Talking Virtualisation

Virtualisation for Broadcast and Media Production has suffered from a lack of a solution tailored to the industry requirements. Dubai based 7 Dwarfs is trying to change that with a solution that meets the most demanding production needs.
Virtual production, Virtualisation, 7 Dwarfs, 3D graphics, Broadcast graphics, Graphics design, On air graphics, NVIDIA, Virtual GPU, VGPU, VDGA, High-performance graphics cards


Virtualisation technology for applications and desktops has been around for a long time, but it hasn’t always lived up to the hype surrounding it. Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) is a great way to deliver desktops and apps to users with a lower IT footprint.

The biggest problem with Virtualisation for broadcast and production needs, according to Dubai based broadcast and media IT solutions specialist 7 Dwarfs, is the poor user experience delivered by standard solutions not developed with the broadcast and production environment in mind.

Rudi Buchner, Managing Partner at 7 Dwarfs says, “The problem is in the graphic intensive applications – we can virtualise them, but the problem lies in the user experience. The mouse lagging and windows lagging is not the experience a graphic designer can work with.”

“We talked to many IT companies that do virtualisation and explained our use case and the standard we need. They don’t have a solution for that. VMware has a product but when we tested it we cannot get more than 30 fps and for a designer it’s not worth it. Most virtualisation companies say 24-30 fps is high quality but ask any designer if he can work on that and the answer will be no,” adds Buchner.

To understand the reason why a high performance virtualisation solution for the broadcast and production industry is lacking, we need to understand the key concepts of graphics virtualisation - the vGPU and vDGA. When Virtualisation first came on the scene, GPUs — which enable parallel computing were not part of the solution offering. The GPU typically performs all the capture, encode and rendering to drive complex media production tasks, such as 3D graphics and on-air video graphics.

Early virtualisation solutions handled these tasks in the data center host CPU but this basic functionality was never going to meet the native experience and performance levels that graphics designers needed. That changed a few years ago when NVIDIA released its virtual GPU architecture along with the Tesla and Quadro line of GPU cards.

Virtual Graphics Processing Unit (vGPU) allows you to share a GPU across multiple virtual desktops. The vGPU renders the graphics on a back-end server thus freeing up the endpoint device’s resources the user is running.

Virtual dedicated graphics acceleration (vDGA) technology, on the other hand, provides each user with unrestricted, fully dedicated access to a GPU. A hypervisor passes the GPU directly to individual guest virtual machine. Although dedicated access has some consolidation and management trade-offs, vDGA offers the highest level of performance for users with the most intensive graphics computing needs.

Muhammad Kazim Naim, Systems Architect at 7 Dwarfs says, “A vGPU shares a GPU across multiple virtual machines, so the GPU is working on the back end server rather than the actual endpoint device. You can share a GPU – with a NVIDIA Tesla card you can have upto 32 vGPU per board depending on profile. Whereas the vDGA is a dedicated graphics solution also known as GPU pass through. I would say it’s like we drill a hole into the virtual machine and the hypervisor so the virtual machine gets a direct access to the physical GPU utilizing the full resources of the hardware and the GPU stays only for the specific virtual machine. These are the two main concepts of virtualisation.”

Virtualising a data center GPU allows resource sharing across multiple virtual machines for a high level of performance enabling a native experience for users of graphic intensive applications. This capability allows media and broadcast organizations to build virtual desktop infrastructures that cost-effectively scale this performance for their business needs.

Virtualisation tailored for the industry

While the benefits of virtualisation are well established outside of the production and broadcast space, virtualisation of application infrastructure remains rare for on-air graphics or video editing and production environments. This is due to the exceptional demands of performance, reliability and availability that need to be met even for small scale production deployments.

7 Dwarfs have developed a solution which they feel can meet these exceptional demands. “We started developing this product because we couldn’t find anyone of the usual players in the virtualisation market who offer such a solution. It is different from your standard offering from the likes of VMware or talking to IBM or HP and telling them I want to virtualise my environment,” says Buchner.

In demanding environments like broadcast, post-production or 2d/3D design, vGPU utilization often limits the possibilities due to the 30fps maximum transmission rate with solutions like VMware’s View remote display protocol. Buchner says 7 Dwarfs have overcome this problem by designing a solution that meets industry needs.

The solution was developed because they saw a gap in the market with no virtualisation solution that met their needs says Buchner: “It was the curiosity on our end in the beginning– can we make the virtualisation technology work in our industry? We talked to many companies that do virtualisation and explained our use case and the standard we need. They don’t have a solution for that. We saw the advantage of virtualisation and were frustrated that there is no solution. We spoke to all the big IT virtualisation players and they are thinking data centre size – the broadcast and production space is such a small niche where they will not engage. Even for a big studio they can virtualise with 5-6 licenses and that’s not what they are aiming for. They want to sell 100 licenses.”

