AECbytes Feature (February 4, 2010)
BIM and the Cloud
CIO, Little Diversified Architectural Consulting
We have heard a lot about Cloud Computing and SaaS (Software as a Service), but what about moving our high performance graphics workstations to the cloud? This article describes how Little Diversified Architectural Consulting, located in Charlotte NC, built a private cloud that included their high performance graphics workstations (HPGW). A private cloud differs from the public cloud providers such as Amazon Web Services or Google by the fact that the cloud computing infrastructure and resources are controlled by the individual business that deploys it. (See a brief discussion by Tom Bittman of Gartner on private cloud computing in this YouTube video.)
In general, most of the current discussion around cloud computing has been dealing with the servers (or back-end systems). Only recently have businesses begun to put their desktops and workstations into the cloud. Little’s cloud is the first AEC workstation cloud in production and is on track to reduce our workstation and laptop hardware expense by 67% ($2M) over the next 10 years.
Why is this solution viable now—what has changed? There are several reasons. First, the cost of network bandwidth has decreased. You can now get 10mb of metro Ethernet for the same price a T1 (1.5mb) used to cost. Also, Windows 7 and Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) have gotten much better at moving screen images of media-rich applications. Finally, hardware costs are coming down and rack-mounted server-class workstations are within the reach of many firms.
Business Benefits of Workstation Clouds
The current economy has been challenging for all organizations and has caused everyone to rethink everything. The driving force behind this cloud innovation at Little has been Building Information Modeling (BIM). Designers are now able to construct a fully documented, 3D building on a computer before they actually build it on-site. This requires a lot of computer power as well as a few obstacles to overcome. Little’s cloud strategy “kills 11 birds with one stone” and has many applications outside of the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) industry as well. These 11 business benefits are discussed below.
1. Growing Desktop Computing Needs
As an architectural and engineering firm, Little has heavy desktop computing needs—very similar to the gaming industry. Our industry applications require a lot of simulation, analysis, rendering, and 3D modeling in order to design buildings. We had been on a 2-yr refresh cycle for our laptops. Each year, Little spent between $250,000-$300,000 and the laptops were getting more expensive as we added more software capability. In 2009, we could not afford to refresh our laptops as we normally did, but we still had increasing desktop needs. Switching to a workstation cloud strategy allowed us to shift to a 4-5 year refresh cycle by providing access to high performance workstations. Our laptops could easily operate as “cloud access devices” and new laptops could be purchased for less than $1000 when required. Now our laptops are kept until the wheels fall off.
2. Collaborating Over Wide Area Geography
As a multi-office firm, Little’s designers would be assigned to a project based on their expertise and the needs of the client project. It was very common to have people in Orlando, DC, and Charlotte working on the same building model. While the software vendors are working on solutions to make their products operate over a WAN and infrastructure companies can provide WAN accelerators—this still was not good enough. Was it too much to ask to have the distributed project teams working just as if they were sitting in the same office? I didn’t think so. By shifting everyone to the cloud, we were able to give that “same office” experience to a distributed project team.
3. Collaborating with Outside Firms on the Same Model
The next logical step in BIM model development was to accommodate the standard industry practice of hiring consultants to help design the building. Many firms do not have all the design resources within their company. They regularly work with outside engineering, fire protection, or acoustical consultants—but everyone is working on the same building (and the same model). Now that many of these consultants are using BIM tools, it would be ideal if they could all work on the same model just like employees of the same firm can do. But without the cloud technology, project teams are forced to trade models via an FTP or project websites on set schedules. Real-time collaboration is difficult between external entities. While at Little we have not yet had a project that required real-time collaboration with outside consultants, we have the technology in place to allow it to happen when the need arises.
4. IT Infrastructure Cost Consolidation
While the genesis of Little’s cloud was to solve the BIM computing problem, it has yielded other benefits. Virtualization is another IT industry strategy that is central to building high performance clouds. Increases in hardware and network performance, coupled by a corresponding reduction in price, have made virtualization very attractive to IT leaders. Virtualization was initially justified based on hardware cost reduction. In our case, we have 57 physical servers now running on 2 physical servers ($170,000 versus $35,000). Storage is virtualized as well—we manage approximately 50 terabytes of data. Had we not virtualized our storage when we did, we would have had to add a large amount of IT staff to manage various physical data volumes. It enabled us to avoid an annual expense of $700,000. By using a combination of this sophisticated virtualization software, I wanted to see the same reductions in our laptop/desktop infrastructure.
