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Luke Short - Senior Kubernetes Solutions Architect, developer, open source advocate, Linux gamer, Chromebook enthusiast, Star Wars fan, vegan, and proud citizen of Colorado.

EXCLUSIVE: Chromebooks to Support Vulkan Passthrough

2021-02-23-chrome-os-vulkan-passthrough Passthrough of the Vulkan graphics API library from a QEMU hypervisor to a virtual machine is coming to Linux thanks to work sponsored by Google! This is a big deal for many reasons.

Side note: this is an article I’ve done a lot of research in the past and was surprised that no one else has picked up the pieces yet. So here we are: my first exclusive article! Now that I have a blogging platform, it’s the perfect time and place to share this exciting news! Honestly, this is by far my favorite thing I’m looking forward to in 2021.

As it is today, the Virgil 3D GPU project has limited support for OpenGL passthrough to virtual machines. Chrome OS already uses Virgil for its Linux (Beta) feature which runs Debian Linux as a LXC container inside of a Chrome OS virtual machine. This allows games to run within the Linux environment with OpenGL acceleration.

The Vulkan passthrough work is being lead by Chia-I Wu who has done work for Valve in the past at LunarG and is currently working at Google on “Android Graphics”. Work-in-progress commits have been up for both mesa and virglrenderer projects for 7 months now. A user named Tomeu Vizoso has also reported that this work extends beyond Chrome OS and works with a normal Linux distribution. The work was originally planned to be released by Google in 2020 but likely was pushed pack due to COVID-19 complications.

What can we likely conclude from all of this? A lot, actually.

  • Chromebooks are the main targeted platform. However, the entire Linux community will benefit from this.
  • Valve is bringing Steam to Chromebooks via Borealis (an Ubuntu 18.04 virtual machine). Steam uses Proton as a compatibility layer for running Windows games on Linux. Valve only officially supports Vulkan (not OpenGL, although you can technically use OpenGL instead of Vulkan) for translating DirectX calls. Borealis is unlikely to be released until the Vulkan passthrough work is done.
  • Android is being moved to a virtual machine on Chrome OS. Chia-I works on “Android Graphics” so it makes sense that they want to fully support GPU acceleration as they move towards more virtual machines.
  • Zink (OpenGL on Vulkan) will also benefit both Borealis and Android. The Virgil project provides an incomplete form of OpenGL passthrough. By utilizing Zink with full Vulkan support, all of the major graphics back-ends will then be supported on Linux virtual machines. Currently, OpenGL 4.6 and OpenGL ES 3.1 are fully supported via Zink.

tl;dr? Chromebooks are about to become the biggest platform to support Linux gaming.

What an exciting time! Will 2021 be the year of the Linux laptop? Chrome OS has just became the second most popular operating system so it’s not impossible! ;-)


Follow me (Luke Short) on Twitter or connect with me on LinkedIn if you want more in-depth Chrome OS and/or Linux gaming news!

UPDATE (2021-02-24):

More bold predictions. Borealis and Chromebooks will be the spiritual successors to Steam OS and Steam Machines!

UPDATE (2021-02-25):

I forgot to also mention that a Chromebook with a discrete graphics card has been in development for over a year now. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard about it. I’d bet that it’s being used to test Borealis and so far has not been ready for market due to the lack of Vulkan passthrough support.

UPDATE (2021-03-08):

Some people still think Steam on Chromebooks is a myth. Kan Liu, an executive in charge of Chrome OS, confirmed at CES 2020 to Android Police staff that Steam is coming to Chromebooks. They also confirmed it will use the same method as Linux on Chromebooks uses (i.e., running Steam in a virtual machine).