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Virtual Desktops Are Not Ready for Us October 20, 2011

Posted by audiomatron in Uncategorized.

On the road to “The Cloud”, one starts by virtualizing server workloads. The logical next step, then, is to move away from traditional physical desktops and into virtual desktops. Having become somewhat of a VMware fanboy of late, I decided to explore that next step down the road to “The Cloud”. It actually started with an email, in which I responded to one of my more influential user’s complaints of a certain application being slow over the WAN, with “if we had virtual desktops located in the data center here, we wouldn’t have that problem”. This piqued his interests, and while my above statement about virtual desktops is true, the civil engineering business (the business for which I work) presents a whole slew of challanges that, simply put, desktop virtualization is not quite ready to meet. We ran into those challanges during a month-long test in which we put a VMware View virtual desktop throug the paces of life in a civil engineering firm.

What I Hoped to Accomplish

I sincerely hoped to revolutionize the way in which we do business. Particularly, I was enticed by the idea of being able to have locally hosted desktops brokered by VMware View, over the public internet, thus doing away with the need for our costly T1 WAN connections. Additionally, I had hoped to make life easier for my users in our remote offices by making slow data access over the WAN a thing of the past. Ideally, if I could have all desktops local, sending only screen refreshes over the internet to my users in the other offices, it would allow them to enjoy the same data access speeds that local users in our main office have come to expect. At the same time I could justify the cost of implementation by saving my company literally thousands of dollars a month on out T1 WAN links that my remote users currently use to access their data. In just about any other type of business, this would be the way to go, but in civil engineering there are challanges that make desktop virtualization somewhat less attractive.

The Challanges

By far, the biggest challange we faced during our experiment (and I knew this would be an issue up front) can be summed up by one name and three syllables: AutoCAD. More specifically, the version of AutoCAD we use is called AutoCAD Civil 3D, and it is a hog. In order to effectively run Civil 3D, an ordinary business class desktop won’t do. You need a workstation class machine. My typical configuration for a CAD workstation is a quad core Xeon processor, 8GB of RAM, and an nVidia Quadro FX graphics card. The price of such workstation often approaches that of a server.

In order to get a virtual desktop to run Civil 3D at even a somewhat acceptable level of performance, I had to create a monster VM. I started out with 4 vCPUs, and 4GB of RAM. The user who was using the desktop complained that Civil 3D was performing sluggishly, so I increased the resources. The configuration that was even bearable for AutoCAD use was a VM with 6 vCPUs, and 6GB of RAM, 3D turned on, and 128Mb of video memory. On a physical host with dual quad core processors and 8GB of RAM (it’s all I have for testing), this ate up nearly all of the system resources.

To my mind, one of the advantages of desktop virtualization (or server virtualization for that matter) is consolidation ratio – running many VMs on few peices of physical hardware. Since our typical desktop workload necessitates running very large VMs, unless we purchased very big, expensive servers on which to run the desktops, consolitation ratios go out the window. Even with a powerful server I wouldn’t imagine we would be able to run very many AutoCAD workloads on the same server. All hope was not lost, however, since I had another trick up my sleeve.

Plan “B”

It was apparent that I wasn’t going to get what I needed out of a virtual desktop, but that was no reason to give up just yet. VMware View can also broker connections to physical PCs. After a bit of research, I discovered that in order to get the desired desktop experience using VMware View to connect to a physical desktop, I would need to purchase a PCoIP host card. This would allow me to use the PCoIP (PC over IP) protocol to connect to my physical workstation, and let it do all of the video rendering. In this way, even though I couldn’t get the consolidation that virtual desktops offer, I could still re-locate my users PCs to our data center, and hopefully give them the same benefits that my local users enjoy. Apparently, not so.

I ordered the PCoIP host card – an EVGA HD02. I installed the card into a Dell Precision Workstation T5500, installed the host driver that View needs to connect to it, and added it to my pool in VMware View. Now, I try not to strongly criticize any product when I write, but the video performance, on a local gigabit network, was horrid. Sure, I could tell that the machine was actually performing better than its VM counterpart, but the video streaming to my VMware View client was quite choppy (for lack of a better word). You can opt to use Windows’ cursor, or one provided by the PCoIP driver. I chose the latter since the Windows one was unbearably laggy. Even worse, the large crosshairs in AutoCAD that my users like to use were so slow that they were nearly unusable. I let a couple of my CAD power users, who had tried my VM earlier, try it, and, to put it bluntly, they hated it. The video from the VM actually performed BETTER.

