Cloud-Based CAD

Harnessing the Cloud for CAD: The Case for Virtual Workstations

28 Jun, 2017 By: Alex Herrera

Herrera on Hardware: The demands of CAD-heavy workflows in manufacturing, design, architecture, and construction are growing. Some companies are looking beyond their local machines, and implementing virtual computing options to augment or replace traditional deskside and laptop workstations.


Workstations, virtualization, and the cloud — this trio of technology tools is joining forces, ready to transform the way design teams deploy and use workstation-caliber systems to tackle the increasingly challenging issues facing cutting-edge CAD workflows.

The first component of that trio is the tried-and-true foundation that CAD users and IT administrators have long relied on to power visually intensive workflows quickly and reliably. The second is a more recent computing tool that enables users to run their familiar client desktops on shared datacenter resources. And the third represents today's hottest markets and technologies, upon which IT vendors and users alike are looking to resolve the future's thorniest computing problems. Today, the confluence of the three is creating a valuable new weapon for the CAD IT arsenal: Cloud-hosted virtual workstations are here.

We’ve seen this potential and evolution of cloud-hosted virtual workstations coming for a while; I discussed some of the evolving supporting products and technologies over the past couple of years in "New Computing Solutions for CAD Take Fuller Advantage of the Cloud" and "Is Cloud-Based CAD Ready for Prime Time?" This month, I kick off a series on what this cloud-based technology is all about: Why it’s appealing, whether you should consider its adoption, and key considerations to take in deployment. This first installment explains what virtual workstations are and how they work, and also explores whether your business and workflow might benefit from adopting them in place of traditional, physical workstations.

Why a Virtual Workstation?

Traditional deskside and laptop workstations power the vast majority of CAD environments today. They have done so for years, reliably and effectively. But some businesses — particularly those running CAD-heavy workflows in manufacturing, design, architecture, and construction — are finding it increasingly difficult to satisfy the demands imposed by a host of growing challenges. Skyrocketing dataset sizes, dynamic workflows, a globally distributed workforce that needs immediate access to complex visual data, heightened concerns of security, and the constant incursion of personal digital devices into the workplace: all are conspiring to push traditional, distributed client environments to the brink.

Huge files no longer take seconds to transfer from client to client, or site to site — instead it might be minutes or even hours. Security risks spread, while the burden of protecting priceless IP has never been heavier. And complex projects are more often requiring teams assembled not just from employees, but also contractors and consultants who might be in the field or in an office halfway around the world. Yet, all need access to the same datasets, on demand, from wherever they are at the moment — and that data must be up to date.

In urgent need of solutions to these growing problems, businesses that rely on high-performance visual computing for CAD are beginning to look elsewhere, and one solution shining particularly brightly is the virtual workstation.

What Is a Virtual Workstation?

With the traditional, distributed client-side model that now dominates professional computing, all user processing and rendering is performed locally by the client computer. But with a virtual workstation approach, a remote server hosts a virtual representation of that machine, somewhere in the cloud or possibly in a corporate-owned datacenter. That virtual workstation performs everything that the physical machine at the desk would: running the operating system (OS) and applications, and processing graphics. Only the final displayed image — the pixel stream — traverses the network, to a simple client that need only display those pixels and handle any user input (e.g., commands from the keyboard and mouse).


In the traditional, tried-and-true environment of distributed workstation clients, the client handles at least part of the computing.


In the server-centric, cloud-capable virtual workstation environment, the entire compute burden is lifted off clients.

How Virtual Workstations Can Address CAD Needs


The ability of a virtualized workstation environment to store one golden set of data safely in one place looks particularly attractive when considering the explosion in the size of today’s ambitious and complex project datasets. With a virtualized, centralized IT environment, it makes no difference if staff is located all in the same building or scattered across the globe. With potentially massive, global teams comprising employees, contractors, and partners, success hinges on IT’s ability to efficiently connect people to the data, without costly, time-consuming copies and downloads.

