Difference between CUDA and OpenCL 2010


Most GPGPU-enthusiasts have heard of both OpenCL and CUDA. While there are more solutions, these have the most potential. Both techniques are very comparable like a BMW and a Mercedes, but there are some differences. Since the technologies will evolve, we’ll take a look at the differences again next year. We’ve discussed this difference in a with a focus on marketing earlier this year.

Disclaimer: we have a strong focus on OpenCL (but actually for reasons explained in this article).


If you have seen kernels of OpenCL and CUDA, you see the biggest difference might be the prefix “cl_” or the prefix “cu_”, but there is also a difference in terminology.

Matt Harvey (developer of Cuda2OpenCL-translator Swan) has summed up the differences in a presentation “Experiences porting from CUDA to OpenCL” (PDF):

CUDA term OpenCL term
GPU Device
Multiprocessor Compute Unit
Scalar core Processing element
Global memory Global memory
Shared (per-block) memory Local memory
Local memory (automatic, or local) Private memory
kernel program
block work-group
thread work item

As far as I know, the kernel-program is also called a kernel in OpenCL. Personally I like Cuda’s terms “thread” and “per-block memory” more. It is very clear CUDA targets the GPU only, while in OpenCL it an be any device.

Edit 2011-01-15: In a talk by Sami Rosendahl the differences are also discussed.


We would like to present you a benchmark between OpenCL and CUDA with full comparison, but we don’t have enough hardware in-house to do a full benchmark. Below information is what we’ve found on the net and a little bit based on our own experience.

On NVidia hardware, OpenCL is up to 10% slower (see Matt Harvey’s presentation); this is mainly because OpenCL is implemented on top of CUDA-architecture (this shouldn’t be a reason, but to say NVidia has put more energy in CUDA is just a wild guess also). On ATI 4000-series OpenCL is just slow, but gives very comparable to NVidia if compared to the 5000-series. The specialised streaming processors NVidia’s Tesla and AMD’s FireStream really bite each other, while the Playstation 3 unbelievably still wins on some tasks.

The architecture AMD/ATI-hardware is very different from NVidia’s and that’s why a kernel written with a specific brand or GPU in mind just performs better than a version which is not optimised. So if you do a benchmark, it really depends on which kernels you use for it. To be more precise: any benchmark can be written in favour of a specific architecture. Fine-tuning the software to work a maximum speed in current and future(!) hardware for different kinds of datasets is (still) a specialised task for that reason. This is also one of the current problems of GPGPU, but kernel-optimisers will get better.

If you like pictures, Hugh Merz comes to the rescue, who compared CUDA-FFT against FFTW (“the fastest FFT in the West”). The page is offline now, but you it was clear that the data-transfer from and to the GPU is a huge bottleneck and Hugh Merz was rather sceptical about GPU-computing in 2007. He extended his benchmark with the PS3 and a Tesla-s1070 and now you see bigger differences. Since CPUs go multi-multi-core, you cannot tell how big this gap will be in the future; but you can tell the gap will be bigger and CPUs will more and more be programmed like GPUs (massively parallel).

What we learn from this is 1) that different devices will improve if the demands are more clear, and 2) that it will be all about specialisation, since different manufacturers will hear different demands. The latest GPUs from AMD works much better with OpenCL, the next might beat all others in a many or only specific areas in 2011 – who knows? IBM’s Cell-processor is expected to enter the ring outside the home-brew PS3 render-farms, but with what specialised product? NVidia wants to enter high in the HPC-world, and they might even win it. ARM is developing multiple-core CPUs, but will it support OpenCL for a better FLOP/Watt than competitors?

It’s all about the choices manufacturers make, which way CUDA en OpenCL will develop.

Homogeneous vs Heterogeneous

For us the most important reason to have chosen for OpenCL, even if CUDA is more mature. While CUDA only targets NVidia’s GPUs (homogeneous), OpenCL can target any digital device that has an input and an output (very heterogeneous). AMD/ATI and Intel are both on the path of making architectures that are heterogeneous; just like Systems-on-a-Chip (SoCs) based on an ARM-architecture. Watch for our upcoming article about ARM & SoCs.

While I was searching for more information about this difference, I came across a blog-item by RogueWave, which claims something different. I think they switched Intel’s architectures with NVidia’s or he knew things were going to change. In the near future could bring us an x86-chip from NVidia. This will change a lot in the field, so more about this later. They already have an ARM-chip in their Tegra mobile processor, so NVidia/CUDA still has some big bullets.

Missing language-features

Like Java and .NET are very comparable, developers from both side know very well that their favourite feature is missing at the other camp. Most time such a feature is an external library, just built in. Or is it taste? Or even a stack of soapboxes?

OpenCL has:

  • Task-parallel execution mode (to be used on CPUs) – not needed on NVidia’s GPUs.

CUDA has unique features too:

  • FFT library – so in OpenCL you need to have your own kernels for it.
  • Atomic operations – which make double-write threads easier to implement.
  • Hardware texture interpolation – OpenCL has to fall back to a larger kernel or OpenGL.
  • Templating – in openCL you have to create new kernels for every data-type.

In short CUDA certainly has made a lot of things just easier for the developer, but OpenCL has its potential in support for more than just GPUs. All differences are based on this difference in focus-area.

I’m pretty sure this list is not complete at all, and only explains the type of differences. So please come to the LinkedIn GPGPU Users Group to discuss this.

Last words


As it is done with more shared standards, there is no win and no gain to promote it. If you promote it, a lot of companies thank you, but the Rreturn-on-Investments is lower than when you have your own standard. So OpenCL is just used-as-it-is-available, while CUDA is highly promoted; for that reason more people invest in partnerships with NVidia to use CUDA instead of non-profit organisation Khronos. And eventually CUDA-drivers can be ported to IBM’s Cell-processors or to ARM, since it is very comparable to OpenCL. It really depends on the profit NVidia will make with such deals, so who can tell what will happen.

We still think OpenCL will win eventually on consumer-markets (desktop and mobile) because of support for more devices, but CUDA will stay a big player in professional and scientific markets because of the legacy software they are currently building up and the more friendly development-support. We hope they will both exist and help each other push forward, just like OpenGL vs DirectX, nVidia vs ATI, Europe vs the USA vs Asia, etc. Time will tell what features will eventually end up in each technology.

Update August 2012: due to higher demand StreamHPC is explicitly offering CUDA to OpenCL porting.

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