the last decade plus. Using modern OpenGL to introduce all the standard concepts, vertices, triangles, textures, shaders, fragments/pixels, the transformation pipeline etc. first is much better than trying to teach them Vulkan and graphics at the same time and obviously better than teaching OpenGL API's that are decades old.

PortableGL could be a very convenient base for such a class. It's easy to walk through the code and see the pipeline and how all the steps flow together. For more advanced classes or graduate students in a shared class, modifying PortableGL in some way would be a good project. It could be some optimization or algorithm, maybe a new feature. Theoretically it could be used as a base for actual research into new graphics algorithms or techniques just because it's such a convenient small base to change and share, vs trying to modify a project the size and complexity of Mesa3D or create a software renderer from scratch.

Special Cases

It's hard to imagine any hardware today that has a CPU capable of running software rendered 3D graphics at any respectable speed (especially with full IEEE floating point) that doesn't also have some kind of dedicated GPU. The GPU might only support OpenGL 2.0 give or take but for performance it'd be better to stick to whatever the hardware supported than use PortableGL. However, theoretically, there could be some platform somewhere where the CPU is relatively powerful that doesn't have GPU. Maybe some of the current and future RISC SoC's for example? In such a case PortableGL might be a useful alternative to Mesa3D or similar.

Another special case is hobby OS's. The hardware they run on might have a GPU but it might be impossible or more trouble than it's worth to get Mesa3D to run on some systems. If they have a C99 compliant compiler and standard library, they could use PortableGL to get at least some OpenGL-ish 3D support.



There is the documentation in the comments at the top of the file (from src/header_docs.txt) but there is currently no formal documentation. Looking at the examples and demos (and comparing them to opengl_reference) should be helpful. Honestly, the official OpenGL docs and reference pages are good for 90-95% of it as far as basic usage:

4.6 Core reference 4.5 comprehensive reference tutorials and guides


If you have SDL2 installed you should be able to cd into examples, demos, or testing and just run make or make config=release for optimized builds. I use premake generated makefiles that I include in the repo, but you should be able to compile it on Windows or Mac too, there's nothing Linux specific about the code. I'll fill out this section more later.


portablegl.h (and portablegl_unsafe.h) is generated in the src subdirectory with the python script generate_gl_h.py. You can see how it's put together and either modify the script to leave out or add files, or actually edit any of the code. Just make sure if you edit gl_impl.c that you also edit gl_impl_unsafe.c.


While I often used the official OpenGL documentation to make sure I was matching the spec as closely as realistically possible, what I used most, especially early on were a few textbooks.

The first was Fundamentals of Computer Graphics 3rd Edition which I used extensively early on to understand all the math involved, including the matrix transformation pipeline, barycentric coordinates and interpolation, texture mapping and more. There is now a 4th Edition and a soon to be released 5th Edition.

The second was the 5th edition of the OpenGL Superbible 5th Edition. I got this in 2010, right after OpenGL 3.3/4.0 was released, and used it for my college graphics course mentioned above. A lot of people didn't like this book because they thought it relied too much on the author`s helper libraries but I had no problems. It was my first exposure to any kind of OpenGL so I didn't have to unlearn the old stuff and all his code was free and available online so it was easy to look inside and not only see what actual OpenGL calls are used, but to then develop your own classes to your own preferences. I still use a class based on his GLFrame class for example.

In any case, that's the book I actually learned OpenGL, from and still use as a reference sometimes. I have a fork of the book repo too that I occasionally look at/update. Of course they've come out with a 6th and a 7th edition in the last decade.

Lastly, while I haven't used it as much since I got it years later, the OpenGL 4.0 Shading Language Cookbook has been useful in specific OpenGL topics occasionally. Once again, you can now get the expanded 3rd edition.

Similar/Related Projects

I'll probably add others to this list as I find them.

TinyGL is Fabrice Bellard's implementation of a subset of of OpenGL 1.x. If you want something like PortableGL but don't want to write shaders, just want old style glBegin/glEnd/glVertex etc. this is the closest I know of. Also I shamelessly copied his clipping code because I'm not 1/10th the programmer Bellard was even as an undergrad and I knew it would "just work". I've included his copyright and BSD license in LICENSE just in case.

Pixomatic is/was a software implementation of D3D 7 and 9 written in C and assembly by Michael Abrash and Mike Sartain. You can read a series of articles about it written by Abrash for Dr. Dobbs.

TTSIOD is an advanced software renderer written in C++.

As an aside, the way I handle interpolation in PortableGL works as a semi-rebuttal of this article. The answer is not the terrible strawman C approach he comes up with just to easily say "look how bad that is". The answer is that interpolation is an algorithm, a simple function, and it doesn't care what the data means or how many elements there are. Pass it data and let the algorithm do its job, same as graphics hardware does. While the inheritance + template functions method works ok if you only have a few "types" of data, every time you think of some new feature you want to interpolate, you need to define a new struct and a new template function specialization. Having a function/pipeline that just takes an arbitrary amount of float data to operate on takes less code and even has less runtime overhead since it's a single function that interpolates all the features at once rather than having to call a function for each feature. See lines ~1200-1250 of gl_internals.c. Obviously it looks more complicated with all the other openGL stuff going on but you can see a simpler version on line 308 that's used for interpolating between line endpoints instead of over a triangle. This is closer to his example but still longer because it has to support SMOOTH, PERSPECTIVE and FLAT. You can see the shape of a straightforward implementation even there though, and the benefits of decoupling the algorithm from the data it operates on.

Mesa3D is an open source implementation of OpenGL, Vulkan and other graphics APIs. It includes several different software renderers including the Gallium rasterizer (softpipe or llvmpipe depending on whether llvm is used) and Intel's OpenSWR.

bbgl is just a very interesting concept. When I first saw it soon after it was published I was very frightened that it was exactly what PortableGL is but far more polished and from a better programmer. Fortunately, it is not.

pixman I feel like you could use them together or combine useful parts of pixman with PortableGL.

fauxgl "3D software rendering in pure Go. No OpenGL, no C extensions, no nothin'."


PortableGL is licensed under the MIT License (MIT)

The code used for clipping is copyright (c) Fabrice Bellard from TinyGL under the BSD License, see LICENSE.


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