A demo at this week’s .Next conference in Anaheim gave a snapshot of how far modern VDI has come. Virtual desktops should not be considered just as an option for users who only require low computing needs. During the demo, Nikola Bozinovic, vice president and general manager at Nutanix showed how it was possible to mask out the infamous Starbucks cup scene in Game of Thrones, editing a 4k, 60 frames per second video clip in Adobe Premiere Pro streamed to his Chrome browser, via Nutanix’ new Frame product. This enables the user interface on a Windows desktop to appear in an HTML 5-capable browser.
The year of VDI
Bozinovic believes 2019 is the year VDI finally breaks through into the mainstream. Since Citrix pioneered virtual desktop, it has been possible to stream the Windows user interface to thin client devices. Enterprises IT could create a gold image of the user’s desktop environment and provide secure access to it. But while it was certainly secure, and ensured a stable and robust desktop image could be streamed to users, it tended to be deployed to provide access to relatively simple applications such as providing Excel spreadsheet access. Since the application of VDI tended to be for lightweight user access to PC resources, IT generally did not consider virtual desktops as viable for mainstream desktop computing.
What has now changed? For Bozinovic the light bulb moment happened on March 19, when Google unveiled Stadia, a 4k stream gaming platform. Bozinovic says that Stadia shows how VDI can now make use of GPU acceleration (graphics processing units), to stream computationally and graphics intensive games to players direct to their web browser or via YouTube. Stadia is set to become the platform for next generation VDI, using its open source Vulcan GPU drivers to stream a new generation of graphics-intensive games running on AMD graphics chips. Dov Zimring, Google Stadia developer platform product lead, said: “Google and AMD share a commitment to open-source with expertise in Vulkan, open-source Vulkan GPU drivers, and open-source graphics optimisation tools. We’re humbled by the spirit of innovation and collaboration that exists throughout the gaming industry and look forward to pioneering the future of graphics technology with game developers, in open-source.”
What Stadia means for enterprise IT
For enterprise IT, this announcement represents the consumerisation of virtual desktops. No longer will VDI be regarded as only suitable for low graphics applications, people will be streaming high performance games at home and wonder why high performance graphics application can’t be streamed at work.
In a work environment, end users won’t require ultra high end engineering workstations to run computer aided design, video editing or other GPU-intensive applications. They will, however, still require ultra high definition, colour accurate displays with fast, flicker-fee refresh rates, to use the graphics applications comfortably. But, the raw processing power is available on the back end, and the user interface can be streamed.
If the gaming industry gets behind the idea of streaming GPU-intensive PC games, consumers will no longer need high-end gaming machines. Anyone, with a fast connection will be able to access gaming streams. For the gamers, their experience will be measured based on the quality of their display, network latency, audio and input devices.
In the enterprise, the IT industry looks like it is warming to the idea of using a PC as a thin client for desktop as a service (DaaS). The basic hardware just needs to run a browser like Chrome really well. Any resources, whether it is CPU, GPU, memory, storage or network bandwidth required to run resource-heavy PC applications, can simply be dialled up and down as needed in the cloud, or via the admin console on the back-end VDI. The applications are no longer limited by the restrictions imposed by the physical PC hardware.
None of this is new. Thin clients have existed almost since the dawn of computing. One could argue a VT100 terminal provided a means to stream the text-based user interface on a mainframe applications. Today, the reality is that Windows desktop applications are not going away. If Windows application developers start reworking their software to optimise them for VDI, desktop IT could be reimagined as a streamed service.