If you’re not familiar with Aqua Connect, they came on to the scene with a product that let you connect to Macs via the RDP protocol through the standard RDP client (they even demoed this at BriForum 2010). This feature still exists (you can also connect with VNC if you’re into that sort of thing), but they’ve put a lot of energy into building up their own protocol called Aqua Accelerated Protocol (AAP) to deal with some of the gaps in performance that the other protocols left.
Today, RDP is more or less an add-on to the underlying AAP architecture. AAP handles the connections, encoding, and remote control, and to use RDP or VNC requires the use of a bridge to transcode AAP. AAP is reliable on connections under 150ms, so Aqua Connect says that it’s reliable on 3G and 4G cellular networks. They can deliver full screen audio and video at 1.5mbps over those connections.
They get the performance using a combination of OS-level tweaks and application tweaks that they can auto-discover. In some cases, like iMovie, they know where the users are looking and where they aren’t, so they can increase compression on areas of the screen that are being ignored while making what they anticipate the user is looking at appear perfect. Admins don’t have access to make their own application-level tweaks, but there is a slider that they (and end users) can use to adjust the overall compression ratio of compute vs bandwidth.
They’ve also created their own universal printing feature for using local printers. I asked if it was PDF or XPS and they said that their users are typically more creative and require pixel-perfect accuracy that PDF and XPS couldn’t provide, so they did their own. They also have more control over the color palette and fonts. It’s similar to PDF, so they can easily create PDFs from their files, but is better from a creative quality standpoint.
The next update will see local drive mapping for USB drive support.
Aqua Connect has clients for both Windows and Mac OS X, with planned iOS and Android clients coming out sometime in the next 3-4 months. There is also currently an HTML5 client in public beta. It's your average HTML5 client—gesture support, decent video when not in full screen, no audio (yet...waiting until they get the video right), no drive mapping, and printing via PDF in a new tab—so the same use cases apply as they would with anyone else. The performance is currently not stunning (again, from Omaha to Irvine), but I was cautioned that it is in beta and that they're making constant improvements.
The User Experience
I had a chance to access one of their servers in Irvine, CA from my house in Omaha, NE, and the performance is much better than I remember. Of course, that goes back to when they were just porting RDP, so there was a lot of room for improvement. I tried a few different scenarios, including typing, browsing the web, watching YouTube videos, and playing music. I found myself messing with the slider that controls how much compression is happening quite a bit depending on the situation, but in most cases I could get performance that I’d say was between good and great.
Keystrokes were responsive no matter the application, which was refreshing. I asked if they did local text echo and was told that they’ll do it only if they know exactly what the font is and that they have the same font locally. Otherwise, they’ll leave it to the remote side to render. Everything I was doing was pretty non-creative, so even if I would have needed LTE (which I doubt I did), it probably would have worked just fine.
I switched to web browsing and fell into a Wiki-hole about the French Revolutionary War. Interesting stuff, and after messing with the compression slider a bit I forgot I was using a remote session. Originally it was set to a high level of compression and it took a while for the screen to build up from a lossy image to a lossless one. Adjusting the compression to the middle of the road made that go away without affecting user experience.
When watching YouTube I was a little disappointed. The slider, which was already in the center of the spectrum for the web browsing test, had to be moved to the least amount of compression in order to get good audio. The video itself played great, even at full screen, but the audio was never what I would call perfect.
Ordinarily I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on this because full-screen YouTube isn’t exactly a business use case. Aqua Connect is trying to make a solution that caters to the more creative side of the house, though, and it seems to me that full screen video and perfect audio would be of higher importance to those users. I could get close to good, and I’m sure that if it wasn’t a 3,000 mile round trip it would be better, but it’s worth noting here.
The last thing I did was pop into iTunes and play some music. At first it sounded awesome, nearly perfect with very few pop or lags, but as soon as I started trying to do other things the sound artifacts started appearing, even with the slider still in “YouTube mode” at the least amount of compression. This was solved by changing the audio settings in the preferences so that it didn't try to keep the audio in sync.
Wrap up and Future
I feel like I’m writing something negative about Aqua Connect, but I don’t want it to come off that way. They are providing the best Mac remote desktop experience I’ve seen in a way that is very familiar to all of us in the desktop virtualization space, but that’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement. It’s far better than past versions, and there’s still a ways to go, but there is the very real possibility that it could address some niche desktop virtualization need you might have in your organization. The fact that I had to keep turning to the slider to adjust my experience was both good and bad. It’s good that the option is even there, but I’d like it to be more automatic before I put it front of any users.
The next six months look to be an exciting time for Aqua Connect. In that time they’ll be releasing their new flagship platform which will include the ability to broker both Mac and Windows desktops and applications. If you want to deploy a desktop, admins can specify which desktop the end user sees, but the apps will integrate seamlessly. The most interesting thing about it, though, is that it’s not leveraging RDSH. Instead, they ported their Mac engine over to Windows. I asked how this affected licensing and if I’d need to still buy RDS CALs and it sounds like they’re still working that out. I’m not a betting man, but I suspect Microsoft will find a way to make a buck or two anyway.
I’ll be interested to check back with them after the new platform is released to see how many more things they’ve addressed. There’s no doubt, though, that there are already many use cases out there for a solution like this. They having a lot of success with a number of clients in the financial and educational space. Aqua Connect Remote Desktop Services lists at $249 per concurrent user (perpetual) for business, $199 for education.