Saturday, February 10, 2007

A strong business case for WPF?

Hot issues in the computing universe include the advent of Vista and the .NET framework 3.0 including technologies such as Windows Presentation Framework (WPF). Even the most disconnected developer will be aware of the hyped images of videos playing on the faces of spinning cubes and photo-albums that float in a plasma-filled void. All very pretty, amazingly attractive to geeks who understand what it takes to do such a thing, but how do you explain the need for early adoption of such a technology to someone who doesn’t see the need for these sorts of things in their application?

Recently I’ve been working in a company where I’m responsible for the GUI end of a complex data architecture and I am faced with diverse problems on a daily basis. Firstly, the company is a large institution with a phenomenal IT overhead. Everything must be certified; everything must be accepted and verified. As a result it’s only recently that the company moved onto Windows XP systems and even more recently that Service Pack 2 has been accepted and even that is installed on a very few machines. Imagine then how difficult it might be to persuade the people in the system to adopt such a new technology as WPF. When we see WPF we see video games, we see spinning cubes, we see applications that are so much fluff and that have little or no use whatsoever for a company that just needs to display values from a database in a grid. A project manager who sees such demonstrations will dismiss them out of hand, indeed, they have.

However, the managers are very hot on the subject of performance. The data architecture I work with has the possibility to swallow and process large amounts of real-time data. This data comes from complex calculation systems that can change a couple of hundred lines on a data grid in a matter of moments. Using conventional systems, the best commercial grid software we can find and every optimisation technique available to us we still see processor consumption rates climbing to the 100 percent mark on simple machines and the 50 percent mark - this is to say one processor totally consumed - on multi-core systems. Why is this? Simply, because instead of using the processor for doing work, we’re using it to paint the constantly changing cells in a grid. Our graphics and our UI are destroying our ability to do work.

Where does this leave us? In order to liberate the processor we need to stop it from drawing the graphics. We still need the graphics so this implies that they need to be managed somewhere else. By the graphics card itself possibly.

Strangely WPF is here with a system that can make even the most bogged-down two dimensional application fly. With the power of graphics processors on even simple display cards today, the rendering of a grid can become a trivial matter, even when it’s data-bound to a constantly changing stream of data.

Forget spinning cubes, forget cards that bounce and shatter in a waterfall of broken shards, forget plasma fields with smiling babies and dogs catching Frisbees. Show the managers in your company the benefits of freeing up those expensive processors for doing real work and leave the graphics where they belong, on the video card.