When machines are no longer physically moved around — just virtually and dynamically allocated — IT administration becomes faster, simpler, and less error-prone. De-provisioning one user while provisioning another is fast, making rapid expansion and contraction over a project's life far less problematic. And centralized control and management consoles can simplify and streamline administration overhead, particularly for geographically dispersed enterprises.

By design, the use of virtual workstations hardens corporate security. Critical IP never strays beyond company grounds on laptops and flash drives. Only pixels cross corporate firewalls, and those pixel streams can be (and typically are) encrypted. Better still, virtually any device can suffice, regardless of OS or underlying hardware, making personal smartphones, tablets, or Macs capable and safe for CAD-related work.

The advantages of such a virtual workstation environment appeal as much in CAD as in any other application — and arguably more. In the CAD world, huge, visually complex datasets abound, numerous scattered staff and third parties must contribute and collaborate, and security is paramount. So it’s no surprise that some of the earliest adopters are coming from the automotive, aerospace, and architecture spaces. Consider Honda Automotive, which having completed several successful proof-of-concept trials, is green-lighting the deployment of around 10,000 virtual workstations to replace physical deskside machines. Or CannonDesign, a Top 50 architecture firm that is moving to a virtual workstation environment to ease the growing problem of managing huge Revit designs spread across as many as 16 corporate sites.

Virtual or Physical: Which Is Right for Your Business?

The benefits are compelling, and everyone who relies heavily on CAD run on conventional deskside workstations should explore this new potential of virtual workstations. But it’s important to know that there is neither a mandate nor a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to deploying them. Virtual workstations might represent a replacement to deskside machines, an add-on to a traditional client-side environment, or neither. Which situations call for virtual solutions, and which are probably best left (at least for now) to physical ones? Ultimately, answers to these questions depend largely on who you are, what you do, and how you work.

For example, the locations where your staff works and lives — and the ways in which they need to collaborate — matter. How unwieldy your datasets are today, and how you see them growing down the road, will have a big impact on the choice.

Security is important to all, but a virtual approach will appeal especially to more vulnerable companies, or those for whom a breach would be catastrophic. Similarly, while no business wants outages and long recovery times due to natural disaster, for some the probability might be substantially higher — and the penalties far more severe.

A move to a virtual workstation environment comes with mandatory infrastructure requirements, including access to a capable network with high, reliable bandwidth and consistently low round-trip latencies. Businesses that have that access or have the means to acquire it — particularly for the wide-area network (WAN) — can consider going virtual. (More to come on this topic in a future installment).

Since most virtual workstations run the identical client operating system users run on traditional workstations, such as Windows, they are inherently compatible with applications that run on those operating systems. However, you will want to make sure any virtual workstation solution you’re considering is certified for use with your mission-critical application, just as you would with a traditional deskside workstation.

Virtual platforms do not typically support every possible peripheral a user may demand, and high-demand input and output (I/O) can impact visual performance. Tasks and workflows with more pedestrian peripheral requirements (e.g., mouse and keyboard) are a better fit for virtual workstations, though specific I/O support will vary by solution.


Some key decision criteria to consider in the decision to go virtual or not.

Consider how your specific business and workflow measure up on these key criteria. Don’t find many that are calling out for a virtual approach? Then you may be better off sticking with traditional physical workstations, at least for now. But if you find you’re checking off most of these items, and more than a few represent hot-button issues for your business, then it's probably time to consider taking the plunge into the world of virtual workstations.

For more on hosting virtual workstations in the cloud, keep an eye out for more Herrera on Hardware columns focusing on these topics, coming soon. Over the next few months, I’ll explore the following considerations:

  • Making the case for virtual workstations in the cloud: What a cloud offers that VDI can’t
  • Considerations in deploying cloud-hosted virtual workstations for CAD, including whether to exploit public or private cloud resources, or some hybrid of the two
  • Looking forward: Where a cloud-centric CAD workflow can lead.

Editor's Note: Read "Harnessing the Cloud for CAD: The Case for Virtual Workstations, Part 2" here.


About the Author: Alex Herrera

Alex Herrera

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