Amazon ushers in graphics as a service

Amazon clouds adds Nvidia-backed G2 instances, which Mozilla wants to use to stream apps everywhere via HTML5, JavaScript

Most people don't think of Amazon Web Services as a place to get a killer video rig, but AWS's most recent upgrade may change all that. And a related announcement from Mozilla may help Amazon's new offering deliver graphics normally associated only with high-end workstations to any HTML5-capable Web browser.

Welcome to the world of GaaS: graphics as a service.

On Monday Amazon announced G2, a new instance type for its AWS cloud platform that includes Nvidia GPUs. Most anything that can be done with desktop video graphics cards can be done with these instances: real-time rendering, H.264 video encoding -- you name it.

If this just sounds like a really expensive way to run "Battlefield 4," you're not far from wrong. Here's why.

Mozilla: Let's stream any app to any browser

In conjunction with graphics firm OTOY and Autodesk, Mozilla has created a JavaScript video delivery framework called ORBX.js. The user fires up a Web browser, connects to an AWS G2 instance, and can run high-end graphics apps like Autodesk Maya or 3DS Max on the instance. The resulting graphics are compressed into a video stream in real time -- something the Nvidia Grid GPUs are also well-suited to -- and sent to the user's browser. (Here are some examples on YouTube, and Mozilla's Brendan Eich wrote about the possibilities for the technology back in May.)

The idea is to deliver any graphics-intensive application this way, not just static video streams -- although that's a given. Fully functional apps are run in Amazon's cloud and can be delivered wherever there's a browser.

Gaming is one of the most obvious targets. Amazon's own press release about the G2 proudly quotes Ubisoft's cloud technology director Patrick Allaire as saying, "In the coming years, games streamed from the cloud are going to grow tremendously in numbers and in quality."

But Amazon intends for G2 instances to be used by scientists and engineers as much as game designers or graphics mavens. They run software that's until now been associated exclusively with high-end workstations. If deployed properly, G2 plus ORBX.js might well be another nail in the coffin of the desktop PC.

One less reason for a PC?

If graphics as a service takes off the way Mozilla and Amazon clearly hope it will, it'll be one less reason to have a full-blown desktop rig. The kind of video hardware needed to casually decode and display the streams consumed by ORBX.js are nothing one of Nvidia's own smartphone-and-tablet-oriented Tegra processors can't handle.

But don't start pounding in the nails just yet. For one, this scheme depends on a network being present with decent bandwidth to spare and minimal latency. Also, EC2 has a reputation for not always delivering consistent performance. At least with a desktop machine you're guaranteed a 1:1 relationship between the CPU you paid for and the CPU you get.

Verizon Terremark and others are preparing to compete hard with Amazon over performance. The company hasn't started adding GPUs to its clouds yet, but given that the stakes for what the cloud is expected to deliver just keep rising, it's only a matter of time.

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