NEC's virtual desktop boosts thin client graphics

Virtual desktop supports PC-quality graphics on thin client desktops

NEC America has introduced a virtual-desktop computing package designed to support demanding PC-quality graphics on thin client desktops.

The NEC Virtual PC Center (VPCC) brings together a desktop thin client with a high-powered graphics card, a dedicated virtual PC server, a management server, and integrated third-party virtualization software. An enterprise can shift PC computing into the data center for centralized management and security, while preserving the rich graphics user interface for multimedia, and cutting desktop electrical use by up to 60 percent, according to NEC.

Typical thin-client solutions decompress audio and video on the back-end server, then transport the uncompressed streams over the LAN, says Ken Hertzler, director of the server platform group for NEC. The result: heavy LAN traffic and poor graphics performance on the desktop.

NEC's solution is designed to shift the multimedia decompression to the desktop, via a dedicated high-performance graphics card. At the same time, it uses pre-installed desktop virtualization client and server software from VMware to create and manage Windows desktop on the virtualization server.

Desktop virtualization is the most recent of the long-running attempts by enterprise IT groups to more easily and less expensively run and support hundreds or thousands of PC desktops. It's drawing software infrastructure vendors like VMware, as well as start-ups such as Kidaro, which are building desktop virtualization on top of those infrastructures.

Viewing NEC's Virtual PC Center from the user's perspective, you replace a Windows PC with the NEC US100, a small desktop box that can come with or without display, keyboard and mouse. The palm-sized box (about 6 by 4 by 1.3 inches) sits on the desk or mounts behind a flat-panel display.

The US100 is based on hardware and software from Wyse Technology , including the recently revamped Wyse ThinOS, a fast, 2MB Linux-based software image with Wyse's multimedia acceleration code, and built-in support for Microsoft Terminal Server and Remote Data Protocol (RDP), Citrix Presentation Server and ICA protocol, and the VMware Virtual Desktop Infrastructure.

But NEC replaced the standard CPU with the NetClient processor from ServerEngines and worked with the chip maker to add a dedicated graphics card to decompress streaming audio-video content. As a result, users see graphics performance that's comparable to a PC, according to NEC's Hertzler.

Conventional thin client architectures, in effect, turn the benefits of data compression upside down. That's because data compression formats such as MPEG1 video files mash the bits into a smaller package and shoot it over the LAN to a PC, where it's stored, decompressed and then played. "But in an RDP session, the server CPU decompresses the file and sends the uncompressed stream over the LAN [to the thin client display]," says Hertzler. NEC's software intercepts these multimedia requests on the server and redirects them with the compressed files to the desktop graphics card for processing and display.

The thin client connects via Microsoft RDP to the Virtual PC Server, which hosts the Virtual PC Center software, and for each user one instance of Microsoft Windows XP via the VMware Virtual Infrastructure software (VMware can host other operating systems, including older Windows versions, but the graphics acceleration described above is available only with XP). There are two models of the server, which is a NEC Express5800 rack-mounted server with all the VPCC software pre-installed. One model supports up to 20 users with a 1.80-GHz dual-core Intel Xeon 5110 CPU, 12GB of RAM and 365GB of RAID 5 disk storage. The second model, for up to 50 users, has a 3.0-GHz quad-core Xeon 5355, 24GB of RAM and 730GB of disk storage.

A separate Express58000 acts as a dedicated management server, with VMware's Virtual Center software overlaid by NEC's SigmaSystemCenter application, which is designed to manage the entire Virtual PC system. Via Sigma, administrators can reallocate server resources, apply software patches and updates across all the XP instances, and add or drop applications.

The US100 thin client also supports VOIP via an analog port for a VOIP phone or as a softphone, connecting to the NEC SV7000 VOIP telephony server that in turn connects to an IP PBX.

The NEC Virtual PC Center is available now. The introductory price for the US100 thin client is US$349. The Virtual PC Server is priced at about US$20,000 for 20 users, and about US$45,000 for 50. Prices include the relevant VMware license and the SigmaSystemCenter software.

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