So 7 Dwarfs decided to develop a solution which Buchner says was built from their knowledge of the different parts going into virtualisation technology and, “making it suitable from our experience for the media production and on-air graphics environment.” By integrating Mechdyne’s TGX Remote Desktop Software it allows graphics artists to access their desktops and graphics-intensive application. “Utilizing Mechdyne’s TGX middleware our vGPU solution can run at 60fps on the client. Using vGPU your windows-based application even becomes available on mobile/handheld devices,” adds Buchner.

The solution 7 Dwarfs developed is called Saqr. Buchner says it’s based on a motherboard from SuperMicro and “it’s actually the only motherboard that can have these multitude of combinations running. So it was about finding the right hardware – and then we started to experiment with the VMware configurations on that - combining VMware with Mechdyne’s TGX remote access software running on a thin client and the possibilities with the NVIDIA GPUs.”

“Saqr is a virtual host based on VMware hypervisor that allows upto 8 Tesla or 4 Quadro GPUs in one 4U housing. With upto four clients with vDGA configuration in one 4U Housing, you can get upto 16 DVI/DP signals out of this box, saving 12U rack space. The customized driver front end gives you access to all Quadro Workstation related features like Mosaic,  Frame-Sync and Swap-Sync,” says Naim.

Above: Saqr virtual host solution by 7 Dwarfs

Testing on the Cloud

There’s no doubt that the industry is increasingly aware of the possibilities offered by deploying solutions on the cloud such as remote production and collaboration. Given the opportunity to partner with cloud providers like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, 7 Dwarfs decided to build and test Saqr in a distributed environment. Exploring virtual workstations for VFX and graphics-intensive workloads using Amazon Web Services (AWS) 7Dwarfs tested this configuration from multiple countries and continents, with end-users reporting workstation-like performance.

Buchner says, “We did this huge beta experience testing with designers distributed on AWS cloud and asked the designers how they feel about the experience. Our feedback was very positive so we met the standards they want. We have been showcasing the solution in the last two CABSAT exhibitions. We demonstrated the solution in the Ventuz software environment where we had an iPad running wireless on the Tesla card, showing how you can have a virtual environment where the TV host is using an iPad for the touch control.”

Spinning up one or more virtual desktops in AWS takes just few minutes. Freelancers can access their virtual desktops from anywhere from any zero client—or any other device. “No content is ever on the Zero Client, so we don’t have to worry about security. If artists needs more CPU or GPU power to do their best creative work, the IT team can adjust the size of the virtual machine in minutes. And when the project is complete, we retire the virtual desktop, no longer paying for it,” says Buchner.

Why Virtualise?

A virtualised Broadcast and Post-Production solution can reduce valuable hardware footprint, while providing centralized management and a more scalable graphics processing solution. Using virtualisation technology you can decide how much GPU power you need. The NVIDIA Tesla line of GPU accelerator boards are optimized for high-performance computing and designed for parallel computing

The benefits of transitioning to a virtualised environment are different on a case to case basis. Buchner says you need to start by looking at what are the machines running in your workflow: “We need to do an audit and then look at consolidating this into virtual hosts and that is done on a case by case basis depending on the requirements. If you are a small studio then you might put a 2 person design department on a single machine and then you end up with just one machine.”

Buchner adds that in general for the broadcast standard output environment you can calculate that you can get a ratio of 4:1. “That is for a native HD-3G-SDI-HDMI environment. When it comes to a design workspace it’s more sophisticated and there are different ways to configure that.”
Naim says, “We can allocate 4GB for each designer so you can have up to 4 designers per GPU. From a Tesla graphic cards we can create up to 16 virtual workstations with 1 GB profiles. Let’s assume we have lots of graphic designers working on the Adobe suite – on one Tesla card we can give them 4 workstations on one graphic card. Saqr can take up to 4 Tesla cards. So that means I am replacing 16 workstations with that system.

Above: Saqr virtual host solution by 7 Dwarfs back view

“To get this user experience, the Mechdyne TGX is an important part of the solution. It is a third party software which has been integrated in our solution,” continues Naim. Saqr makes it possible to offer a multitude of configuration possibilities within a single solution with 7 Dwarfs saving significant rack space.

For broadcast on air graphics, the solution offers a ready-to-go TV Station that can fit in one rack space with capability to run a studio wall, as well as providing designer workstations all in one. For a media post production house, it means you can maximize the number of users with access to GPU-based graphics acceleration in their virtual machines. Broadcasters and production houses can get full graphics performance when running even the most intensive 3D applications by allocating additional resources on the fly.

In addition, cloud -based high-powered virtualised workstations deliver the same quality and fidelity as a local workstation offering a rich user experience with flexibility to work from anywhere.

Broadcasters and production houses looking to achieve capex & opex savings need to seriously consider virtualisation as an option. By abstracting hardware dependencies they can get a highly flexible and scalable along with reduced footprint, centralized management and high availability. “By enabling the reliable, large-scale Virtualisation of production hardware and software, we help media and entertainment companies deliver projects faster, at a lower cost, and more reliable than ever before,” concludes Buchner.

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