I do recall reading that just one or two versions ago, hardware PCoIP through VMware View was “experimental” – perhaps it still is. I haven’t put this issue to rest yet, though. I have tried a firmware update to my PCoIP card. I’ve tried different types of encryption. I’ve tried turning off SSL. I’ve tried everything I could find that even remotely sounded like it might work. At the time of this writing, I have a ticket in with Teradici, the manufacturer of the PCoIP chipset on this card, in hopes that they may have a solution for me. If I find out anything helpful, I will post an update here. Still, this is a bit disappointing since the card wasn’t cheap, and Teradici’s target audience is users like…well…mine!

Other Challanges

We deal with a large amount of printed material such as engineering plans and contract documents. It is a very frequent occurrence for us to have to scan something. In fact, we scan thousands of pages a month. Many of my users have Fujitsu ScanSnap desktop scanners. Using these scanners through VMware View over the internet is painful to say the least. We ran into some other smaller things that, like the scanning issue could be overcome with a little creativity, but the big issue mentioned above really makes the smaller ones superfluous.

Conclusion/Other thoughts

If you work for an accounting firm, an insurance company, or any other business that doesn’t require $2500.00 machines to run your desktop applications, then run, don’t walk to go virtualize your desktops. It will change the way you do business. For that matter, there are even use cases in our business where virtual desktops might be beneficial – I may still give it a serious look for our secretaries, receptionists, accountants, materials testing lab workers…IT managers. However, the vast majority of my users need more power that we can squeeze out of virtual desktops in a cost effective manner. Virtual desktops are simply not ready for the civil engineering world!

As is my custom now, I must ask… have any of you tried this? Have you been successful at virtualizing AutoCAD workloads? I’d love to hear about it if you have!



1. Mark Breaux - October 25, 2011

Have you tried panologic? I don’t have autocad users but I first started my virtual desktop project for 40 users using PcoIP. The protocol in my opinion is not that great. The vms were usable but had some noticeable lag especially when opening up programs and maximizing/minimizing. I was told by Vmware that the new version (5) would fix some of these issues but they have not. I also demoed the panologic devices which use their own protocol (PDP). The pano devices are true zero clients and are really small. We don’t see any lag and the vms run much smoother. We have a gigabit network and two branch offices. I have not tried our branch offices yet but we will most like host vms at the branch locations instead of having them in the WAN. This is mainly because of disaster recovery and the ability for our branch offices to run autonomously.

audiomatron - November 4, 2011

I had not heard of Panologic. I’ll have to give it a look. However, right now I’m waiting to see if my Dell rep. can get her VMware rep to get me in on the private beta for the nVidia quadro virtual graphics program. I believe that will be key to doing this right.

2. ITforMe - November 30, 2011

Funny that I ran across this. I’m deploying a pilot VDI project (View 5) against our vSphere 5 cluster, and have one high end workstation that I just installed an eVGA HD02 on. The “laggy” effect you described on the hardware based PCoIP (using View as the connection broker) was very obvious. The experience was actually much better on the VM’s that I was serving up in my cluster. We have some remote developers in Argentina that just tried it out. They are dealing with an unbearable 300ms delay, so I was curious to see how it would pan out. They were stunned by the great performance of the PCoIP based View connection to their VM’s that they were traditionally VPN and RDP’ing into. These were on Win7 VM’s running on ESXi hosts that unfortunately do not even support the new “3D acceleration” in vSphere 5. So all of that was encouraging. …I’m hoping there are some ways to fix the Hardware based PCoIP.

I plan to post my experiences on http://itforme.wordpress.com

By the way, I was an AutoCad drafter about 15+ years ago, so the particulars around its needs are near and dear to me. I’m the Systems Administrator for a company that makes software for data visualization, so again, we are in a similar boat. There is really encouraging news on the front of VDI when it comes to scenarios that have traditionaly relied on GPU performance. Take a look at some of these links.


audiomatron - December 1, 2011

Lol.. the day after I wrote this, I read about the nVidia Quadro virtual graphics platform that you link to there. I even wrote a post about it.

I was actually using view 5 in my experiment. I let one of my CAD power users try out the virtual desktop, and he said it wasn’t bad. Still, I think this forthcoming nVidia solution is the key to a viable VDI solution for CAD/graphics people. I’m trying to get my Dell rep to talk to her VMware people about getting me in on the beta for it, but no luck yet. I might have to find someone else to bug about it.

As far as the hardware PCoIP, if this nVidia virtual graphics thing turns out to be good, hardware PCoIP would be pointless. Even if you could only get 2-4 virtual CAD desktops out of a server, it would be more cost effective and take up less rack space than having to buy dedicated workstations for each user.

I’m glad to see someone else had a similar experience to mine!

3. 2012 dodge challenger - September 25, 2014

2012 dodge challenger

Virtual Desktops Are Not Ready for Us | who made ME an expert anyway?

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