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I’ve been in this industry long enough to know that promises of a “thin client revolution” come around about as often as buses. But I really do think this time is different, and that we might finally have reached the point where fixing hardware problems in software isn’t just the punchline of an old joke.
Computing has changed a lot in the last few years. Advances both in hardware and in software mean you can do more with less. Tablets and smartphones are increasingly taking on the sorts of workloads that used to be the preserve of laptops and desktops, and cloud services move many tasks away from physical machines altogether.
In the corporate world, virtualisation has been a mainstay of the server room for years, and Citrix has been a key tool for letting users access applications without the hassle of local installation. With the relentless advance of cloud computing, though, virtualisation is now a practical option for personal computing. Is it time we replaced our desktop PCs with virtual machines in the cloud?
Like many people, I’m increasingly using my smartphone for tasks I used to do on my laptop. My own laptop is getting on a bit, but I resent the idea of replacing it when it now gets so little use. However, there are still times when you need something with a bit more oomph – to run the full-fat version of Excel, fire up Visual Studio for programming, or edit photos.
I have an MSDN Enterprise subscription, which gives me £115 of Azure credit every month – far more than I need, or could even think of a way of using. So I’ve decided to experiment with using an Azure Virtual Machine (VM) for the workloads that would normally see me blowing the dust off my laptop…
Spinning up a new VM through the Azure Portal is simplicity itself, so I won’t go too deeply into the details here. I initially chose a dual core machine with 8 GB of RAM, 100 GB SSD, and Windows 10 Enterprise. The new VM initially comes with a local Administrator account, but as soon as you install OneDrive (which is probably the first thing you’ll want to do), you get the option of converting to using a Microsoft Account.
I already have an account I use for my current Windows 10 laptop and Windows phone (yes, I’m one of the last Windows Phone holdouts), so I just used that. In a matter of minutes, I was reconnected to my data and settings; after that, it only took some quick visits to Office365.com, VisualStudio.com, and a few other places to get most of my favourite software installed.
Of course, it’s no use having a VM in the cloud without having something to connect to it. A quick visit to the Windows Store, and I had the Remote Desktop client installed on my phone. (There are also Remote Desktop clients available for Android and iPhone – I’m assured that they’re very good.)
I encountered a small problem here – the Remote Desktop client on my phone doesn’t seem to support logging on with a Microsoft Account, so I had to create a new local account to use from my phone. Still, this probably isn’t a bad idea, as we all know that you shouldn’t really use an administrative account for day-to-day use.
At this point, my trusty Lumia 640 LTE phone is happily impersonating a dual core Intel Xeon PC with 7GB of RAM running Windows 10.
Using Miracast technology, I can project the screen onto my TV; pair it with a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and I’ve got a perfectly capable replacement for my laptop – at least when I’m at home, (and, truth be told, it’s very rare that I take the laptop anywhere). For a larger, but mobile display, any tablet capable of running an RDP or VNC client would do the job nicely.
However, there’s still one thing missing – full-sized USB ports. I’m still researching the options here, but I believe that a Raspberry Pi 3 Model B could stand in as a thin client with the capability to redirect local USB ports to the VM. On Android devices it may even be possible to simply connect a full-size USB hub using a USB OTG connector.
The key difference virtualisation offers over ownership is that you only pay for what you use, as you use it, rather than upfront. You can easily re-provision an Azure VM into different configurations depending on what you need – so you could run a relatively modest (and cheap) VM for day-to-day tasks, and transform it into a multi-core monster on the occasions that you really need the extra power.
The other key determinant of cost is how long you run the VM for. Running 24/7 can quickly become expensive, even for relatively modest configurations, whereas you can run a very powerful machine for a few hours quite cheaply.
If, like me, you have an MSDN subscription that gives you more Azure credit than you are currently using, then there’s no problem – I could run a powerful quad-core machine with 14GB of RAM for over 250 hours a month with the credit I have spare.
On the other hand, if you don’t have spare Azure credit, then you need to consider your options more carefully. If you only need a machine occasionally, it can be very competitive – that same quad core machine would cost less than a pint of beer if you only used it for 10 hours a month.
If you are looking for a full-time desktop replacement – say, 40 hours a week for 48 weeks a year – then, based on some quick back-of-an-envelope calculations and browsing the website of a popular high-street retailer, the cost per year works out in roughly the same ballpark as just buying an equivalent machine.
On the plus side, you’d never have to worry about hardware maintenance, and there’s a clear upgrade path. But you probably won’t save much, and if you normally keep a machine for longer than a year, then you’ll be losing money overall. However, you would avoid the up-front cost, and you can rescale your machine as needed – so this could still be an attractive option for freelancers with difficult-to-predict workloads.
Virtualisation, then, is increasingly becoming a realistic option for replacing day-to-day PC hardware. The way things are heading, it’s not inconceivable that businesses of the future could make two classes of hardware available to their staff – high-spec, highly-mobile devices like Microsoft Surface tablets, and ultra-low-cost ‘thin clients’, or even just phone docking stations, for accessing powerful and secure remote VMs to carry out their daily work.
Even for intensive applications, an NV6 machine (six cores, 56 GB of RAM, and an nVidia M60 GPU) will compete with all but the most powerful PCs – even specialist gaming PCs – for around £2.00 per hour, including bandwidth costs. With the equivalent gaming machine potentially costing upwards of a thousand times that, given the rapid obsolescence at the high end, you’d need to spend a lot of time using your mega-powered VM before that became a bad deal – just remember to turn it off when you’re done!
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