It’s hard to argue with the broad benefits of virtual and cloud workstations. But one of the stumbling blocks has always been cost. London-based Inevidesk’s stripped-down approach and transparent approach to pricing is sure to resonate with smaller firms seeking a more robust IT backbone for flexible working, writes Greg Corke
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and there suddenly became an urgent need to work from home, design and manufacturing firms had to act quickly. For many, the solution was simply to remote into their office workstations via VPN using optimised remote desktop technologies like Microsoft RDP or Teradici CAS (PCoIP).
Twenty months on and little has changed. While some firms have embraced cloud or on-premise virtual desktops, there are still many others with physical workstations sat on empty desks or stacked in the corner of the office. One of the reasons for this is that moving to the cloud or investing in an on-premise virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) solution is sometimes seen as a huge expense. Few service providers publish pricing and there are often hidden costs along the way.
London-based Inevidesk takes a different approach. It puts pricing for its virtual desktop platform service up front and centre on its website. And it’s hardly surprising. With prices starting at £456 per annum for an entry-level CAD workstation, dropping to £180 per annum after three years (as by then, you own the hardware), it’s certainly competitive.
According to Inevidesk director Tim Whiteley, it costs around 70% less than most other virtual desktop infrastructure, so it’s not too far away from just buying a physical workstation. Firms can choose between a threeyear term (cheapest) or a one-year term (more expensive). See here for more info.
Inevidesk’s virtual workstation service is based around the concept of ‘pods’. These are essentially fully integrated 3U servers with CPU, GPU and storage, that host up to seven virtual workstations or ‘vdesks’.
Pods are most cost-effective when configured with seven vdesks, although it is possible to have fewer. They can be hosted on-premise or, for an additional fee, in Inevidesk’s private UK cloud.
To keep costs down, it’s fair to say that Inevidesk has gone off piste. All of the ‘pods’ are built in house, but the real difference comes from software
The idea behind the pod system is that firms can adopt them incrementally, gradually replacing their ageing physical workstations with virtual ones and potentially taking them to the cloud at an appropriate time.
To keep costs down, it’s fair to say that Inevidesk has gone off piste. All of the pods are built in house, but the real difference comes from software.
Instead of having to license traditional virtualisation tools like Citrix, VMware, Hyper-V or Nvidia Grid, Inevidesk uses a mix of open-source technologies. This includes a Linux back end and virtualisation platform, along with a video streaming technology, which Whiteley refers to as Inevidesk’s “secret sauce”.
The company has a major focus on the architecture, engineering and construction industry, but the technology is also relevant to other sectors, including product design and manufacturing. Prior to its official launch last year, a steering group of architects and building information modelling (BIM) consultants stress-tested the technology. Whiteley is keen to point out that Hopkins Architects, a firm that had been trialling the system for Inevidesk prior to COVID, was so happy with the service that it bought all of Inevidesk’s stock as the UK moved into lockdown.
What’s inside a pod?
Inevidesk’s 3U server pods are built around an AMD EPYC processor, which is used as a shared resource for up seven vdesks. With lots of cores, AMD EPYC is a very capable and cost-effective processor. However, like most CPUs used in virtual environments, it does have its downsides.
CAD software thrives on CPU frequency, and because EPYC has a lower clock speed (GHz) than typical desktop CPUs like Intel Core or AMD Ryzen, you can’t expect performance to properly rival that of a traditional workstation. Inevidesk also advises that because CPU resources are shared, its standard vdesks should not be used for CPU rendering. All other components, including the graphics card, are dedicated to each user.
There are three different levels of vdesk – basic, mid and high – which vary by memory, CPU cores, storage and GPU.
To cater to different graphics needs, there’s a choice of the AMD Radeon Pro WX 3200 GPU, for 2D CAD and entry-level 3D CAD ; the Nvidia T1000 GPU, for mainstream 3D CAD; and the Nvidia RTX A4000 GPU, for more graphics-intensive workflows like real-time rendering or GPU rendering.
Inevidesk can be flexible with the configurations of its pods and can also create bespoke VMs for those with more demanding workflows, such as high-end designviz. For example, it has a new option for rendering built around AMD’s Threadripper CPU, although some firms will always choose to keep more specialist workstations as physical desktops.
