Arik Hesseldahl

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Cloud-Paging Start-Up Numecent Emerges From Stealth, Spins Off Gaming Unit Approxy (Video)

When you think about the way cloud computing works, there’s a progression to it, which, when taken to a logical extreme, looks a little like this: First your data migrates to the cloud and you interact with it via software that runs locally on your own machine. Then your applications go to the cloud and you run full-featured software via a browser. This is the classic software-as-a-service approach.

Now, there are lots of X-as-a-service plays in the IT world, and one of them is the desktop-as-a-service approach, where everything you need for a workaday PC can run on a virtualized server in the cloud, and all the user sees is a keyboard, mouse and screen. It’s efficient, easier and less costly to support than desktop PCs. But? You need to fully license every instance of software you use, in much the same way you would with an old-school desktop. And then there’s always the latency that comes from delivering something via the pipes, which are never quite fast enough, no matter what you do.

But what if you could deliver a full computing experience — operating systems, applications, gaming, the whole enchilada — virtually? Two weeks ago, I saw a demonstration of just such a service that kind of blew my mind. And today the company behind it, Numecent, is coming out of stealth mode and also announcing a spinoff.

First, let’s cover the basics: Numecent is a start-up run by Osman Kent, the onetime CEO and co-founder of 3Dlabs, the company that in the 1990s more or less started the graphics processor industry, which Nvidia and Advanced Micro Devices are the leaders of today. The company has a bunch of undisclosed investors, but last month TechCrunch reported that it had raised $2 million in a series A that was part of a larger $10 million funding round. I’m told there are 107 individual shareholders in the company.

So what does Numecent’s Technology do? It calls its technology “cloud paging,” and in its corporate literature it takes pains to explain that it is nothing like “pixel streaming,” a technique in which applications, mostly games, run on a cloud server and deliver the experience of the game — literally the pixels of a gaming environment — to a PC over the Internet. This is essentially how OnLive, a gaming outfit, works.

The fundamental problem here is that while the cloud is good for streaming linear content like movies and music, where one bit follows logically after another, it’s less good at nonlinear stuff, like applications. One bit doesn’t necessarily follow in a logical order from another, because users jump around from one process or feature to another. So if you’re trying to run a software application via the cloud, you can run into trouble pretty easily if it’s a processor-heavy program.

Cloud paging, as best I understand it, uses the Internet to transmit x86 chip instructions — basically telling the Intel or AMD processor in a PC what to do remotely. What this allows is something Numecent describes as “friction-free” computing. What that means in practice is that you could run any application on your local system from the cloud, in an almost-instant, on-demand manner. And when you’re done using it you just shut it down and your local system is left more or less untouched. When you’re done using it, it’s as if the software had never been on your PC.

Numecent’s cloud-paging scheme breaks software up into small pieces, called “pages,” that can then be pushed out dynamically. The user’s machine creates what’s called a virtual memory management unit, which handles the job of requesting the pages that are delivered. Connections between the client machine and the server are also strongly encrypted.

The end result, the company says, is a reduction by as much as 60x in deployment and delivery time of applications. And there’s also nothing to maintain. When the user is done using the virtual application or machine, there’s nothing left on the client machine.

Let’s say you’re a part-time graphic designer who works for a company only two days a week. The company would normally have to pay for you to have Adobe Creative Suite installed on the machine you use. This can easily run a few thousand dollars. But if you could check it out for a few hours and run it on a cloud server, with the same features and the same native speed, as though it were installed on your local system, it would cost your employer a lot less.

Central to all this are 10 patents that Numecent has on its cloud-paging technology. I’m told that these are battle-tested patents, and that Microsoft and Citrix Systems are among its licensees.

The same experience can be applied to games. Most games worth having can be bought from download stores today, but they’re huge and take a lot of time to download and then install. What if you could just play whatever game you wanted, pay for the time you use it, and then stop paying when you’re done? That’s sort of the idea behind Approxy, a spinoff that Numecent is launching today, as well. Yavuz Ahiska, another 3Dlabs alum, is taking it out of Numecent, and plans to offer a white-labeled cloud gaming service that gaming companies can license. Approxy is described in a lot more detail in the video (below) that Numecent shared with me exclusively.

Numecent’s plan is to essentially spin out different companies that put its cloud-paging technology to work in different contexts.

Approxy from Arik Hesseldahl on Vimeo.

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— Om Malik on Bloomberg TV, talking about Yahoo, the September issue of Vogue Magazine, and our overdependence on Google