Hardware-based 3D graphics acceleration brings CAD to remote corners

Graphics acceleration technology improves virtual desktop performance at the VM level, not over the network. One company deployed it for heavy-duty field work in the boondocks.

With hardware-based 3D graphics acceleration, it is relatively simple to deliver high-performance, graphics intensive applications -- even to very remote staff.

One company I observed uses VMware Horizon View and NVIDIA GRID cards to deliver heavy-duty, computer-aided design (CAD) applications to field employees who are building accommodations for mine workers in the middle of nowhere. Without VDI, the company would have needed to send graphics workstations to remote construction sites, then worked out how to synchronize large architectural design files over 4G -- or, more often, 3G -- networks. A mine site might be hundreds of miles from the nearest town, so there's no chance of a wired broadband connection. Surprisingly, the accommodation compounds do have good cellular coverage, as that was built out early in the process.

As you would expect, designs need to be available on site, and they typically require some updates because the site doesn't always match the design. It isn't economical to set up an office full of architects on site because the locations are so remote. So the architects do design work in the city and use VDI with hardware graphics acceleration to deliver their results to the site.

Sharing graphics acceleration cards

Hardware-based 3D graphics acceleration makes highly visual applications responsive inside a VM. Without hardware graphics acceleration, these applications become sluggish and struggle to display images onto the desktop screen. This problem is not related to network latency, and increasing or better utilizing bandwidth cannot fix it.

Graphics acceleration makes highly visual applications responsive inside a VM.

In the city office are two VMware ESXi servers with NVIDIA GRID cards that actually run the virtual desktops. The CAD application doesn't need the fastest possible 3D graphics acceleration, which means multiple desktops can share the card's resources. Being in the city office with a broadband internet connection, these desktops have fast access to the shared drives where the design files reside. Horizon View security servers, a standard part of the product, publish the desktops to the internet.

On site, the engineers use laptops -- usually 13-inch MacBook Air laptops -- which have excellent battery life and are thin and light. The engineers each have a hotspot device that provides internet access for their laptops using a cellular data connection. A USB data stick would also be an option for connectivity; even better would be a laptop with built-in 4G. The Horizon View Client on each Mac then renders the virtual desktop in full screen.

A 3D graphics acceleration demo

I saw a demonstration of this system from a training center in another city. One of my students used a MacBook Air to connect to a desktop over the training center's Wi-Fi. This connection wasn't quite as challenging as one from the boondocks, but it was inter-city, so it was still not the best-case scenario.

I saw a 3D model of a bungalow on screen. The image smoothly rotated and changed on the screen in three dimensions with no stuttering or visible screen redraws. Bear in mind that a MacBook Air is one of Apple's lowest-performance machines; it is designed for great battery life, not great performance.

All of this heavy-duty computing happened in real time, as if the engineers had a high-performance CAD workstation in front of them, all while on a cellular connection in the middle of nowhere -- thanks to hardware graphics acceleration. 

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