With its ThinkStation workstations now fully-optimised for racks as well as desktops, Lenovo is focusing on complete solutions for remote workstations, with an agnostic approach to software, writes Greg Corke
In the early days of the cloud, a simple explanation was that it was someone else’s computer, accessed remotely. This might be true, but when it comes to cloud workstations, you’re typically sharing that computer with many other users through a technology called virtualisation.
Virtualisation carves up CPU, memory and sometimes graphics resources from a single computer to create multiple Virtual Machines (VMs). The processors that are typically used in cloud workstations have lots of cores but run at relatively low frequencies. And as we showed in our May 2023 Workstation Special Report, this can mean considerably less performance, when compared to the fastest desktop workstations. With an operational expense (OpEx) model, instead of a capital expense (CapEx) model, cloud workstations can also cost more over several years.
This has presented a big opportunity for the major workstation OEMs. HP, for example, has built an integrated remote workstation solution around its HP Z desktop workstations and HP Anyware, the remote workstation or digital workspace software. The idea is that users can remote into powerful desktop workstations, typically stored in racks in a server room or datacentre. As with cloud workstations, all processing, including graphics, is done remotely, with only pixels streamed to the end user, wherever they may be.
HP’s acquisition of Teradici in 2021 put the spotlight on HP for remote workstations. Meanwhile, Lenovo has been quietly building up its remote workstation capabilities. The company really started to become vocal about its plans for the datacentre with the launch of the ‘Sapphire Rapids’ Intel Xeonbased ThinkStation P7, P9 and PX in Spring 2023, followed by the AMD Ryzen Threadripper Pro-based ThinkStation P8 in Autumn 2023 (read our review). These powerful tower workstations sit pretty on any desk, but were also purpose-built for racks. The ThinkStation PX comes with a redundant power supply, front accessible storage, a rear power button, and an out of band baseboard management controller (BMC) for server level control.
In the main, however, these machines still require virtualisation when part of a remote workstation solution. Only the most demanding users need all the resources of a single machine. And while their Intel Xeon and AMD Ryzen Threadripper Pro processors are specifically designed for workstations and are more modern and powerful than those typically used in cloud workstations, they still have lots of cores and lower all core frequencies than the fastest CAD-focused workstations.
To deliver a true desktop experience, remotely, that feels familiar to users of CAD and BIM software, you need a different type of machine. With a high frequency Intel Core processor and powerful Nvidia RTX GPU, the ThinkStation P3 Ultra delivers exceptional performance for CAD-centric workflows over a 1:1 connection. The chassis is extremely small, so you can get seven units in a 5U rack space for that all important server room density. But, importantly, there’s still room for a BMC add-in card for remote monitoring and systems management.
Lenovo’s cloud / remote workstation play isn’t just about hardware, however. It’s about delivering comprehensive remote workstation solutions, as Mark Hirst, Lenovo’s workstation solutions manager for remote graphics + hybrid cloud, explains, “We can’t just talk about the CPU and the GPU in these [our workstations]. If we’re going to educate our customers and educate our partners and educate ourselves, we’ve got to do a much better job about talking about the entire technology stack around it. “Our customers don’t just want to talk workstations, they want to talk datacentre, they want to talk data management, they want to talk remote protocols, they want to talk networking, security, all this kind of stuff,” he says.
We want to get people to think about how they’re using their workstations. A workstation is not just that box at the desk anymore. All of these things are rack mountable – Mark Hirst, workstation solutions manager, Lenovo
In order to best support its customers on their remote workstation journey, Lenovo is developing a Remote Centre of Excellence at its workstation HQ in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA. The centre will act as a hub for research and as an educational and developmental resource for customers, who can test solutions remotely.
“We want people to really understand that there’s an alternative to cloud and we want our customers and our partners to try these systems out. If they want to learn about different protocols, then we’ve got the expertise in house to be able to educate them on that and on other things in the stack as well.”
In the Remote Centre of Excellence, Lenovo is racking all of its different desktop workstations and configuring them with various different remote graphics software protocols. In the past, Lenovo had a big focus on Mechdyne TGX, but now it’s also testing its kit with Nice DCV from AWS, Splashtop, Parsec, Microsoft Remote Desktop, and even HP Anyware (formerly Teradici CAS), despite HP being a major competitor.
“We wanted to talk about all of these different protocols, because some are better than others in different aspects. Some have got better Wacom support, some have got better 3D mouse support, some are better for high resolution displays, all that kind of stuff.
“There’s no one protocol fits all. Some have got their own integrated connection brokers. Do we look at third parties, like a Leostream [broker] or something like that, that has a lot more extensive capabilities when it comes to things like management and monitoring?”
Lenovo is not only relying on its workstation division to drive its Remote Centre of Excellence. It can also bring in experts from its server and storage business unit, as well as workstation partners, such as IMSCAD, a pioneer of workstation-focused Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) solutions.
IMSCAD is providing Lenovo with global consulting and a route to market, offering on-premise or private cloud hosted solutions built around the ThinkStation P3 Ultra and the ThinkStation P8. From its UK datacentre, customers can have a free 48- hour trial with up to five apps.
The interesting thing about IMSCAD’s offering, is that customers have huge choice. For a managed service in IMSCAD’s private cloud, customers can either buy the workstations outright or push everything over to a OpEx subscription model.
Meanwhile, for on-premise, workstations can either be deployed in a dedicated server room, or just kept on desks in the office. The idea here is that firms can carry on working in a way that many are familiar with, but access their workstation resource remotely when required, simply streaming pixels to a remote end device.
That’s not to say a remote workstation solution built around Lenovo ThinkStation technology renders the cloud redundant. IMSCAD also offers a desktop disaster recovery solution in Microsoft Azure that provides companies with a virtual workstation and data resource on-demand. Here the cloud acts as an insurance policy if physical on-premise workstations go down, perhaps due to fire, theft or a power cut.
Back in Raleigh, Lenovo is working closely with ISVs to help find the right fit for the many different tools and workflows of its customers. There’s an initial focus on the AEC market, which presents Lenovo with the biggest opportunity in terms of volume. The company will also draw on the expertise of its R&D labs, which tests a huge range of professional workloads when developing ThinkStation workstations.
Meanwhile, one of the biggest challenges facing Lenovo for remote workstations is not of a technical nature. The company must work out how get the message over to customers that cloud is not the only way and traditional workstations can offer a real alternative. “We don’t want to be a cloud basher, but we do want to get people to think about how they’re using their workstations,” says Hirst. “A workstation is not just that box at the desk anymore. All of these things are rack mountable. They [customers] might love their workstation, but if it makes sense to move it over in that room next to your data, then you’ve already started improving that experience.”
Main image: With front-accessible storage, a redundant power supply and many other features, the ThinkStation PX has strong rack credentials
This article is part of DEVELOP3D’s Workstation Special Report
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