5. Regional Office IT Infrastructure Consolidation
We recently consolidated two of our Los Angeles offices into one for better efficiency. Faced with a decision to buy a large, 2TB+ storage area network (SAN) or network attached storage (NAS), we opted instead to move our LA office “to the cloud.” With the cloud infrastructure that was in Charlotte, we had on-demand resources to accommodate this expansion of disk and consolidation of office space. This strategy has allowed the regional office to operate exclusively in the cloud with no local storage; we plan to move our other three offices to the cloud by the end of the year. Again, it is just like being in the same office—the physical location of the office does not matter.
6. General Purpose Business Applications
Sure, designers love the raw power an $8000 workstation can bring to them, but what about the rest of us? With Little’s virtualized high performance graphics workstation, this technology is affordable to all firms, in all industries, and for all applications. Imagine the productivity enhancements of running Outlook, Microsoft Office 2007, Financial, HR, or other business applications on a HPGW? Seven to ten BIM designers can work on one of these workstations. Depending on the business applications, a firm may be able to run 20-30 users on such a box. An $8000 HPGW running 30 business users costs $267/user. Isn’t that worth the productivity gained?
7. Full Mobility
How many employees work exclusively in their physical office all the time? With the consolidation of real estate leased space, more workers telecommuting from home, and more freelancers and consultants competing for jobs all over the place, people need to be able to run all their office applications anytime, anyplace, just as if they were in their office. This has been difficult up to now as people would have the applications on their laptops and their data scattered between local and remote sources. There have been improvements from the WAN accelerator companies that allow individual users access to accelerate their laptop traffic, but again, this is still not good enough. With a secure remote cloud gateway, Little’s people are able to access their HPGW which is sitting right next to their data on a gigabit LAN. Their laptop is nothing more than a cloud access device for most of their computing.
Home workers now have more options. They still need a broadband Internet connection, but instead of working on their laptop connected to their home Internet connection, they can use RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol) from their laptop to access the remote high performance workstation and use its computing resources, as shown in Figure 1. This workstation, coupled with the 20 MB corporate Internet connection provides a much better and faster computing experience. This is because the HPGW is better than their laptop and the corporate Internet connection is way better than their residential broadband.
Figure 1. Using Remote Desktop Connection to work with a Revit model via the cloud computer.
As shown in Figure 2, a Mac can be used just as easily as a Windows computer to work with the cloud. In fact, you could even use a smartphone such as the iPhone as the “cloud access device.” All it needs is an RDP client, as shown in Figure 3. While you may not want to actually work with Revit on an iPhone, you can at least access and view a model if required.
Figure 2. Using a Mac to work with Revit on the cloud.
Figure 3. Accessing Revit on the cloud with an iPhone.
8. IT Automation and Support Reduction
While a cloud strategy does not change your software licensing agreements with your software vendors or the related costs, it is much easier for your IT staff to deploy and manage new applications. Many software applications have a network or concurrent licensing model. This means that anyone can work on any workstation as long as there is an available license in the pool. If everyone in the company needs access to a particular application, the traditional approach was to use sophisticated scripting or software automation to push an application to 200+ laptops. This is time consuming and problematic as it is hard to update a laptop that rarely connects to the corporate network. We can run our entire company on 20 HPGW (aka cloud computers). These 20 HPGW are stationary, located in a datacenter, and available 24x7. It is much easier for IT to update these 20 stationary computers than 200 mobile computers. Depending on the application and number of users, we will put it on one cloud computer and people just login to it when they need to run it. Problem solved.
9. Business Continuity, Disaster Recovery, and Security
How many firms back up their user desktops and laptops? Not many, due to the time and disk requirements. But IT knows that many people have all kinds of corporate and client information on their laptops. With the cloud strategy, we were able to keep corporate and client information “in the cloud” where it is backed up and replicated. Without the cloud, if your laptop is stolen or the hard drive crashes, you are out of commission until your IT department can get you a new laptop or rebuild it after it is repaired. With an HPGW cloud, if there is a failure, there is no data lost since it is on the SAN. And there is no downtime. Little has spare capacity on the cloud just for disaster recovery purposes. For example, if cloud box LC-0000 goes down (LC stands for Little’s Cloud), IT tells the people assigned to that box to login to LC-5000 and keep on working. Their profiles and user data migrates over with them. If their cloud access device (such as their laptop) fails, IT can hand them a spare laptop and they can keep working. If they are on the road, they can walk into any electronics store and buy a $400 laptop to access the cloud. And finally, security is greatly enhanced, particularly for the client data. People can leave their data in the cloud and not have to bring it to the local laptop. If there is a situation where people need to present and need data locally, it will just be a copy and not the source.
