Parallels, Nvidia enable CAD workstation virtualization

Software enables super-rich graphics by dedicating an Nvidia graphics card to each virtualized app

Virtualization software maker Parallels Inc. and graphics hardware vendor Nvidia Corp. have teamed to enable the virtualization of graphics-intensive applications used by engineers and digital animators.

The software, called Parallels Workstation Extreme, will enable multiple computer-aided design (CAD), seismic modeling, digital rendering and other applications to be run virtually on either Microsoft Corp.'s Windows or the Linux operating systems.

Virtualizing such applications has generally been considered impractical because of the inability of virtualization software from Parallels or VMware Inc. to render graphics or animation quickly.

As a result, many engineers and animators today have multiple workstations at their desks, each of which is used to run one or two applications, according to Brian Good, vice president of business development at Parallels. Parallels Workstation Extreme will enable users to run multiple graphics-rich apps side by side without having to reboot, he said.

What is Parallels' technique? The software, rather than trying to process the multimedia within the virtualization layer, offloads it back to the hardware layer, the graphics card.

That allows users to enjoy "bare-metal performance," said Andrew Page, senior product manager for professional solutions at Nvidia. "It's letting the graphics card do what it does best."

Enabling the virtualization software to offload rendering work back to the hardware layer was no trivial task, Good said, and it required a year of software engineering.

The software supports the OpenGL graphics API (application programming interface) used by most animation and engineering applications, instead of Microsoft's DirectX technology, which is popular for games.

Parallels Workstation Extreme also supports Nvidia's CUDA technology. For applications specially rewritten for it, CUDA enables the shifting of processing work from the CPU to the graphics processing unit, which is usually underutilized, for faster application performance.

Parallels Workstation Extreme will be available within six weeks and will cost US$400, Good said.

So what's the catch? To enable high performance, each virtualized app must have a whole graphics card dedicated to it. Moreover, the card must be one of Nvidia's professional-grade graphics cards, such as its Quadro FX 3800, 4800 or 5800. The 3800 cards start at US$1,199 each, according to Page.

In addition, Parallels Workstation Extreme requires the latest in hardware. So far, Parallels has only certified its software to run on Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Z800 workstation using Intel Corp.'s new Nehalem processors, Good said.

The software supports Windows XP and Vista and Linux. Good said there were no plans yet to support Unix or Mac OS X.

Parallels is best known for its Parallels Desktop for the Mac, which enables Macintosh hardware owners to run Windows applications alongside Mac OS X ones. The software has nearly 2 million users, Good said.

The latest Parallels Desktop 4.0, released last fall, enables Mac users to run Windows CAD applications using OpenGL, though presumably not at the same level of performance.

But Good said the technology inside Workstation Extreme will likely make its way into future releases of Parallels Desktop for Mac or possibly Linux.

That could allow Linux or Mac users running Parallels to play the latest 3-D Windows games or watch Blu-ray video -- two activities that Parallels Desktop today doesn't support well on the Mac. Parallels has no Windows-Linux consumer virtualization software today. However, Good gave no timetable on when the technology would appear.

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