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Tapping into Virtual CPUs

January 14, 2014
Amazon EC2 login screen is the starting point for virtual access

EC2 login screen is the starting point for virtual access

To start the new year off right, I’m generating a series of blog posts about my experiences with various tools, what’s working and what isn’t. Over the holidays I experimented with NREL’s OpenStudio energy and daylight modeling tool, using Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) in the process.

The first step for me was setting up a virtual server on the Amazon EC2 cloud. Why? As an independent designer and software developer I am often called upon to explore new tools and capabilities that might turn into work, or might not. Yet all of them require installation. Of course we all know how dangerous it can be in the PC world to repeatedly install and uninstall software. Sure enough, an architect with whom I work experienced significant installation problems with OpenStudio when he installed it for a workshop a while back. If such problems are to plague me, I want to make darn sure they don’t knock out my primary workstation for any period of time.

In addition to wanting a clean slate on which to practice, I like the idea of having an expandable resource base in order to increase my hardware resources as needed. I’d also like to run longer tasks or multiple tasks without conflict; log in remotely from anywhere with my laptop to the active machine, without using LogMeIn or establishing a vpn server in my office space; and provide resources to additional developers when available; all on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Setting up my Amazon account was easy and obvious. Amazon offers the smallest “t1.micro” class free for one year, which I found was a great way to get started. I don’t have to worry about the hourly cost of my learning curve and it gives me a reference point against which to compare performance needs later on.

To start, I installed SketchUp and OpenStudio on the t1.micro and began to exercise the programs, but I found the response time of SketchUp to be pretty bad. Stopping the instance and restarting on a larger configuration, an m1.medium, corrected that problem.  The cost of running an m1.medium is very small, but it is also trivial to switch between configurations. I switch back to a free t1.micro instance during slow times, such as when I’m wading through the OpenStudio tutorial videos. (With a dual screen workstation, I run the tutorials in a browser locally on one screen, with the remote desktop to my Amazon instance open in the other.)

Overall, the experiment has been a complete success. I appreciate not having the additional software installed on my workstation until I’m ready to commit to it in the longer term. I now have an initial machine configuration up and running on the cloud for quick expansion when I need it. Although there were some tricks to the initial configuration, none was too difficult. It’s a great way to have extra resources sitting on the shelf to access when I need them. If the virtual hardware trade-off works, perhaps the next thing to take a look at is renting software!

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