Tag Archives: citrix

Virtual meetings: as good as the real thing?

Last night I participated in an unusual event: a virtual wine-tasting laid on by Citrix for a few journalists, to demonstrate the capabilities of its GoToMeeting online conferencing software.

Sommelier Akos Hervai at Clusters to Wine talked us through the serious business of how to taste wine and we discussed the merits of four selected bottles – taking the driest first, which I now know is the proper thing to do.

Most meetings are less palatable; but if you can successfully conduct a wine tasting online, does the same apply to most business meetings?

Here are a few observations. First, we were strongly encouraged to use webcams for this event; and yes, it does make a difference. Suddenly, like a real meeting, everyone can tell if you have fallen asleep, left the room, or started talking to someone outside the meeting on your mobile. Of course you also have to think about your surroundings, how you are dressed, and the impression you are making. It substantially changes the dynamics and increases engagement.

I am not sure how many businesses have a policy of webcam use for online meetings, but I could understand such a policy, even though it is hard to enforce; GoToMeeting, like most such software, makes it easy to switch off your webcam or mute your microphone. There is also a limitation of six video feeds (640×480) on-screen, so this will not work for larger meetings.

Despite the general value of the webcams, we found them of little use for visual demonstration. Someone tried to show the label on an interesting bottle of wine they had; none of us could see it beyond a blurry blob.

Second, the flow of conversation is harder than in a real meeting. Bear in mind that there is no real eye contact, no ability to clear your throat or make one of those subtle indications that you would like to get a word in please. Of course the software has a “Raise hand” feature but it is so crude, a binary flag whereas in person we have a million tiny signals.

In practice the online text chat is often a better way to make a comment – if participants remember to keep an eye on it.

Third, in my long experience of online meetings, there are always things that go slightly wrong. Extraneous noise is always a problem. Sitting in a real meeting you would think twice before making banging or crashing noises or slamming a door; yet get a group together online with unmuted microphones and you always hear all sorts of sounds. Depending on where the microphone is situated, typing noises or loud breathing can also be a problem. Personally I favour muting all microphones other than when you need to speak, and in a meeting beyond a certain size – about six? – that becomes essential.

We also had a participant who could not get his webcam working. Then, towards the end, I started to speak and GoToMeeting just quit unexpectedly. Bang. Re-launched and all was fine.

Still, let’s not forget the advantages. Simply, many meetings are possible online which otherwise could not take place, other than perhaps as old-fashioned conference voice calls; and the benefit of screen sharing, online text chat and so on is significant.

Can the software get better? I think so. As hardware and bandwidth improves, there is scope for better video and more intelligent software; for example, GoToMeeting knows who is speaking (it shows this in the control panel); could it not expand the webcam image of the speaker and increase its resolution (hardware allowing) automatically? In general, the goal should be to reduce the friction in online meetings and make it harder for things to go wrong.

That said, no, it will never be a complete substitute for face to face meeting. Human communication is too sophisticated for that.

NVIDIA’s GPU in the cloud: will you still want an Xbox or PlayStation?

NVIDIA’s GPU Technology conference is an unusual event, in part a get-together for academic researchers using HPC, in part a marketing pitch for the company. The focus of the event is on GPU computing, in other words using the GPU for purposes other than driving a display, such as processing simulations to model climate change or fluid dynamics, or to process huge amounts of data in order to calculate where best to drill for oil. However NVIDIA also uses the event to announce its latest GPU innovations, and CEO Jen-Hsun Huang used this morning’s keynote to introduce its GPU in the cloud initiative.

This takes two forms, though both are based on a feature of the new “Kepler” wave of NVIDIA GPUs which allows them to render graphics to a stream rather than to a display. It is the world’s first virtualized GPU, he claimed.


The first target is enterprise VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure). The idea is that in the era of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) there is high demand for the ability to run Windows applications on devices of every kind, perhaps especially Apple iPads. This works fine via virtualisation for everyday applications, but what about GPU-intensive applications such as Autocad or Adobe Photoshop? Using a Kepler GPU you can run up to 100 virtual desktop instances with GPU acceleration. NVIDIA calls this the VGX Platform.


What actually gets sent to the client is mostly H.264 video, which means most current devices have good support, though of course you still need a remote desktop client.

