WPF and Terminal Services, a mix not made in heaven

When we first architected Enterprise Terminal Services performance wasn’t at the top of our priority list. Actually one our goals was to get rid of the requirement of our software to run Terminal Services in a distributed environment. It sucks to have to pay MS license fees twice. Once for the Windows CAL and then for the TS CAL. I spent a lot of time researching a distributed framework to build Enterprise on. Luckily I was fortunate to see Rocky Lhotka at a local event and heard about his CSLA framework. It fulfilled all our requirements and after reading his book I was sold. Fast forward a few years and we have a desktop client that can run locally and talk to a remote data store using not much more bandwidth than a similar browser application. Plus we get the benefit of a full trust application on the computer. So yes, we have a distributed application that run across the Internet with pretty good speed and we find ourselves still needing Terminal Services sometimes. The one factor I didn’t account for, and shame on me for being in this industry over 15 years and not seeing it, is companies like to run really old hardware.

We designed Enterprise using the latest and greatest from Microsoft. Sometimes called the bleeding edge of technology. Now for developers that is great because you get to learn about stuff before it gets mainstream and old school. The problem is that our new fangled WPF UI application has some moderately hefty hardware requirements. Of course as time goes on we have Moore’s Law and business equipment upgrade cycles. Sometimes though they don’t kick in soon enough for our liking. Companies run Terminal Services to get a few more years out of their user’s desktop or the user doesn’t even have a full desktop and runs a WinTerm. Each company has their agenda and we as a company have to adapt our software to run in our market space. As Enterprise rolled out the door and into customers hands we began to learn that users sometimes didn’t have the horsepower to Enterprise and all the WPF goodness we put into it. Now I am not saying you need $5,000 gaming machine to get decent performance but something with moderately reasonable specs. In today’s hardware spending $400 at Best Buy will get you a machine that will run Enterprise pretty well. But when you’re dealing with a company that hasn’t upgraded their user machines in the last 5 to 6 years you might as well try to be running Enterprise on an Intel 486. So we have come full circle and have to deal with Terminal Services again.

Late last year Aaron was tasked with redesigning our UI and take Terminal Services into account. This meant detecting when we’re running on Terminal Services and removing all our transitions. Transitions are a bad thing when it comes to Terminal Services because as we fade and side UI elements around Terminal Services needs to repaint the screen on the client end. You then end up with screen tearing and horrible lag because Terminal Services is try to catch up as you slid that panel neatly out of the way. By getting rid of all the WPF eye candy we end up with a snappy UI. We did all this work and were proud of ourselves until about month ago. Enterprise was being installed at a customer that was self-hosted and running Terminal Services. At the time we thought no big deal because we knew we had Enterprise tuned for Terminal Services sessions. What we didn’t anticipate was their Terminal Services hardware adequate.

Back in the Access days of TempWorks we would recommend  a two CPU machine with at least 2Gb of RAM. That was usually enough to host about 25 users. When we installed Enterprise on a machine with this config we could only get 5 to 10 users comfortably on. After some pondering I came to the conclusion that we were CPU bound. Well, that was easy to figure out because the CPUs maxed at 100% utilization when we approached 10 users, the question was why. Normally Enterprise doesn’t use much more CPU cycles then any other business application. We do steal a few more then necessary when we do our fancy WPF transitions but nothing too off the scale. But in Terminal Services all those transitions are turned off so that wasn’t it. We came to the conclusion that it was a combination of issues. First of all Enterprise is very multithreaded. Almost everything we do is fired off in it own thread so the UI doesn’t freeze. Data coming and going is threaded off. Not a big deal when you’re the only person on a dual or quad core CPU machine but a big deal when you’re sharing an old single core CPU server with many users. Also compound the fact that WPF is using software/CPU rendering because you don’t have access to a GPU in a Terminal Services session. So the CPUs were maxed out trying to keep up with all the threads but also trying to draw Enterprise.

To test the theory we went out and purchased a new Mac Pro desktop with 2 Quad Core Nehalem Xeons at 2.2 GHz. Since Nehalem's are Hyperthreaded we had 16 cores at our disposal. We also installed 10Gb of RAM to make sure we didn’t run out of memory and threw on Windows Server 2008 R2 beta running Terminal Services. Yes I know, a Mac running Windows. Anyway, to test I filled our training room with volunteers and had a few developers at their desktop all log in to this machine and start using Enterprise. I asked all the users to search, open records and navigate to different forms. I was relieved as I watched the server’s resource monitor. The server hardly broke a sweat. We had about 30 users logged in and 50 instances of Enterprise actively being used and the CPUs never broke 50% utilization. Better yet the CPU frequency hovered around 75% meaning the CPUs weren’t even at full power. Not bad for a $3,500 desktop.

I can rest easy again knowing Enterprise runs very well on Terminal Services as long as you have current hardware. To me that is fine because it is easier to convince a company to upgrade their few servers as opposed to upgrading dozens and dozens of desktops.

-Paul

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