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Can Video Game Firm Outplay Traditional VDI Options?

Cloud video game company OnLive uses its high-speed network to jump into the market for virtual desktops. Here's why its technology looks compelling compared to traditional VDI.

On Wednesday, Wired magazine, The Economist, and Juniper Networks presented a conference in New York City called "NextWork," with topics on the future of networking, and one item caught my eye--a presentation from Steve Perlman of OnLive, a video game company that was getting into the virtual desktop business. Strange, true, and after I sat through the presentation, oh-so-very-compelling.

I've looked into virtual desktops both in my role as an IT executive as well as in my role at InformationWeek Analytics, and the landscape is fraught with peril and cost. After speaking to peers and doing some testing, we found that it was better to do application streaming to terminals rather than straight VDI for a recent "green desktop" deployment. The key problems with VDI include cost and performance. But I was very interested in Perlman's live demo because it showed that a virtual desktop can actually be more powerful than a typical corporate desktop, because of the fact that OnLive has built its cloud based on a much more demanding computing paradigm, that of the video game.

Perlman has a bunch of street cred. He worked on QuickTime for Apple, co-founded WebTV, as well as a business that developed software used by Hollywood studios to produce special effects. So it's not surprising that he has focused on the high performance market.

I spoke to him that evening, and he said, "We cut our teeth on the most challenging thing in computing--video games." And, indeed, the demo that I watched was most impressive. He was able to use advanced 3-D rendering apps in a zippy type of way, even, as he put it, "using a crappy conference Wi-Fi network" where attendees were vying for bandwidth. The demo showed a Windows app running on a Droid platform, an iPad, an iPhone, as well as a Mac, utilizing Juniper's Junos Pulse remote access system. And the technology runs on gaming consoles, too. I find that particularly interesting, because gaming consoles are fairly inexpensive and powerful, and they don't get crapped up with malware anywhere near as often as your typical corporate employee's home PC. Security bonus!

Perlman says that the cloud infrastructure that OnLive has built with Juniper Networks has incredibly low latency. The beauty of the gaming/corporate marriage of the system, he says, is that gaming peak hours are at night, and that corporate use peaks during the day, making it good for everybody. He's obviously never been to my houseful of teenagers during summer break, but I get his point anyway.

Since the OnLive virtual desktop environment isn't yet available--it was just announced Wednesday, concurrent with Perlman's presentation--I logged into the OnLive video game system to get a sense of the latency involved. Okay, and to get some street cred with my teenagers, too. But, alas, my AT&T DSL, which advertises 6 MBps downstream, and measures 2.7Mbps at, was not up to the task. Perlman says that the requirements for the virtual desktop will be far less than for the video game network, and still provide peak performance. "We would never try to demo a video game from 2,000 miles away," he says, but virtual desktops work just fine. That's exactly what he did from New York City, and the various full-motion video, Flash, and performance-intensive demos were all most impressive. This would be good news for the virtual desktop world, because one of the reasons so-called "zero clients" for virtual desktops aren't quite fully baked is because even T1 bandwidth at remote sites results in sluggish performance for end users.

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