The second target is game streaming. The key problem here – provided you have enough bandwidth – is minimising the lag between when a player moves or clicks Fire, and when the video responds. NVIDIA has developed software called the Geforce GRID which it will supply along with specially adapted Kepler GPUs to cloud companies such as Gaikai. Using the Geforce GRID, lag is reduced, according to NVIDIA, to something close to what you would get from a game console.


We saw a demo of a new Mech shooter game in which one player is using an Asus Transformer Prime, an Android tablet, and the other an LG television which has a streaming client built in. The game is rendered in the cloud but streamed to the clients with low latency.


“This is your game console,” said NVIDIA CEO Jen-Sun Huang, holding the Ethernet cable that connected the TV to the internet.


The concept is attractive for all sorts of reasons. Users can play games without having to download and install, or connect instantly to a game being played by a friend. Game companies are protected from piracy, because the game code runs in the cloud, not on the device.

NVIDIA does not plan to run its own cloud services, but is working with partners, as the following slide illustrates. On the VDI side, Citrix, Microsoft, VMWare and Xen were mentioned as partners.


If cloud GPU systems take off, will it cannibalise the market for powerful GPUs in client devices, whether PCs, game consoles or tablets? I put this to Huang in the press Q&A after the keynote, and he denied it, saying that people like designers hate to share their PCs. It was an odd and unsatisfactory answer. After all, if Huang is saying that your games console is now an Ethernet cable, he is also saying that there is no need any longer for game consoles which contain powerful NVIDIA GPUs. The same might apply to professional workstations, with the logic that cloud computing always presents: that shared resources have better utilisation and therefore lower cost.

Chromebook: web applications put to the test, and by the way no Java

Yesterday Google announced the availability of the first commercial Chromebook, a Linux computer running the Chrome browser and not much else. There are machines from Acer and Samsung which are traditional laptop/netbook clamshell designs, with an Intel Atom dual core processor, 16GB solid state storage, and a 12.1” screen. Price will be a bit less than $400, or organisations can subscribe from $28 or €21 per month in which case they get full support and hardware replacement. There are wi-fi and 3G options. Nobody is going to be excited about the hardware.


The Chromebook may be the most secure computer available, if Google has got it right. The OS is inaccessible to the user and protected from the browser, and system patching is automatic.

The strength and weakness of the Chromebook is that is only runs web applications – the only exception being utilities that Google itself supplies. Are we ready for a computer that is little use offline? I am not sure; but this will be an interesting experiment.

The Chromebook is a compelling alternative to a traditional PC with its susceptibility to malware and dependence on locally installed applications and data. If you lose your PC, getting a new one up and running can be a considerable hassle, though large businesses have almost cracked the problem with system images and standard builds. Lose a Chromebook, and you just get another one and sign in.

You sign into Google of course, and that is a worry if you would rather not be dependent on a single corporation for your digital identity and a large chunk of your data.

The problem for the Chromebook is that Apple’s iPad and numerous Google Android tablets and netbooks offer security that is nearly as good, and local applications as well as web applications, for a not dissimilar cost. These devices are also easy to restore if they break or go missing, slightly less so than a Chromebook but not much.

The choice looks a bit like this:

  1. Chromebook: Web applications only
  2. iPad/Android: Web applications and local apps

Put like that, it is difficult to see the advantage of the Chromebook. The subscription scheme is interesting though; it is a new business computing model that brings the cloud computing principle of operating expenditure instead of capital expenditure to the desktop.

The offline issue may be the worst thing about a Chromebook. When I travel, I frequently find myself without a good internet connection. The word “offline” does not feature in either the consumer or business frequently asked questions – a question Google would rather you did not ask?

Yet there is 16GB storage on board. That is a lot. In theory, HTML 5 local storage should solve the offline problem, but few web apps, including Google’s own, make this seamless yet.

A few other observations. While there are no user-installable client apps, Google is adding some utilities.

VPN is coming:

We’ve heard from our pilot customers that VPN is an important feature for businesses and schools, and we’re working very hard to bake this into Chromebooks soon. Support for some VPN implementation is already in the product and we’ll both extend support for more VPNs and get these features to stable soon.

Remote desktop access is coming:

we are developing a free service called Chromoting that will enable Chrome notebook users to remotely access their existing PCs and Macs.

Apparently this is based on Citrix Receiver.

There is a bias towards Adobe Flash:

Chromebooks have Flash support built-in, but they do not support Java or Silverlight.

Another blow for Java on the client.