Introduction to the nComputing L300 access device (Part 1)

by [Published on 28 July 2011 / Last Updated on 28 July 2011]

In this article you'll learn that the nComputing L300 is a more than capable solution for a LAN-based VDI deployment and will be introduced to the components – the L300 and vSpace – that comprise nComputing’s terminal/VDI solution.

If you would like to be notified of when Scott Lowe releases the next part in this article series please sign up to our VirtualizationAdmin.com Real Time Article Update newsletter.

Introduction

Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) is all the rage with companies across the globe studying the technology to determine a potential fit for individual business needs. On the vendor side of the equation, competition is great with such stalwarts as VMware, Microsoft and Citrix selling popular solutions.

However, for my own organization’s needs, my VDI testing has revealed the following challenges:

  • Multimedia mayhem. In a perfect world, a VDI solution would perfectly replicate a traditional desktop environment. However, given the differences between a typical desktop and a VDI replacement solution, such as the fact that the latter is extremely network heavy, it’s not reasonable to assume that the VDI environment will exactly match the desktop one. So, it comes down to determining the delta – the difference in the user experience – and the delta level that is acceptable for the organization. Multimedia support is one of the common challenges inherent in terminal-based solutions that don’t do much local graphics processing. I’ve tried a number of options, including PCoIP and Wyse TCX, with very mixed results.
  • Initial investment. Between the high cost for terminals and high licensing costs for a solution such as VMware View in addition to the supporting infrastructure costs, the VDI solution is significantly more expensive than a traditional environment. On the terminal front, higher cost is associated with multimedia capability. For example, the least expensive PCoIP terminal I’ve been able to locate is still well above $350. When added to the new licensing costs associated with some VDI solutions, the cost component starts to work against the solution.

Obviously, there are a lot of benefits to be had with VDI, too. For example, enhanced mobility, different working options and streamlined IT management are just a few of the possibilities. However, when stacked against the challenges above, I have yet to be able to adequately balance everything in a way that makes sense given my organization’s needs.

Until now.

nComputing

nComputing has been around since 2003. In the technology world, this is a lifetime. nComputing sells terminals – access devices – that come in three basic flavors:

  • X-Series: Direct. With X-series devices, a specialized PCI card is installed in the machine designated as the server. Individual access terminals are connected to the server with Category 5 cabling. The access devices allow users to connect their own monitor, keyboard and mouse. Don’t let the fact that the X-series uses Category 5 cabling fool you. This is not an Ethernet-based solution and terminals can’t be any further than 10 meters from the server.
  • U-Series: USB. Many places have machines clustered into pods. In these kinds of scenarios, nComputing’s U-series access devices are a good fit. With this solution, you don’t need to worry about a specialized PCI card, but do need to make sure that the machine you intend to use as a server has enough USB ports to support your intentions.
  • L-series: Ethernet. The L-series devices, specifically the L300, are the focus of this article. L-series devices connect to an Ethernet network and connect to a server located elsewhere on that network.

As I mentioned, the L300 is the device on which I will focus in this article. It carries a list price of $279, although that price can come down considerably when the devices are purchased in bulk. At the $200 mark or so, a terminal becomes a much more acceptable cost, particularly when that terminal can handle some advanced multimedia in reasonable ways, at least at LAN speeds. You will discover in this article that the L300 access devices are not a great WAN solution, but for many, that’s okay.

By the way, nComputing includes a vSpace (explained later) license with each L300 and there are no additional licensing costs for the solution from nComputing.

Numo System on a chip

Before I get into specific features of the L300 access device, I’d like to briefly introduce what makes the system tick – at least on the hardware side.

nComputing has what they call the Numo system on a chip that handles all of the tasks for the various models of the nComputing access devices. From the Numo data sheet:

Numo chips include an advanced architecture, based on dual core ARM 926EJ-S processors, with an H.264 video decoder, built in memory, audio and display interfaces, as well as integrated peripheral support for 10/100/1000 Ethernet, USB 2.0, and UARTs.

In short, the Numo chip provides a powerful set of capabilities that can help address some of the challenges associated with VDI. With a built-in video decoder, the unit ably handles even high-definition video at full screen resolutions.

vSpace software

The vSpace software is another part of nComputing’s “secret sauce” solution. This software is installed on any supported Windows machine and virtualizes those resources that are necessary to provide a seamless session-based computing experience. Those resources are then shared among the many users that connect to the server.

Although I have not tested it, vSpace is also supported on Ubuntu Linux systems, making Ubuntu a choice for terminal-based computing as well.

vSpace is installed on top of an existing copy of Windows; both desktop and server editions of Windows are supported. Before you jump too quickly, however, make sure you understand Microsoft’s licensing restrictions. You need to have Windows Server licenses and client access licenses (CALs) as well as Remote Desktop Services CALs. Read more about the licensing restrictions here.

To learn more about the vSpace software, watch nComputing’s video on the topic here.

