I’m at the NVIDIA GDC (GPU Developer’s Conference) this week and they are really feeling their oats, announcing major advancements in real-time rendering, ranging from water to virtual people, and from the desktop to smartphones. One of the most interesting announcements was on the Grid Enterprise platform; it is called VCA or Visual Computing Appliance, targeted at the mid-market and cloud services. Basically, it is set up to provide a high-performance graphics workstation experience on any compliant device, even an iPad.
This same day, I had a chat with Adam Selipsky, VP of Sales, Marketing, and Support for Amazon Web Services. Combined, these two efforts are changing the way we’ll do high-performance desktop computing in the future.
Thin Clients Going Mainstream
Who would have thought that when Larry Ellison and Scott McNealy of Oracle and Sun came up with the idea of thin clients, the iPad would become the poster child for their efforts. That appears to be the case; companies like OnLive started to bring PC performance to them and people began thinking they could use tablets in areas where only a full-blown PC could work, largely by streaming a remote virtual desktop. It was only a matter of time before someone started to push the envelope on what you could do with remote hardware. First, NVIDIA’s Grid Enterprise, and now its VCA efforts, showcase that you can take a high-performance graphics experience and make it appear native on an iPad or other low-powered device.
What made this possible is that since the idea of the thin client was first pitched, the networking vendors have been working furiously to both improve bandwidth and reduce latency so that online movie watching and video conferencing would be more accepted. The unexpected benefit is that remote desktops got vastly better and even remote gaming became possible. Once gaming service OnLive proved that you could push almost anything over much of the existing infrastructure, it was only a matter of time before the services and hardware started to show up so that companies could provide or rent similar capacity.
Amazon Web Services (AWS) is one of the under-appreciated services currently in market. IT often treats this service as more of a problem than a solution because line employees have been increasingly bypassing IT to gain access to the cheaper and easier to configure services that AWS offers. While initially these services lacked the security and reliability that IT required, Amazon has been enhancing them to meet security requirements and now has broad uses from pharmaceutical research to the NASA Mars Rover project. These services have shifted from remote storage to full-on remote processing and analytics.
Amazon uses NVIDIA extensively in its solutions and it would likely be an idea supplier of this virtual workstation capability. This suggests that, at some future point, many of your firms will likely be getting PC services from them, and not from any internal shop.
VCA is an amazing piece of hardware that could play sharply into a world looking for stronger remote workstation-class resources and needing those resources on an increasing variety of devices. The interesting thing about workstation resources is that employees rarely need them all the time. From stock analysts, to full-on graphics engineers, much of their day is spent managing projects, collaborating over email, and doing things that don’t require the slowly obsolescing capability of the workstations on their desk. Increasingly, even when on their workstations, they have to collaborate on a project with someone who is located remotely, and sharing a project across workstations can be somewhat painful given the massive sizes of some of the image, movie or CAD files involved. Centralizing the resources can assure they are more fully utilized while they are depreciating; make central file access more practical as well (because I/O latency is minimized through proximity); and better protect the result because the resources, both processing and storage, can be kept in a more secure area than a cubicle or employee’s home. On this last, working from home becomes both safer and more easily accommodated.
In terms of hardware, VCA will support 16 virtual simultaneous workstation sessions with the advantage of not only a better and more consistent use of these expensive resources, but potentially lower I/O latency because the storage would likely be placed in the same rack in close proximity.
Wrapping Up: VCA + AWS
A variety of vendors is now beginning to build systems customized for cloud deployments. Given that services like AWS were showing massive cost advantages when they used more traditional hardware, this focus on optimized hardware will undoubtedly make cloud services, particularly desktop virtualization, even at a workstation level, even more financially attractive. Hey, if you didn’t like change, you likely should have picked a different industry.