10. Locked Down Corporate Desktops, Unlocked Personal Laptops
How long has IT tried to lock down corporate desktops so that they will be consistently available for business? Now try to balance that requirement with the people’s need for autonomy, local software innovation, and the ability to respond to clients’ needs without having to check in with IT every time. Little’s cloud offers the best of both worlds. We lock down our cloud computers and do not allow any personal applications or data. The local laptop, in effect, becomes our place for personal data, pictures, and applications (such as iTunes). If people want to back up their laptop, the company recommends that employees purchase their own USB hard drive, or buy a subscription to an online backup service. If people blow away their local settings and data or their laptop becomes infected with spyware, IT can quickly replace their laptop. Their business applications and data remain unaffected.
11. Rendering and Animation Farm
Most large design firms have a 3D animation studio where they create photo-realistic renderings of their buildings. Many take it to the next level of making short movies, fly-throughs, or full cinematic storytelling to give clients a better sense of what their new facility will look like. These rendering programs have to crunch frame by frame of a video and could take several days to complete. By having a HPGW cloud, these studios can use the cloud at the same time people are using the cloud, just at a lower processor priority (see Figure 4). When people go home, these programs crank up and fully utilize the CPU all night long. On some jobs, we have seen rendering times drop from 53 mins/frame to 7.3 secs/frame. With all this additional number crunching ability, regular renderings get done quicker. It is also encouraging Little’s designers to move into “high definition” (HD) rendering to achieve a higher level of quality, client “Wow” factor, and enhanced competitive capability.
Figure 4. The cloud HPGW also does double duty as a rendering farm in addition to running BIM applications.
Implementing a HPGW Cloud Strategy
This section provides an overview of the two main steps we look at Little to create our virtualized High Performance Graphical Workstations. The virtualization of other IT assets such as servers and storage are also crucial to the full workstation cloud strategy. A schematic diagram of the cloud is shown in Figure 5.
Figure 5. Implementation diagram of the HPGW cloud.
1. Virtualize the Servers and Storage
As a method to save money in buying new server hardware, we began testing VMware’s ESX software. After an initial pilot on low-risk servers, we worked out tools and techniques and now all servers are placed into a virtual infrastructure. This had led to significant reductions in Little’s hardware expense and we have seen greatly increased operational capabilities such as “instant” provisioning, disaster recovery, and business continuity. It has enabled the IT department to be able to deliver on the corporate challenge to “do more with less.”
Next, Little chose to virtualize its storage to save money and to be able to manage a mountain of data with existing IT staff. We standardized on the EMC CX500 and have a big pot of disks that are carved as needed for applications and servers. That pot-o-disk is approaching 50 TB on two, redundant EMC’s.
2. Virtualize your High Performance Graphical Workstations
Let me first clarify what I mean when I say “virtualized workstations.” Technically, these workstations are not virtualized like most IT people think of virtualization. We do not use VMware’s ESX server or any other Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) like Citrix Zendesktop or VMware View. We use a utility that allows us to share the Windows 7 64-bit operating system with many users at the same time. So from an IT perspective, this is a shared piece of hardware. From an end user’s perspective, it looks and feels like a virtual desktop.
To derive the same virtualization benefits for our desktops that we had realized with our servers and storage, we tested various desktop virtualization products. However, they did not virtualize the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU), which led to poor performance—a cloud that would be slower than users’s laptops. The key to getting our users to move to a workstation cloud was to provide not just the same experience as their laptop, but an experience that was WAY better than their laptop. I wanted a workstation cloud that people couldn’t touch with their laptop computers.
What if we took a baby-step towards desktop virtualization and used a hybrid approach? I had a vision where we could have a smoking fast workstation sitting in a data center that we could get to via various remote desktop protocols. But this wasn’t good enough. That approach still needed a one-to-one mapping of people to workstations. This really didn’t save us any money. But what if we could turn a single-user workstation into a MULTI-USER workstation—call it a workstation server? To our end users, it would look virtualized to them and be in the “cloud.” To the IT staff, it was a piece of shared hardware. I challenged our IT staff to come up with a concept to build this and they did! Based on our benchmark testing, we are able to put 10 people on these shared workstations.
