The Cloud Breathes New Life Into Workstations

Far from killing the workstation, cloud computing enhances it, vaulting high-end PCs into the realm of supercomputers.

By Brian Proffitt | Posted Jan 11, 2011
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Conventional wisdom, if there is such a thing, suggests that the rise of cloud computing will bring a resurgence of thin-client technology back to the corporate workplace. While this is true, the cloud may also be the harbinger of the workstation--high-end personal computers that, when coupled with the cloud, could bring more disruption to the supercomputing sector.

This seems counterintuitive, since the promise of cloud computing was to shift computational workload from the client in the client-server model back to the servers. The end user only needs a browser to access web-based apps, the reasoning continues, so why give them anything more than a thin-client with a big network pipe?

In many situations, this is indeed the case. There is even a trending extreme of this line of thought: zero client machines provide appliance-like functionality while absorbing little power and ease-of-use and -maintenance, thanks to centralized over-the-wire administration.

But increasingly, IT managers are seeing a trend in the other direction: more powerful PCs that can easily be classified as workstations. Bigger CPUs, faster graphics, and upwards of 20 Gb of RAM--these are machines that are designed to do a lot of local processing.

The idea, it seems, is to take advantage of cloud technology and economics and use workstations to bring high-performance computing (HPC) capabilities to the corporate user or any user connected to the Internet with a big enough connection. To accomplish this, cloud vendors are working with applications that live and do some work on the local workstation, but then shunt much of the workload out into the cloud and back again. This approach enables users to get HPC-level power with little to no special configuration or hardware beyond the workstation itself.

InterGrid's green button

One such vendor with this approach is InterGrid and its GreenButton software, which is working with independent software vendors to build the apps for this kind of architecture. The New Zealand-based company teams up with existing ISVs and their projects and gets those projects "GreenButton enabled." A user can install one of these GreenButton-enabled applications on their workstation and then get HPC using Microsoft's cloud services platform Azure.

A variety of applications currently make use of GreenButton functionality, mostly centered across the high-end graphics applications that would need hours of processing time to render locally, but may only need a few minutes when tapped into GreenButton's service. Despite GreenButton's reliance on Azure, Linux users should note that GreenButton can be attached to Blender and Maya.

What both workstation-in-the-cloud technologies offer is the capability to increase the number of resource-intensive jobs that can be carried out in parallel. There is still a need to have locally heavy power and graphics, but when it comes to graphics rendering, simulations, or biometric processing, the parallel processing of the cloud can be leveraged to minimize job times.

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