On-premise or cloud
Inevidesk currently has a fairly even split between cloud and on-premise deployments. For on-premise, pods ideally need to be stored in a rack, although this doesn’t With many cloud workstation providers existing on bespoke quotations, it’s refreshing to see one be so up front about pricing have to be in an air conditioned server room. Smaller firms can use an acoustic attenuated server cabinet that can sit in the corner of an office.
For those that don’t want to look after physical hardware or want more flexibility, Inevidesk can host the pods in a private cloud in Bermondsey, London and (soon) Docklands, through datacentre partner netwise.
This includes ‘first-level’ resiliency for hardware, power, connectivity, environmental management and physical security — all powered by 100% renewable energy sourced from the wind, sun and sea.
There is an additional cost for this of £1,680 per pod per annum, but this includes 1 TB of server storage per pod plus your own virtual network.
Of course, low latency is essential for any good remote workstation experience and as latency increases with distance, having servers in London is great for firms in the UK, Inevidesk’s primary market.
However, the company says its service also works well from Europe, Dubai and East Coast America. As Inevidesk grows, Whiteley says they’ll hopefully move into Europe and potentially North America.
The Inevidesk service is managed through a web-based portal, through which IT admins can create new users and spawn new virtual desktops.
The first step is to create a template and load all the required CAD and productivity software. This takes a little time but, once complete, new machines can be spun up in the cloud in a matter of minutes. Inevidesk can, of course, provide support and assistance.
To access the service, simply download the Inevidesk client application (available for Windows, Mac and Linux), punch in your unique user credentials, and it will show which virtual desktops you have access to. This is typically one that’s been assigned to you specifically. For added security, firms can enable multi factor authentication.
The Inevidesk virtual desktop can launch Windowed or full screen and it’s possible to use dual displays. The system offers three different display modes – 3D, 2D or balanced – depending on application and latency. Users are encouraged to play with these settings to get the best experience.
From a client hardware perspective, Inevidesk says a £300 laptop with a modern Intel Core i3 processor and 4 GB RAM should be sufficient. As the service uses H265 decoding for the video stream, you’ll need an AMD or Nvidia GPU or Intel Integrated (2015 and later).
Interestingly, Inevidesk says Microsoft Teams presents a bigger challenge for local hardware. Because of the additional latency, you can’t run video conferencing through the virtual desktop, so you’ll need to run Teams locally. But, as Whiteley explains, the software can be resource-hungry, so Inevidesk recommends an Intel Core i5 with 8 GB.
Inevidesk also places a big emphasis on the importance of the quality of the home Internet connection to minimise latency. This isn’t just what goes into your house, it’s about how your laptop connects to the router. Inevidesk recommends Wireless AC (not Wireless N), a mesh system or a cabled connection — either plugged straight into the router or via a consumer home plug system.
As design and manufacturing companies continue to adjust to the new reality, flexible working remains high on the agenda. Firms that may have made do with remoting into desktops, are now looking for more robust solutions to support staff away from the office – even if it’s just for one day a week. Virtual or cloud workstations certainly tick many boxes, especially when it comes to centralised data.
With many cloud workstation providers existing on bespoke quotations, it’s refreshing to see one be so up front about pricing. Inevidesk aims for full transparency and on its website even goes down to the expected cost of Windows licences and client laptops. The company’s assertion that cost is comparative to the purchase of a physical workstation is sure to resonate with many.
On paper, the service looks highly competitive. There’s much to like about its simple modular approach and the fact that, with a three-year commitment, prices actually go down at the end of the contract.
There are some unknowns, of course. Inevidesk only launched its service one year ago, and the technology stack is largely bespoke. However, the company appears confident about performance and reliability, citing extensive testing with Revit, Rhino and other CAD software, backed up by customer testimonials.
With datacentres in Bermondsey and Docklands, Inevidesk looks particularly well-suited to UK firms, especially those in and around London or with satellite offices. But this probably limits its appeal to the larger global companies.
Inevidesk doesn’t directly offer a trial through its website, but if it’s anything like other providers, we imagine it will if asked. If you’re looking for a costeffective virtual desktop solution to replace your existing desktop machines, it’s well worth finding out more.