November 9, 2015
The devout workstation users are the last stronghold that virtualization vendors have been trying to breach. Others—general consumers, knowledge workers, and enterprise software users—have already embraced the freedom that comes with mobile devices and tablet clients. But the workstation crowd is different.
At Jon Peddie Research (JPR) Virtualize Conference two weeks ago, in a session devoted to “Best Practices for Large and Small Companies,” Gary Radburn, Director of Workstation Virtualization at Dell, observed, “[Workstation users] are very proud of their workstations. A workstation-using engineer feels valued by the size of the box, the memory and the GPU in it. If you change that with a thin client without telling them, they’d probably be upset.”
The success of the campaign, as it turned out, depends as much on psychology as it does on technology. Radburn advised, “Involve the users from Day One. Don’t suddenly go in there and, thinking you’re doing them a favor, replace what’s on their desk [with a thin client device]. You’re trying to increase productivity, not to destroy their morale.”
JPR recently published “Virtualization and Remote Graphics: a special report on the users and potential users of virtualized systems,” based on survey responses from 350 participants. The goal, JPR states, is “to determine if the [senior] managers knew about virtualization, had tried it, or were planning to try it.”
Remote graphics—graphics features generally available in physical GPUs made available remotely to virtual machines—is considered to be a critical issue in virtualization adoption among design and engineering software users who rely on digital prototypes to make critical decisions. If the quality of the visuals on virtual machines is not comparable to what the users are accustomed to on physical workstations, they’ll most likely reject virtualization as a poor substitute for real workstations.
Survey responses suggest GPU maker NVIDIA is leading the awareness campaign. 25% say they are aware of the NVIDIA Grid virtualization solution. 15% are aware of offerings from Citrix, and 9% of those from Intel. More than a third—33%—indicate they’re not aware of any, suggesting providers need to do a better job with outreach and awareness campaigns.
Respondents also give virtualization vendors some encouraging signs. More than 70% think remote access to their office workstation from home is quite interesting, and more than 50% think it’s very interesting. Similarly, more than 60% say remote access to office workstation from the road is quite interesting, and more than 50% think it’s very interesting. The survey also asks responds to give a reason if they indicate they’re not interested in remote workstation access. “The biggest reason for not adopting virtualization is listed as no productivity gain,” according to JPR.
When asked, “If you were to employ remote graphics would it be for all of your applications or just one?,” 32% say for all, 27% for one. The remaining 41% say they don’t know. But a whopping 52% indicate that they’re aware that GPUs could be shared in a virtualized setup—a key benefits of virtualization. An overwhelming 75% believe “there is, or will be a benefit to using a virtualized GPU/workstation.”
By and large, IT departments are the gatekeepers that virtualization vendors have to convince. 31% of the respondents reveal they’ll acquire virtualized systems from their IT. Only 8% say they’ll get it directly from the supplier. Only a fraction says they’ll turn to systems integrators, VARs, and software providers.
At the conference, SPEC (Standard Performance Evaluation Corporation) led a panel discussion titled “Benchmarking virtualized processors.” The session sought to find out the truth in “claims being made about performance,” according to the organizers. Many workstation makers regularly cite SPECviewperf scores as the hallmark of quality in their hardware. As custodians of widely adopted performance benchmarks, SPEC plays a crucial role in establishing a set of fair, reasonable standards for assessing the capacity of virtual machines.
SPEC maintains the SPECvirt benchmark for evaluating virtualized data centers. It measures “the end-to-end performance of all system components including the hardware, virtualization platform, and the virtualized guest operating system and application software,” according to SPEC.
Bob Cramblitt, SPEC’s PR spokesperson, clarified, “SPECvirt supports hardware virtualization, operating system virtualization, and hardware partitioning schemes. The SPEC workstation benchmark, SPECwpc, also measures virtualization based on specific business and industrial applications, as does SPECviewperf for graphics-intensive applications. The recently introduced SPECjbb2015 also supports performance measurement for virtualized hosts. In all of these cases, virtualized performance is measured at the system level based on real-world applications and not isolated for processors alone, although in the case of SPECwpc one could isolate performance results for CPU-intensive tasks.”
SPECwpc V2.0 is set to be released next week, Cramblitt said.
Since GPU-sharing is one of the economic benefits of virtualization, the latency, interactivity, and photo-realism associated with virtual machines is expected to be a major factor shaping the user’s experience. Kathleen Maher, JPR’s VP and the editor-in-chief of JPR TechWatch, observed, “No conclusion was reached [by the panelists] other than to acknowledge that this is going to be a thorny and probably contentious issue, but one that has to be dealt with ...”
Dell’s Radburn offers an argument he thinks will persuade the workstation users to relinquish their cherished hardware: “Point outside their window the sales and marketing folks working in coffee shops, fields, and beaches, then say, Wouldn’t you like a slice of that life?”
JPR’s Maher said, “We think that virtualization is the next step, and a very big one towards making the technology invisible. Normal humans were not born to become IT experts when they want to communicate with their friends, do their jobs, or create art.”
Revision notes: This entry was updated with quotes from SPEC spokesperson Bob Cramblitt with clarification on SPEC benchmarks for virtualization.