With an unprecedented move, today Amazon announced a new feature for its Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) cloud computing platform EC2: direct access to its graphics processing units (GPUs).
So far the access to GPUs has been impossible because of the abstraction provided by hypervisors that power EC2: Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) Xen, and more recently Oracle VM.
While display card direct access can be provided to a virtual machine thanks to technologies like Intel VT-d and AMD IOMMU, Amazon never leveraged them inside its cloud infrastructure.
Now the company is providing a new kind of instance, called Cluster GPU, which provides exactly this: direct access to a pair of NVIDIA Tesla M2050 (codename Fermi) GPUs.
These GPUs come with 448 cores and 3GB ECC RAM each. With them, Amazon is stuffing inside the same instance two Intel Quad-Core X5570 CPUs, 22GB RAM, almost 2TB of local storage and 10Gbps Ethernet.
Any EC2 customer can have up to 8 of these virtual machines, with more available on demand.
Clearly the company is selling this new instance as a great solution for High Performance (graphic) Computing, like massive rendering in movie animation. But, proven successful, the GPU direct access may lead to another, much more disruptive application: Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) cloud computing.
Many companies are working hard to offer true DaaS clouds at an affordable price, including Desktone and tuCloud. Apparently, the biggest stop issue remains licensing, as Microsoft doesn’t offer yet a Services Provider Licensing Agreement (SPLA) for VDI. But with this new offering Amazon, which already has the market leadership to influence Microsoft, is also building the experience needed to serve million of virtual desktops across the world.
The scale at which Amazon operates may turn its DaaS offering into a really viable solution to access the same virtual desktop anywhere, anytime. For both corporate and personal use.
Once solved the licensing issue, Amazon may focus on improving the remote desktop protocol for WAN access. While Red Hat is working on this its open source SPICE protocol, there’s an assumption that Amazon may want to walk away from the RHEL implementation of Xen sooner or later as Red Hat has dropped it for KVM.
If so, a potential replacement for RHEL Xen would be Citrix XenServer. In such scenario, Amazon may count on the Citrix ICA/HDX protocol, already optimized for WAN, and on a massive diffusion of the remote desktop client, Citrix Receiver, that is already available for a number of platforms, including Apple iPhone and iPad.
Interestingly, Citrix is already doing some business with Amazon, through its NetScaler solution.