User eXtension Protocol (UXP)

UXP is nComputing’s own protocol for handle remote screen display. This protocol works in conjunction with the vSpace software and the nComputing terminal to provide a really good end user experience.  In my own testing, the office work experience was indistinguishable from a regular PC. When it comes to multimedia – browsing YouTube and Flash sites, for example – I’ve been very impressed with the performance of the nComputing solution. Both low- and hi-def video works well. Standard definition video is just about perfect. High def video can get choppy, but not very often and not so bad that it would negatively affect casual usage.

Perhaps the only downside of the UXP protocol lies around bandwidth usage. A single client can consume up to 15 Mbps of network bandwidth, making the solution unsuitable for WAN deployments. Further, this level of bandwidth usage might limit large LAN deployments, too. That said, your users won’t be pushing that maximum bandwidth load 100% of the time. On a 1 Gbps network link, you won’t run into major problems unless you try to place 50 or 60 units on a single link and everyone is pushing their devices to the max. If your users are doing nothing more than general office work, I doubt that you will see a 15 Mbps impact.

L300 at-a-glance

In the image below, you will see a picture of the L300 showing all of its various ports.


Figure 1: L300 connections

Note that there are two USB 1.1 ports designated for the keyboard and mouse and two “remote USB 2.0” ports. The two USB 1.1 ports are pretty self-explanatory, but let me go into a bit of detail about the two USB 2.0 ports. First of all, don’t expect USB 2.0 speeds out of the terminal. USB 2.0 operates at speeds of up to 480 Mbps. If the terminal supported these kinds of speeds, scalability would be severely limited. Expect USB 1.1 speeds. If you connect a massive hard drive and copy a huge file from that drive to a connected session, you might be waiting for a while since the device’s USB 2.0 ports operate at 1.1 level speeds (think 10 to 12 Mbps).

Second, not all USB devices will work with the L300. I’ve tried by USB flash drives and web cams.  While flash drives worked just fine (albeit, a bit slowly), web cams didn’t work at all. I asked nComputing and  they explained that isochronous USB devices aren’t supported by the L300 nor are they supported by many other thin client solutions. Isochronous USB devices are expected to operate at a guaranteed data rate, which is often pretty high. Real-time audio/video support, as used with web cams, can’t handle the lack of guaranteed bandwidth and the low speeds provided by the L300 and other thin clients. When you really think about it, this makes sense, too, as scalability would be severely limited.

Even with these limitations, the L300, in my opinion, remains a very viable contender in the VDI race.

Of course, lack of support for some USB devices eliminates the possibility for the L300 to be deployed in certain scenarios that require this kind of support.

System requirements

When it comes to density, you can do a pretty good job with the L300. In the system requirements table below, you’ll notice that the L300 supports 30 terminals per host with only very modest requirements needed for the “server” hardware. Since nComputing supports the use of beefed up desktop computers as a server, this can be a pretty low cost solution that performs very well.

Number of terminals

1-3

4-7

8-10

10-20

20-30

CPU

Core 2

Core i5

Core i5

Core i7

Core i7

RAM (32-bit)

2 GB

3 GB

4 GB

4 GB

4 GB

RAM (64-bit)

3 GB

4 GB

6 GB

6 GB

8 GB

Table 1: Host requirements for L300 terminals

From a pure cost perspective, the nComputing L300’s ability to leverage a beefed up desktop computer makes it a clear front-runner. Suppose you want to connect 15 workstations to a single server. At around $200 per terminal, you’re looking at $3,000 plus another $300 ($20 each) or so for quality keyboards and mice and $2,250 ($150 each) or so for a good-sized monitor. Let’s suppose that you spend $1,000 on a beefed up desktop computer with a Core i7 processor and 8 GB of RAM. With 15 units being supported by that device, that works out to about $67 per terminal. The total for each workstation is $437. That is a very good price for the solution. Of course, this price will vary depending on the components that you select. I did not include Microsoft licensing pricing for two reasons: 1) In my figure in the next paragraph, I’m not including software pricing; 2) Microsoft’s pricing varies dramatically depending on the kind of licensing agreement you use.

I mentioned previously that the best price I’d seen for a PCoIP-bearing terminal was $385 and that was without a keyboard, mouse and monitor and didn’t include any shared infrastructure (virtual host, storage) and additional licensing (VMware View) costs. Again, from a pure cost perspective, nComputing has it down.

Summary

You’ve now learned that the nComputing L300 is a more than capable solution for a LAN-based VDI deployment and have been introduced to the components – the L300 and vSpace – that comprise nComputing’s terminal/VDI solution. In the next part of this series, we will walk through an installation.

If you would like to be notified of when Scott Lowe releases the next part in this article series please sign up to our VirtualizationAdmin.com Real Time Article Update newsletter.

The Author — Scott D. Lowe

Scott D. Lowe avatar

Scott has written thousands of articles and blog posts and has authored or coauthored three books, including Microsoft Press’ Exchange Server 2007 Administrators Companion and O’Reilly’s Home Networking: The Missing Manual. In 2012, Scott was also awarded VMware's prestigious vExpert designation for his contributions to the virtualization community.

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