Sometimes the conversations you have in the hallway are the most interesting. Earlier in the year, I was at the Collaboration and Interoperability Conference in Denver, and was chatting with a man who works for Boeing. He mentioned that the company’s main CATIA infrastructure for the 787 Dreamliner is located in Everett, Washington, where their main production line is. When engineers at the second production line, in North Charleston, South Carolina, need access to CATIA, they use desktop virtualization. They run CATIA on machines in Everett (apparently they have a rack of computers configured just for that purpose there), but view the screen remotely, at their computers in South Carolina.
This didn’t really surprise me. Desktop and application virtualization software has been around awhile. If you’ve ever participated in a GoToMeeting session, or joined in a GoToWebinar session, you’ve seen a form of desktop virtualization. What surprised me was what this fellow from Boeing said about performance: The engineers in South Carolina actually experienced better CATIA performance than the engineers in Everett. Why? Because the computers they have configured for remote CATIA access are bigger, faster, and have better GPUs than the ones that the local engineers have on their desks.
Is it possible to actually use an average everyday computer to remotely access a CAD machine over the Internet, and get good performance? Turns out it is.
Citrix, the developer of GoToMeeting and GoToWebinar, is one of the major players in the virtualization business. They’ve been collaboration with GPU and computer vendors to develop a series of Design Engineer Virtual Workstation solutions, based on their XenApp and XenDesktop products.
For these solutions to work, they need to provide both high performance, and really good image quality. The key to this is in using GPU based hardware rendering, and a really good codec, to compress the screen output. Citrix offers three levels of increasing performance: XenDesktop with RemoteFX, XenApp HDX 3D with hardware acceleration for DirectX, and XenDesktop HXD 3D Pro. Here’s a chart that shows their relative rendering performance and bandwidth efficiency:
But the question still remains: Can you really do serious work from a regular desktop or notebook computer (or even a tablet) while your CAD software is running on a machine in a data center thousands of miles away?
Apparently you can. For example, ABB has started to use XenDesktop HDX Pro3D to allow users in India to run Siemens PLM Solid Edge and Zuken’s E³.series software hosted on on servers in Switzerland. According to Manuel Killer, Project Manager for CAx Technologies at ABB Schweiz, “The desktop performance and integration of peripheral devices functioned smoothly. The CAD users in India have confirmed that they can work productively with the Citrix technology.”
Desktop and application virtualization offers some compelling benefits, not the least of which is that your valuable data stays in your data center, where it’s not likely to be stolen, and you can work anywhere you want (including the local Starbucks, if they don’t mind you hogging network bandwidth.) It’s not a new technology—companies have been using it for years to provide remote access to applications such as Microsoft Office or SAP. But, with improvements in GPU technology, it’s practical for use with demanding CAD applications.
Yet there’s more to this story. The very newest generation of GPUs, such as the NVIDIA VGX K2 , are designed for hardware virtualization. VGX provides direct access to the GPU frame buffer, maintaining high performance even with large 3D models. Citrix expects their NVIDIA VGX-accelerated XenDesktop platform to be able to serve up to 100 users with a single multi-GPU graphics card, using both OpenGL and DirectX.
While it’s not likely that serious CAD users would be interested in using shared GPUs, there are a lot of second-tier applications, such as viewing and collaboration, where this might be perfectly fine. The technology really opens up possibilities for giving secure access to 3D data to larger numbers of users.
Citrix is putting quite a bit of work into building reference architectures and certifications for their Design Engineer Virtual Workstation solutions. They’re working with an ecosystem of partners, including system vendors, graphics card hardware providers, professional graphics software, systems and graphics card hardware providers and systems integrators, to deliver reference designs and best practice guidelines. I expect CAD workstation virtualization is going to become a lot more common in the future.