Is Cloud-Based CAD Ready for Prime Time? Part 131 May, 2014 By: Alex Herrera
Herrera on Hardware: Centralized, server-side graphical computing technology is on the upswing. Should you care where your computer is?
After years of working in the era of the personal computer, we've all grown accustomed to the familiar sight of a PC or workstation tower under our desks, or a notebook or mobile workstation on our laps. But with a host of new technologies and solutions coming to market — backed by the biggest names in computing silicon, systems, and software — CAD users may need to adjust their expectations about where their computers reside.
Server-based computing (SBC) is back in the IT limelight. Granted, it has taken a different shape than in the past, and marches under several different banners: cloud computing, virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), client consolidation infrastructure (CCI), and hosted virtual desktops (HVD), to name a few. But while they may differ in implementation, they share one fundamental goal: to move the data and heavy computation and rendering away from distributed desktops and toward a central resource, accessible by many users rather than one. Not only does general operating system (OS) and application processing happen on the server, so does rendering, with image pixel data transmitted from host to client.
The implementations may vary, but SBC approaches share the same basic centralized topology. Image courtesy of HP.
While this recent momentum in SBC technology is unlikely to result in a one-size-fits-all computing panacea, the landscape for professional graphics certainly looks to be shifting, as new solutions are coming to market promising the benefits of SBC with workstation-caliber visual performance (wSBC).
Now, this certainly isn't the first time the industry has promoted a move to a more centralized computing model — far from it. Rather, this latest pursuit can simply be viewed as the latest wave in the long ebb-and-flow history of client/server computing. At various times in the past, the prevailing wisdom was to pack the horsepower and data users need day-to-day into the desktop unit, leaving the server as a data backup and batch computing engine. Then just a few years later, that concept of client-heavy computing would become decidedly passé, as server-centric computing once again emerged as the hot trend.
In the 1980s and into the ‘90s, the emergence of the workstation and PC pushed computation away from mainframes and minis onto desktops, spurred by the emergence of Windows and the demand for rich graphics not achievable at the time with a server-centric model. In the late ‘90s and early ‘00s the concept once again moved to the forefront, driven by the argument that IT build and maintenance costs could be dramatically curtailed by centralizing compute capabilities in the datacenter and replacing expensive "thick" deskbound clients with cheaper, simplified "thin clients."
Benefits for the CAD Community
Exploring the promised benefits of SBC, it's not hard to see why the technology is once again at the forefront, piquing the interest of many in professional computing segments such as CAD. First and foremost, it offers access to what you want, when you want it, from wherever you like, by tapping into a singular, secure database. In addition, it can provide the following benefits.
Global collaboration with 24-hour productivity. With a centralized visual computing model, users don't have to be in their office, or even on the same continent. This feature is especially valuable for modern enterprises whose workforces are scattered across the globe. With a wSBC solution, a product designer updating his or her design in a central database can share progress instantly with the rest of the team, wherever they happen to be.
It also provides the means to accomplish what was once a pipe dream for individuals and teams scattered around the world: working in a daytime-driven pipeline, where one team picks up in the morning, just as another is going home at sunset.
Security. For many, the single most compelling feature of a centralized computing topology is security. The reason is obvious: Data remains “behind the glass,” and only pixels leave the physical premises. Even the pixel streams can be secured via encryption. And with a stateless "zero client," the lack of any persistent state or full-fledged OS makes it virtually impossible to probe or hack with conventional malware. While it's an important issue to all businesses, security is of paramount concern to many in CAD-reliant product design, where protecting intellectual property under development is critical — especially when it's not the property of the designer, but of the designer's client.
More sensible allocation of computing resources for big-data applications. The benefits of centralizing data in workstation applications are many, particularly as the sheer volume of visual computing data continues to explode. In the world of digital media, just a few minutes of a Hollywood-caliber scene shot in 4K and captured raw can exceed 100 GB. And in CAD, model sizes can range from under 1 GB for a modest consumer product to 25 GB or more for a detailed aircraft design.
Storing and transferring raw data of that magnitude from workstation to workstation can chew up hours, shrink productivity, and open the door to security breaches. By retaining the data in one central location instead, where it is accessible by client computers located on- or offsite, a wSBC solution eliminates the complexity and overhead (storage and bandwidth) of copying databases.
A client-agnostic approach and a tool for managing BYOD. In addition to the maximum-security zero client, compatible clients include OS X Macs and Windows PCs running PCoIP software clients. Typically designed to be client-agnostic, wSBC solutions are an effective tool to address bring-your-own-device (BYOD) issues in the enterprise today, while providing an infrastructure that can adapt with an evolving, heterogeneous computing landscape.
The promise of workstation-caliber SBC: visual data accessible anywhere, anytime, and on (virtually) any device. Image courtesy of Nvidia.
Simplified IT management. SBC solutions can ease the burden and complexity of IT management in more ways than one. Keeping traditional clients up-to-date with consistent configurations and resolving hardware/software issues has become a productivity-robbing time sink. Leveraging a centralized architecture can ease deployment, updates, and upgrades. IT personnel can deploy, monitor, and manage devices individually, or broadcast settings to large groups for fast and consistent configuration, security settings, firmware, backups ... even remote power management.
CAD Professionals Won’t Be Left Behind This Time
While it would be a stretch to state that SBC has become any kind of dominant computing model, it has absolutely gained a foothold in the enterprise with VDI. And that foothold is steadily expanding, buoyed by compelling and timely benefits for users of simpler desktops, composed primarily of basic 2D graphics and text.
Unfortunately, despite all the goodness SBC offers, its benefits have so far completely eluded one key computing contingent. Professionals engaged in high-performance visualization — particularly those plying their trade in CAD — have been insulated from the prevailing winds pushing computation back to the datacenter. Rather, professional-grade visual computing today universally relies on highly equipped mobile and deskside workstations to carry the bulk of the workload.
But that may all be changing, because that current client-heavy computing paradigm is once again being challenged by SBC proponents, armed with a slew of new products and technology from vendors like Citrix, VMware, Intel, Nvidia, AMD, HP, Dell, Fujitsu, and Teradici. And this time, those vendors are promising that professionals engaged in workstation-caliber computing in spaces like CAD aren't going to be left behind.
Technical Challenges of an Effective SBC Model
With so much going for it, you might be wondering why the SBC approach hasn’t already taken over the computing landscape. Why isn’t everyone running CAD in the cloud today, having traded in their bulky, hot, and noisy deskside towers for relatively svelte and innocuous thin clients?
Well, the lack of the technology's theoretical advantages has never been the problem; everyone's sold on those. What's proven difficult is demonstrating that the theory can translate to reality. For many reasons — both technical and not — previous-generation SBC architectures simply could not deliver the high-performance visual experience CAD users have come to expect from their traditional, trusted workstations.
I'll get to those reasons in the next part of this series on CAD in the cloud. And in Part Three, we'll take a look at a new generation of SBC solutions designed to address those issues, and weigh in on whether it will finally deliver on that ultimate goal of a workstation-caliber visual computing experience for CAD.
Read "Is Cloud-Based CAD Ready for Prime Time? Part 2" here.
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