It’s every system administrator’s dream to only be working on the latest hardware running the most recent software available. This is partially due to our desire to be on the cutting edge of all things, where new features abound and functionality is at its peak. However the reality is always far from that nirvana with the majority of our work being on systems that are years old running pieces of software that haven’t seen meaningful updates in years. That’s why few tears have been shed by administrators worldwide about XP’s impending demise as it signals the end of the need to support something that’s now over a decade old. Of course this is much to the chagrin of end users and big enterprises who have still yet to make the transition.
Indeed big enterprises are rarely on the cutting edge and thus rely on extended support programs in order to keep their fleet maintained. This is partially due to the amount of inertia big corporations have, as making the change to potentially thousands of endpoints takes some careful planning an execution. Additionally the impacts to the core business cannot be underestimated and must be taken into careful consideration before the move to a new platform is made. With this in mind it’s really no surprise that corporations often buy support contracts that go for 3 or 5 years for the underlying hardware as that ensures that they won’t have to make disruptive changes during that time frame.
So when HP announced recently that it would be requiring customers to have a valid warranty or support agreement with them in order to get updates I found myself in two minds about it. For most enterprises this will be a non-issue as running hardware that’s out of warranty is begging for trouble and not many have the appetite for that kind of risk. Indeed I actually thought this would be a good thing for enterprise level IT as it would mean that I wouldn’t be cornered into supporting out of warranty hardware, something which has caused me numerous headaches in the past. On the flip side though this change does affect something that is near and dear to my heart: my little HP Mircoserver.
This new decision means that this little server only gets updates for a year after purchase after which you’re up for at least $100 for a HP Care Pack which extends the warranty out to 5 years and provides access to all the updates. Whilst I missed the boat on the install issues that plagued its initial release (I got mine after the update came out) I can see it happening again with similar hardware models. Indeed the people hit hardest by this change are likely the ones who would be least able to afford a support plan of this nature (I.E. smaller businesses) who are the typical candidates for running hardware that’s out of a support arrangement. I can empathise with their situation but should I find myself in a situation where I needed an update for them and couldn’t get it due to their lack of support arrangements I’d be the first one to tell them so.
Indeed the practice isn’t too uncommon with the majority of other large vendors requiring something on the order of a subscription in order to get product updates with the only notable exception being Dell (full disclosure: I work for them). I’ll agree that it appears to be a bit of a cash grab as HP’s server business hasn’t been doing too well in the recent quarters (although no one has done particularly well, to be honest) although I doubt they’re going to make up much to counter act the recent downfall. This might also spur some customers on to purchase newer hardware whilst freeing up resources within HP that no longer need to support previous generations of hardware.
So I guess what I’m getting at is that whilst I can empathise with the people who will be hard done by with this change I, as someone who has to deal with warranty/support calls, don’t feel too hard done by. Indeed any admin worth their salt could likely get their hands on the updates anyway without having to resort to the official source anyway. If the upkeep on said server is too much for you to afford then it’s likely time to rethink your IT strategy, potentially looking at cloud based solutions that have a very low entry point cost when compared to upgrading a server.
My stance on Cloud Gaming is well known and honestly barring some major breakthrough in several technological areas (graphics cards, available bandwidth, etc.) I can’t see it changing any time soon. The idea of local streaming however is something I’m on board with as there have already been numerous proven examples where it can work, a couple of which I’ve actually used myself. So when I heard that Valve was going to enable In Home Streaming as a feature of Steam I was pretty excited as there have been a couple times where I’ve found myself wanting to use games installed on my main PC on other computers in the house. Valve widen the beta last week to include a lot more people and I was lucky enough to snag an invite so I gave In Home Streaming a look over during the Australia Day long weekend.
The setup couldn’t be more simple. At this stage you have to opt into the Steam client beta, requiring you to redownload the client (around 80 MB at the time of writing) and sign into both machines using the same account. Now last time I remember trying to do that I got told I was already logged in somewhere else and thus couldn’t log in but it seems this client version has no such limitations. Once you’re logged into both machines you should be greeted with a list of games available to play that matches your main machine perfectly and, when you go to play them, you’ll have the option to either install it locally or stream it from the other machine.
Clicking on stream will start the game on the other machine its installed on and, should everything go according to plan, it will then appear in another window on the machine you’re streaming to. The first thing you’ll notice though is that the game fully runs on the other machine, including display the graphics and playing sound. This can be somewhat undesirable and whilst it’s easily remedied it shows you what kind of streaming is actually occurring (I.E. DirectX mirroring). Using such technology also places some limitations on what can and cant’ be streamed by simply clicking on the stream button but there are ways around it.
I first tried this on my media PC which is a HP MicroServer that has a Radeon HD6450 1GB installed in it. Now this machine can handle pretty much any kind of content you can throw at it although I have had it struggle with some high bitrate 1080p files. This was somewhat improved by using newer drivers and later builds of VLC so I was pretty confident it could handle a similar stream over the network. Whilst it worked the frame rates were pretty dismal, even in games which weren’t as graphically intense. Considering the primary use case of this would be for underpowered machines to take advantage of the grunt other PCs in the house can provide this was a little disappointing but I decided I’d give it a go on my Zenbook before I passed judgement.
The much better hardware of the Zenbook improved the experience greatly with all the games I tested on it running nigh on perfectly. There were a couple issues to report, namely when the stream broke there didn’t seem to be a way to restart it so I was just left with a black screen and audio playing. The differing resolutions meant that I was playing with a boxed perspective which was a tad annoying and, unfortunately, it appears you’re limited to the resolutions of the box you’re streaming from (I couldn’t run DOTA 2 at 1080p as my monitors are 1680 x 1050). Still the performance was good enough that I could play FPS games on it, although I wasn’t game enough to try an online match.
Overall I’m very impressed with what Valve has delivered with In Home Streaming as it’s pretty much what I expected, bar it being so damn easy to set up and use. Whilst I’m sure they’ll improve the performance over time it does speak volumes to the fact that the end point does matter and that you will have a worse experience on low powered hardware. Still, even then it was usable for my use case (watching in game DOTA 2 replays) and I’m sure that it would be good enough in its current form for a lot of people.