Here is the “the secret sauce” of our strategy:
- Rack mounted workstation
- (2) 3.0 Ghz Xeon quad-core processors (8 cores total)
- 32GB RAM
- 1.5GB Video RAM
- Fast local hard drive
- User/design data mapped to virtualized storage on our SAN
- Client access device: their primary Windows laptop
- Microsoft Windows 7, 64-bit desktop operating system
- Utility software for multi-user access, load balancing of CPU, network, and memory resources.
- Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) used for client remote access
Based on a company the size of Little (225 people), we can provide design services on 20 HPGW cloud computers. These workstations will NOT need to be refreshed every 2 yrs like users’ individual laptops. We are guestimating that we’ll refresh every 4-5 yrs, with maybe a component upgrade in the interim. Our primary laptops will only need to be replaced when they die—and we’re hoping to get 4 years out of them. With most of the computing load moved off our laptops, when we do need to replace laptops they will cost $800-$1000 rather than $2200-$2500. I figured it was better to spend $1M over 10 years rather than $3M to buy desktop computing hardware.
Does this solution work internationally? Technically it does, but I would say practically it does not. The network latency across oceans is really too great to get a smooth desktop experience. I have logged into the cloud from my aircard and it was OK. Typing was slow, but you can do basic things. The latency on my aircard was 180ms and that is similar to what one would experience over the oceans. So depending on how globally you are working now, it may be better. But it is not the “same as being there” performance. Within the US, however, the performance is rock solid, with coast-to-coast latencies of 50-55ms. It works so well that we were able to run our Los Angeles office entirely in the cloud with no local storage, as mentioned earlier. If a company has an international footprint, you could set up clouds on each continent so you would not have to cross the ocean to work.
Here is a list of the lessons we have learned so far from production users on the cloud:
- With multiple users using the same workstation, we were able to see how underutilized our laptops really are. Most of the time, they are sitting idle when people are in meetings or out in the field. This makes laptops ripe for consolidation.
- Not all users’ computing needs are the same—some consume much more memory and CPU than others. The IT staff worked with them to see if the need is legitimate or if there was a training issue.
- Memory was the biggest constraint. Early on, we had a “cloud burst” by having too many people consuming memory on one box. We locked up the box. By reducing the number of designers per box from 8 to 7 and adding more memory, the cloud bursts were eliminated.
- Some applications do not lend themselves well to a remote desktop strategy. We had to tweak our AutoCAD program because the mouse-pointer “cross hair” caused too much data to be sent—and this is tiresome if a user is working in AutoCAD all day long. Real-time video compositing also works better with local hardware. Be sure to test your mission critical applications. The cloud approach is better, but not perfect.
- We can drive utilization of these boxes to nearly 100%. When people aren’t using them, we turn these into our “rendering farm” that generates computer animations. Since these processes run at a lower priority than our user applications, they can be running at the same time as people are designing. Any additional capacity is used for new users and disaster recovery purposes.
- Running on the cloud is faster from home than a laptop hooked into a broadband cable service.
- People forget where they leave their stuff. IT people take remote desktops for granted since they use them every day. It takes a little coaching and practice on the users’ part to realize what’s going on. But once they catch on, they are all over this new computing method.
At Little, our high performance graphical workstation cloud strategy has realized all eleven business benefits discussed earlier and we will continue to improve and come up with more. I see this private, hybrid, HPGW cloud to be invaluable until the main software vendors have created software that can truly virtualize the GPU. When that time comes, perhaps in the next 3 to 4 year, we will upgrade our cloud infrastructure to be able to run 225 designers on only two physical high performance graphical workstations. We can only dream.
About the Author
Chris France is the CIO for Little Diversified Architectural Consulting, located in Charlotte NC. He has specialized in Information Technology for over two decades. He started his career at IBM Federal Systems as a software and systems engineer and progressed to project manager of major DOD systems. From IBM, he traveled to Charlotte to work for Bank of America where he led efforts to merge and consolidate the information technology of major bank acquisitions. Prior to becoming the CIO of Little, he consulted in the technology-intense Wachovia Capital Markets.
As CIO of Little, Chris not only leads the firm’s Information Technology Strategy, Planning and Operations, but he also works with clients to ensure that their diverse technology needs are addressed and incorporated during the design process of their new facility.
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