A Case Study in Virtual Workstations for CAD

28 Nov, 2018 By: Alex Herrera

Herrera on Hardware: The experience of architecture and engineering firm Mead & Hunt presents a compelling proof point for a new CAD computing paradigm.

The virtual workstation has arrived, offering an alternative solution to traditional client-focused environments that are beginning to creak under the strain of today’s CAD IT challenges. There’s no doubt that on paper, the centralized topology in which servers host a virtual representation of a user’s workstation — i.e., the virtual workstation — presents unique advantages to companies struggling to manage increasingly scattered staff working on huge datasets with a range of computing devices. Co-locating data, compute, and graphics in one central repository — be that in the cloud or in a private virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) datacenter — works to alleviate those pain points hampering productivity for firms in architecture, construction, design, and manufacturing.

For more background on the concept of virtual workstations, including an extensive look at the technologies and specific solutions available in the market today, check out my four-part series, “Harnessing the Cloud for CAD: The Case for Virtual Workstations.”

A variety of end-user devices, including those with limited processing power, can be used with cloud-hosted virtual workstations.

It’s Here — and Steadily Picking Up Momentum

Although I used the phrase “on paper” in the opening of this column, that isn’t the slight it might sound like. Normally, it might be reserved to disparage technology that sounds nice in theory, but isn’t mature, accessible, or compelling enough to deliver the real-world benefits the paper pitch promises. But in this case, “on paper” simply reflects the reality that the concept and technologies are still in the early stages of adoption, and examples of their effective deployment are relatively scarce. But given that virtual workstations should eventually lead to a significant shift of CAD computing infrastructure, I’m paying close attention to the few real-world examples that do exist — and I suggest all providers and consumers with a vested interest do the same.

One excellent example is Mead & Hunt. A global engineering and architecture firm, Mead & Hunt’s fingers are spread both broad and deep across a wide range of industries and disciplines. Its workforce of 700 is distributed among 30 offices across the United States in all time zones, with staff out on construction or client sites nearly as often as they are in the office.

All those personnel need 24/7 access to the same project database, yet must avoid the perils of accidentally working from outdated copies of unsynchronized revisions. To compound the problem, those dataset copies aren’t measured in megabytes anymore, or even tens or hundreds of megabytes: Project teams had to wrestle with Revit files up to 3 GB in size, incurring lengthy, productivity-crushing delays in copying from site to site.

The Critical First Step: Centralizing Data in the Cloud

Problematic revision control and network delays resulting from the explosion of data and expansion of the company’s physical footprint were the first and most painful issues that came to the fore for Mead & Hunt, explained CIO Andy Knauf. Accordingly, years ago Knauf and his team pushed the company to transition project data to the cloud, choosing Amazon Web Services (AWS) to host and secure data for the company’s projects.

Architects and engineers continued to design and simulate on their client-side mobile and deskside workstations. But rather than downloading and copying files, they worked directly on cloud-resident data, accessed via virtual private networks (VPNs). The data was managed by Panzura controllers that specialize in cloud-source file services with multi-site file locking for distributed physical environments like Mead & Hunt’s.

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About the Author: Alex Herrera

Alex Herrera

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Re: A Case Study in Virtual Workstations for CAD
by: cadcoke5
December 7, 2018 - 10:21am
I am in my 50's and recall the first time I saw a computer. I was a child and we were at the hospital for some reason. I recall the lady sitting at the green-screen terminal expressing her frustration... "The computer is slow to respond today". My local Comcast data connection is pretty reliable... but there are moments when I get a pause in my Internet activities. I don't know where in the chain of events required when accessing a web site, that the pauses happen. But I would hate to have this regularly happen when I was doing CAD work. Another issue I want to mention is in regards to having large networks of collaborators. If changes to parts of a large design are handled more traditionally, then the engineer working on one part should get notification when his design may be affected. If things change without you knowing it, then your design may no longer be valid. And while it is possible to set up parametric constraints that, for instance, automatically enlarge a clearance hole for a through-bolt, it is not possible to anticipate all possible changes, and all possible parametric solutions. For instance, that clearance hole, if it is on a piece of sheet metal, may need to stay a certain distance away from a sheet metal fold. I compare this to the example of the driver-less car. Yes, it is amazing what they can do. But, they just don't have the same kind of judgment as a human driver. A number of years ago, I came across some kids playing a very foolish Halloween prank. They were throwing a dummy in front of cars driving by. I saws the situation in advance, and didn't try to do a panic stop on the wet roads. Doing so may have caused me to skid a bit, and end up hitting an actual kid. I don't think the driver-less car would have that judgment. That parametric clearance hole in sheet metal, that I mentioned earlier, requires human intervention to prevent a bad design. The human operator knows the hole should be changed to a notch when it gets too close to the bend. I suspect that the idea of large, and intimately detailed collaborative designs are oversold. In reality, I wonder if they end up being broken up in to smaller design tasks that are more akin to how it was done before CAD design was even available. I often say that God is a better engineer than me. Well, in the case of programming a CAD program, we may be able to do a lot of useful tings, but God is still better at it than us. He is the one who provided us our minds.
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