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.


Mead & Hunt Never Looked Back

It's not difficult to see why a firm like Mead & Hunt would be looking for a solution like cloud-hosted virtual workstations. Its increasingly distributed workforce now gets 24/7 access from wherever they are, on simple devices that don’t pose security threats anywhere near on par with the old physical workstation clients. A user can get more modestly configured hardware for mainstream work, and when necessary can provision a monster machine far beyond what any buyer would justify in physical form. “Big data” stored and operated on in-place in the cloud enables a virtual, collaborative workspace, where CAD team members anywhere can create, edit, review, and mark up designs, without the costly delays and problematic version errors that can plague a traditional client-heavy, peer-to-peer IT topology.

Those are the big-ticket prizes that those pursuing virtualized and centralized approaches most often place at the top of their wish lists. But they’re not the only ones, and Mead & Hunt had other goals in mind — goals best achieved by a cloud-based approach. Consider disaster recovery: Depending on where staff is located, a fire, hurricane, tornado, or blizzard could knock a conventional client-heavy IT environment offline for days — or worse, permanently.

One of Mead & Hunt’s offices was located just a mile from the perimeter of the tragic 2017 fires in Santa Rosa, California. Had they been a mile closer, a workstation client and its extensive design database might have been lost for good. With a cloud-based environment, getting up and running by spinning up another virtual workstation from another site, or at home, would be quick and simple. Company personnel have also found themselves in a hotel near a client site waiting for a hurricane to blow over. As long as the network is up and running properly, they can work as effectively as if they were in the office.

Other practical benefits include ease of IT administration and cash flow management. Cloud providers assume the burden of remedying repairs and outages (which are likely more rare as well), and the increasingly broad set of tools available to customers make provisioning, de-provisioning, monitoring, and tuning both easy and effective.

Moving to cloud-based virtual workstations can cheer senior management, who often shudder at the thought of hefty capital expenditures (CAPEX) with uncertain maintenance costs incurred in the future. An increasing number, particularly among small-to-medium businesses, would prefer more predictable operating expense (OPEX) with minimal up-front costs — precisely what a cloud-based offering can offer.

In the end, the motivation to move to a cloud-hosted workstation environment is compelling, no matter what type of CAD-reliant business you’re in. But if you’re an outfit like Mead & Hunt — one that already made the jump to storing data in the cloud (or private datacenter) — then hosting workstations in that cloud or datacenter is a logical and straightforward next step.

Regardless of what your IT environment currently looks like, though, the bigger issue is how well it’s working today, and whether its ability to support staff needs will decline in the future. Because if your company is already struggling with the types of challenges Mead & Hunt faced (increasingly scattered personnel, anytime/anywhere access to mushrooming datasets, and elevated security concerns), the pain will likely only get worse as time marches on. Mead & Hunt recognized the challenges and embraced the chance to exploit a new generation of IT tools to set its staff and business up to succeed, not just today but long into the future.

The cloud is here and rapidly extending its reach, and examples like this one prove it is now positioned to compete with one of the most traditional high-performance computing devices: the CAD workstation.

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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 - 9:21am
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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