Harnessing the Cloud for CAD: The Case for Virtual Workstations, Part 316 Aug, 2017 By: Alex Herrera
Once you’ve decided to bring cloud-hosted virtual workstations into your workflow, you’ll need to tackle a host of additional decisions about platforms, providers, and instances.
Like Frame, Cloudalize offers a cloud-based platform for virtual workstations, accessible via any HTML5-capable browser. The recently launched and appropriately branded GDaaS business currently makes five virtual workstation models available for rent, either hourly or monthly. Of the five, the top three — the M608, M604, and M620 models — would be appropriate for the bulk of CAD, AEC, and building information modeling (BIM) users to consider. Hardware capabilities for the three roughly correlate to what’s typically available today in high-end, mid-range, and entry workstations, respectively. Worth noting is that, outside of the M608, Cloudalize does not advertise a specific level of GPU resource allocation (in this case, Nvidia GPU CUDA cores). That’s likely because GDaaS provides both dedicated GPU access and vGPU support, with the latter sharing GPU resources across multiple concurrent clients.
CPU, GPU, and memory resources allocated to each of Cloudalize GDaaS’s virtual machine instances.
Frame and Cloudalize aren’t they only cloud platform service providers looking to entice businesses in CAD, AEC, BIM, and geographic information systems (GIS); other vendors are betting on this new paradigm as well, including Outscale, Secure-24, and NaviSite. These user bases are not only well suited to virtual workstation usage and benefits, they also represent the largest pool of potential customers. But both Frame and Cloudalize support multiple cloud platforms, including AWS and Azure, and both are application-agnostic, built to present a customizable cloud portal for theoretically any application.
Not so for another platform, Onshape (although honestly, calling Onshape a platform isn’t particularly accurate, as it creates a complete 3D CAD solution that happens to be built on top of an AWS cloud infrastructure). The company manages its own app store that provides users access to content and complementary tools and plugins, but its CAD software is the backbone of the design workflow. That is, if you buy into Onshape, you are buying into not only the cloud but the core application and framework as well.
It’s also worth noting that Onshape doesn’t use server-side GPUs at all, instead relying on WebGL, which takes advantage of the GPU resources available on the client. That reliance could be an advantage or drawback, depending on what you’re using for a client, how good its GPU is, and just as importantly, how robust and well supported your WebGL driver is.
Onshape’s “full cloud” CAD environment. Image courtesy of Onshape.
Look Beyond Available Virtual Workstation Instances
Narrowing down choices in providers will likely start with the types of virtual workstation models each provides, but it won’t end there. Several other considerations will bubble to the top as you start shopping for the cloud environment you need, including software, storage, and administration tools and support.
Start with the operating system and applications your workflow requires. Compatibility and reliability shouldn’t typically be an issue with popular Windows client operating systems and apps that run natively on them — that’s the goal of a true virtual machine — but some due diligence is required to ensure your key applications are certified, or at least supported to run. For example, Nvidia certifies applications that run on any GRID-powered remote virtual environment. If they’re not certified, they still may work fine, but there is a risk that any possible bugs won’t get fixed, at least not with high priority. You also may want to find out if you can bring your own application licenses and install directly, or even transfer the entire image, if that’s of importance. Azure, for example, allows customers to bring their own image for NV instances. And whether or not storage is persistent from session to session is probably going to matter.
Many look to the cloud specifically for simplifying IT management and troubleshooting. But while the burden for any problem-solving will most likely fall on the provider, the end customer will typically want at least a moderate level of control over things like provisioning, authentication, backups, patches, and updates. For example, IT administrators may need the ability to export corporate directory credentials like ActiveDirectory to enable single sign-on (SSO) authentication.
Coming Next: Network Concerns
With graphics, computes, and data on the other side of a network, a remote virtualized computing experience is only going to be as good and secure as the network that connects to it, along with whatever end clients and peripherals live on the other side, at the desk. And that goes twice for the cloud. Watch for the next installment of this series for more insight into the concerns and choices of securing a network, client, and peripherals capable of a remote cloud workstation experience that feels local.