Case Studies in Virtual Workstations for CAD: Southland

16 Oct, 2019 By: Alex Herrera

Herrera on Hardware: AEC firm Southland is a prime example of IT demands that call for a centralized/virtualized solution.


Onus on Network Performance

While a virtual workstation approach appeals by eliminating expensive, insecure, and error-prone copies across the network, it also places an additional burden on the network that a traditional client-side solution wouldn’t. Modeling and visualizing designs with CAD is an inherently interactive workflow, which means there’s a fast digital round trip that has to occur every time the user initiates anything with keyboard or mouse. Use the mouse to rotate a model, for example, and that request has to be transmitted across the network back to the datacenter server, which re-renders the view (with GPU acceleration), encodes and encrypts the image, and then ships that image back across the network again to the client for display. In order to avoid torturing the user with an awkward and frustrating experience, that round trip must be completed in less than 200 ms, worst case, and preferably under 100 ms.

On a corporate local-area network (LAN), getting under those numbers is not typically an issue, as bandwidth is usually more than ample and latency very low. But transmitting across the wide-area network (WAN) to a remote location — a satellite site or home office, for example — is a different story. No, it’s not an intractable problem by any stretch, as today cloud and network providers offer plentiful options for fat, low-latency WAN pipes. But it is something that an adopter of virtual workstations needs to consider and assess to make sure reliable minimum bandwidth and maximum latency limits are achievable.

Southland, for example, took its existing default (albeit inherently optimized) MPLS Gigabit WAN links as a starting point for evaluating the performance for Workspot’s virtual workstation solution (see this Network World article, “MPLS Explained,” for some background on MPLS). IT staff found latency both short and consistent, down to just 5 ms for their Portland office, for example. Bandwidth wasn’t a problem either, thanks to the copious amount available in their MPLS links and Workspot’s support of the RDP 10 codec. One of the latest generation of protocols derived from the ubiquitous H.264 standard, RDP 10 can support at least four monitors with resolutions up to 4K under lightly loaded network conditions, but can also auto-scale compression and resolution to adjust dynamically to any network congestion.

Another Top Priority: Security

Firms in AEC, as well as CAD-reliant businesses in product development and manufacturing, share more challenges in managing data than just its sheer size. Of even more concern than their own business’s private data, there’s the paramount onus of protecting their clients’ IP. And that leads to yet another driving motivation in the adoption of a datacenter-hosted workstation environment: security.

The beauty of a centralized solution is that source project data never leaves the datacenter. Only the pixels do, protecting the source data behind the firewall, whether that data is being worked on in a local office, on a remote desktop, or on a laptop at an airport gate. And there are no worries if that laptop is left behind in a cab or café! Furthermore, even the pixel streams are protected from any prying eyes while in transit over the WAN or client-side LAN. Workspot is an SOC 2–compliant provider, securing all data in flight end-to-end with industry standard TLS 1.2 encryption and data “at rest” with AES 256-bit encryption and auto-rotating keys.

A Challenging, but Rewarding, Transition

The IT journey Southland took turned out very similar to that of Mead & Hunt, and that shouldn’t surprise. Both firms share the same challenges facing many large and geographically distributed CAD-reliant businesses, especially those in architecture, engineering, and construction. Southland’s issues with data bottlenecks and security holes drove the company to centralized data — and directly from there to datacenter-hosted virtual workstations.

The company successfully transitioned half of its workforce — around 225 engineers and designers in Oregon and California — in the span of six months, and expects to make the move company-wide in two years. And for next steps across the board, Southland IT plans to eventually transition users in the office away from their current desktop client machines and onto thin clients. Such a move will only harden security, as thin clients come in a range of options, including fixed-function OS-less zero-clients that are virtually impossible to hack.

In the end, the motivation to move to a cloud-hosted workstation environment is a compelling one, no matter what CAD-reliant business you’re in. Because if your company is already struggling with the types of challenges Southland faced, the pain will likely only get worse as time marches on. And if you’re not yet, there’s a good chance you will in the future. Given that, the time is ripe for all IT managers managing staff in architecture, engineering, design, and manufacturing to — at the very least — understand and assess the option of moving to a virtual workstation environment. For many, like single-site outfits managing smaller design projects, the move probably won’t make sense, or at least not yet. But if you find yourself managing CAD in a multi-site enterprise like Southland, battling the same issues in data, security, and ease of access, adoption of virtual workstations will more than likely be fitting into your long-term plans.

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About the Author: Alex Herrera

Alex Herrera

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