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Autodesk tests cloud services

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A fledgling gaming service claimed to be a "console killer" is being used to test delivery of high-end 3D modeling and design software from the cloud.

Autodesk has been testing the delivery of its signature AutoCAD, Maya - the visual effects software used by director James Cameron in Avatar - plus its Inventor and Revit packages from data centers run by yet-to-launch game streaming service OnLive. Autodesk's project is codenamed Twitch.

Twitch was expanded to cover the US early this year, from a series of local tests. It's being used to assess the jitter, bandwidth and latency of Autodesk's intensive, demanding and normally PC-bound software on different broadband services, routers, firewalls, and clients.

OnLive is the brainchild serial inventor and entrepreneur Steve Perlman, who built QuickTime 1 and created WebTV, sold to Microsoft for $503m in less than two years.

OnLive will start streaming games to PCs and Macs this June using algorithms and patented video compression technology it's promised will overcome network latency to deliver rich graphics and powerful performance for the serious gamer.

Such is the promise that Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, THQ, and 2K have already signed on to have OnLive stream their games from June.

Autodesk is an OnLive investor and told The Reg on Wednesday that it's testing delivery of its four packages as it feels the technology to deliver such applications remotely over a wide area has only recently matured. The applications have not been re-architected to work online.

Low latency and fast screen refreshes are crucial to applications like AutoCAD that consume billions of gigabytes of data to build files and render extremely rich graphics. Autodesk needs latency of one thirtieth of a second or less to perform on the network.

If there's a catch to Twitch it's the sheer bandwidth required to make the service work: OnLive claims it can beam video resolutions of 720p up to 60 frames per second. But standard definition gameplay comes at 480p and requires a at least a 1.5mb/s while HDTV comes in at 720p and needs at least 5mb/s.

While carriers do offer 5mb/s uploads, such services are still relatively new and not widely available. Pricing may also prove prohibitive.

Serving its applications from a data center should give Autodesk users on-demand access to the kind of computing power typically needed to crunch the gigabytes and render the intense graphics when building something like Avatar or designing parts for a jet engine using AutoCAD.

Historically, customers have relied on expensive PCs or Unix workstations with multiple cores and gigabytes of memory to use Autodesk's software smoothly. Also, installation has been lengthy with some of Autodesk's software coming in enormous chunks.

Cloud delivery potentially sidesteps the upgrade pain and the need to run a big machine locally. Web-based versions of its software could see Autodesk used on netbooks, about as far away from a workstation as you can get in size and computing power.

Also, Autodesk wants to make its software available to Mac users. Autodesk has seen an upsurge in Mac use and recognizes it must support this group, having moved away and prioritized PC users in recent years.

Separately, Parallels announced Autodesk had certified its Autodesk 2011 family of applications for the Mac on its Parallels Desktop 5 for Mac.

Guri Stark, vice president and general manager for AutoCAD and platform products business, said cloud had "good promise" as a way to deliver software and provide users with computer power.

"We are still testing performance and response times - but this can be potentially another good way to use the cloud - especially for compute intensive things," he said.

"The cloud can become a revolution in the way the PC became a revolution," he said. "We are looking at it very seriously. We're not sure how far it will take us, but we want to be in front of this revolution not behind this revolution."

Twitch comes in what looks like a growing webification of Autodesk.

The company is also experimenting with Butterfly, a project that lets users upload and edit AutoCAD drawings via a browser with Flash. The idea is to let Autodesk users and their clients work on documents without multiple copies flying around on email. Butterfly holds the drawing on Amazon's S3 and is rendered using Flash on the client-side.

Stark said Autodesk is experimenting with HTML and Microsoft's Silverlight for the client, not just Flash. ®

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