It’s time for workstations to go virtual: Dell

Andy Rhodes, general manager of Dell's Precision workstations

Andy Rhodes, general manager of Dell’s Precision workstations

Dell says it sees a trend towards professional workstations being offered in a virtual fashion, and it’s launched a facility at its Round Rock, Tex. headquarters to support and advance the concept.

The company has opened its first Dell Workstation Virtualization Center of Excellence, and introduced a series of reference architectures for its Dell Wyse thin client products that support moving workstations into the data centre, a move the company sees happening more often.

Virtual desktops are hardly a new concept, but for the most part, have been the domain of task-based workers and knowledge workers, for home compute and graphics performance are not necessarily critical. A hunger for performance has meant that professional workstations, the type used by graphic designers, video editors, financial traders, and CAD/CAM professionals, have largely remained under the desk of their user. But that’s changing, said Andy Rhodes, general manager of Dell’s Precision workstations division.

“About 90 per cent of our customers are having a conversation about virtualization, at least virtualizing some assets into the cloud,” Rhodes said.

There are a number of factors driving this – first and foremost, data security. With most professional design workloads, the content being worked on – the product being designed or the film being animated – is the intellectual property crown jewel of the company, so keeping it locked down and under control is key. The workstation residing in the data centre can help make that happen. Even if a screen shot can give away an image of the intellectual property, the underlying model and source material remain under lock and key. Rhodes also cited a changing workforce, with more people working from home or otherwise remotely from central offices, but still needing to collaborate on a project, as another driver for virtual workstations. And for those who use great amounts of resources in busts – for example, computer-based animators – the move to the data centre means its easier to burst to unused hardware to do intensive rendering work, leaving the workstation itself available for normal use.

However there have been problems with the concept, Rhodes said. While many of the technical hurdles have been closed with the latest generation of data centre hardware and networking gear, there have been a shortage of opportunities for customers to see a configuration that would work, much less test it. That’s where Dell’s hoping its new reference architecture and facilities will help.

The company’s Workstation Virtualization Center of Excellence includes a number of types of endpoint virtualization, including support for thin clients and application virtualization, at the company’s Texas headquarters and accessible online. The Center will also be used to validate applications for virtual environments for the first time. Today, that includes design software for Siemens, but it will be expanded over the coming months to include Autodesk, PTC and Solidworks.

“There are a lot of customers with existing data centres who’ve done virtualization and know they’re doing, and that’s moving down the chain now,” said Vajrang Parvate, director of product development for SolidWorks, adding that with the company’s latest 2014 release “we’ve turned a corner in that all of the products [we release] can now be run on a virtualized stack without compromising performance.”

While the technical challenges have been solved at least to some degree, there remain other challenges for solution providers seeking to help their customers move to virtual workstations. Unlike other endpoints, workstations are typically a field where the end user has a great deal of input, even ownership, over what hardware they end up working on. These users may be resistant to the idea of their workstations moving further into the data centre, one of the areas where IT holds the tightest control.

They may also remain skeptical that they’re going to get the performance they want out of a virtualized workstation, meaning that in many cases, proofs of concept will be useful tools for channel partners to prove out their claims. This provides an opportunity for channel partners, one that can almost equate to “double dipping,” as workstation customers aren’t likely to hold off on upgrading their physical machines while they do lengthy proofs of concept on virtual machines, because designers will still crave, demand, and utilize whatever greater capacity is made available to them.

The launch of the new Center of Excellence also provides partners with a sort of marketing support, Rhodes said. While it’s not the typical glossy brochure approach, Rhodes said that in his experience, it’s demonstrations and technical details that sell workstations.

“That’s the core difference between marketing PCs and workstations – with workstations, you get deep into the technology, you run labs and show off application benchmarks.”

Rhodes stresses that while the move of desktops to the data centre is a “today” intiative, it remains a small minority of the opportunity at present, perhaps ten per cent. But that number is growing quickly, and he posits it will accelerate with both access to knowledge centres like Dell’s new Center of Excellence, and with more channel partners educated on and promoting the technology.

Gary Pontore, vice president of emerging markets for enterprise products at Future Tech Enterprises, a NY-based Dell partner, said there’s a great deal of interest among his broadcast and media customers in moving to data centre- and cloud-based technologies.

“I have not run into a customer that’s not interested in it and exploring it, they just don’t understand how to implement it right now,” Pontore said.