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GPU virtualization aids app performance, BYOD

A Midwestern college recently added NVIDIA technology to its Citrix environment to enable use of a graphically complex app.

GPU virtualization not only improves the performance of graphics-rich apps, but can also expand access to such apps in the era of BYOD.

A Midwestern liberal arts college recently faced a significant problem around desktop and app access for students and faculty. Computers on campus were about a 50/50 split between PCs and Apple MacBooks, and with many apps designed for Windows use, virtualized environments on Macs weren't acceptable.

"It was time-consuming and cumbersome for the students," said Chris Mielke, the school's infrastructure services lead. "They didn't have very good performance and ran into lots of problems with apps crashing."

The school opted for a fully virtualized desktop and app environment from Citrix XenApp and XenDesktop, based on the XenServer hypervisor. This provided a more consistent environment and better access to apps at any time from any device.

Graphics accelerated

Citrix's products weren't enough to improve performance for one particular app, however. Students who studied subjects involving geographic information systems at the school use ArcGIS, an app produced by Esri Inc. of Redlands, Calif. ArcGIS maps out topographical models and performs that modeling within the app.

The app is very graphics-intensive and broke down when used within the Citrix environment without any graphics acceleration, Mielke said.

"Even with one user, [performance] was marginal, and if you added any number of users to it, the performance became abysmal very quickly," Mielke said.

A technology consulting firm suggested the school consider NVIDIA Corp.'s GRID technology for GPU virtualization to accelerate the graphics for the ArcGIS app. The school borrowed a GRID K2 card to test within its environment and found it improved the ArcGIS user experience and performance.

[Performance] was much better even than the physical lab environment we had previously.
Chris Mielkecollege infrastructure services lead

"We did a load test with several instances rendering an image at the same time and the performance was amazingly better," Mielke said. "It was much better even than what we were getting with the physical lab environment we had previously."

In addition to better performance, another benefit of the NVIDIA technology is it allows users to access ArcGIS from devices outside that physical computer lab environment, which was previously the only way to access the app.

Mielke couldn't recall what other companies besides NVIDIA the school considered for graphics acceleration, but said it did consider other NVIDIA graphics cards before it selected GRID K2. That card was picked because it was specifically designed to work within the Citrix environment, Mielke said.

Companies that compete with NVIDIA include Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and Qualcomm Inc.

The school has two NVIDIA GRID K2 cards with two GPUs per card and it can load balance as many users as it wants on those GPUs.

"There's a tipping point to that in terms of performance," Mielke said. "If you get too many users on one specific server, you will see performance degradation. But there's no hard and fast limit."

The school hasn't run into any significant issues with NVIDIA and doesn't have any specific plans to expand its usage of NVIDIA products. It may look to test using NVIDIA with its campus-wide deployment of Microsoft Office 2013 within the virtual desktop environment to see if that will offer improved performance, Mielke said.

Jake O'Donnell is the news writer for SearchConsumerization and Search VirtualDesktop. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @JakeODonnell_TT.

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