Cloud and Virtualization Options for AEC Firms
In 2020, there was a significant shift towards virtualizing offices and working from home. Although this can often present challenges, many architectural, engineering, and construction (AEC) firms have learned the benefits of virtualizing desktops, services and relying on cloud computing.
Whether it’s for project management with BIM, visualization, and rendering, or energy performance analysis, AEC firms are looking for secure and efficient ways to collaborate and work seamlessly. In this article, we will discuss some of the virtualization and cloud options currently available.
Virtualization and the Cloud
We’ve heard these terms a lot lately, but it isn’t always clear what they mean. Fortunately, the concept of the Cloud is fairly simple: It refers to computers and computing resources that you access via the Internet. Typically, it refers to services run from data centers and offered by providers such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Google (as well as numerous other vendors).
Virtualization is only one type of cloud service, where a server is set up to emulate the experience of working at a single desktop computer. A “virtual desktop” or “virtualized desktop” is usually running on a server that hosts 4, 8, 16, or more discrete environments. I.e. instead of one computer sitting at the desk of one user, you’ll have numerous users connecting to discrete environments that can be located in a data center somewhere else.
There are a few terms you should know when working with cloud and virtualized resources.
- Cloud file services are a fairly common offering, and as the name suggests, are used to host your company’s files. They often use software installed on the local computer to integrate with the operating system, such as how Autodesk’s Desktop Connector allows the user to access files and folders stored in BIM 360 via Windows Explorer.
- Cloud computing is a service where the tasks are handled on servers and specialized for that purpose. This can mean a highly specific function (such as Autodesk Revit Cloud Rendering, where you upload a model, and selected 3D views are rendered quickly on high-powered servers), and goes all the way up to accessing quantum computers (e.g. IBM Quantum Lab).
- Virtual machines (“VM”) is the term for a discrete virtualized desktop.
- Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (“VDI”) refers to hosting multiple VMs on servers. VDI is a one-tenant solution — i.e. your firm manages, controls, and exclusively uses the hardware, which is often managed by your company’s IT department. The host server can be on-premise or kept in a data center that is accessed via remote services.
- Desktop as a Service (“DaaS”) also provides a full desktop experience in a VM to a user, but almost all of the IT management is also outsourced to the service provider. The hardware is often shared by multiple tenants, although each firm’s resources are logically isolated (so you won’t see other tenant’s data or vice versa).
- Software as a Service (“SaaS”) is a different model, where the application is the only part provided to the user. The user still has their own desktop computer, and will likely use locally installed programs.
Benefits of Virtualization and Cloud Services
One major advantage of these services is flexibility.
Users can work from anywhere that has an Internet connection, and get a consistent user experience. IT can also add, remove or alter the VMs or other resources quickly and easily.
You also have many more options for what client computers you can select. Instead of a user needing a high-powered desktop workstation, they can use any computer, as the real work is performed at the data center. For example, an architect working on the construction of a project could check in from their home computer; connect to the same session when they arrive at the office; then go to the construction site, and use an ultralight laptop to track progress — while getting a consistent experience and full access to all their programs, files, and settings.
A second advantage is that it reduces IT overhead and time.
With a virtual environment, applications and/or desktops can be updated automatically; changes can be pushed out easily to users; if a user’s desktop environment has a problem, then a new VM can be quickly spun up, with all of the applications ready to go, far faster than reinstalling an OS or replacing hardware. Relying on a service provider (DaaS, SaaS, or cloud computing) also means less work for your IT consultants or staff.
Cloud services are significantly more robust than what most firms can provide with on-premise options. This can include high availability options, keeping multiple versions of files, high-quality storage, and 24/7 support.
Challenges of Virtualization and Cloud Services
One problem with cloud file services is that they often do not have automatic file locking, which means that two users can accidentally open the same file, edit it, and the last user to save will overwrite the other version. While services do offer manual file locks and the ability to roll back to earlier versions, it can be a problem if the users expect the same exact experience of working on a server in the office.
The issue is far more serious with Revit, which will not work properly with most cloud file services. If you are using a cloud file system as your primary storage, and want to use the work-sharing features of Revit, you will need to supplement it with Autodesk’s BIM Collaboration Pro. A fully virtualized office, where users are connected directly to a virtual server in the same network, won’t have that problem (as that replicates the network configuration of a LAN).
For those using VDI, DaaS, and SaaS options, one issue is that the back-end hardware may not be as powerful or seem as responsive as what many users experience working at a desktop computer. Most AutoCAD files should work well in virtual environments, but applications like Revit, 3ds Max, and Civil 3D may be demanding on a virtual desktop. Some companies do offer higher-powered options but at a higher cost.
Another issue is that many service providers are not familiar with the requirements for installing software routinely used in the AEC industry. We recommend vendors that are familiar with or specialize in the AEC industry.
A third issue to consider with virtual environments is collaboration. In theory, you can add a VM to a provider, and allow third-party access to that VM; however, if there are any oversights with securing that user, you may be allowing access to far more data than you want. Again, BIM Collaborate is designed from the ground up for that type of situation and is fully compatible with most VDI and DaaS options. (SaaS may be more difficult, depending on the provider.)
In an era where users are increasingly able to work from home, the office, while traveling, and in the field — sometimes all on the same day, the flexibility, security, and power offered by cloud and virtual options is increasingly beneficial and is already a routine part of how many companies now work.
If you have questions about how to best enhance your environment with virtual or cloud options, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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