Mission impossible: five ways CIAT Chartered Practices can get more from remote working technologies

Sharing real-world experiences and business outcomes from some of the world's leading architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) businesses, Keith Ali explains how to overcome five common challenges when creating sustainable remote working solutions to ensure practices realise business benefits from digital transformation.

Overcoming time and distance productivity barriers with new technologies that enhance effective project collaboration from anywhere is a huge issue for an AEC industry that operates on ultra-low margins. Yet, unlocking IT investment in the current climate remains a tough ask. Many AEC firms still struggle with post-pandemic balance sheets – indeed 60% identified the cost of technology as a main barrier to adoption.

In the transition to long-term remote and hybrid working models1 many practices are considering (or reconsidering) virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) t0 boost workforce mobility and productivity. Trumping remote desktops and virtual private networks, VDI is easy to scale, while large upfront CapEx is largely replaced by OpEx.

However, the AEC industry has historically struggled to get VDI to work effectively, mainly because off-the-shelf solutions weren't designed for heavy graphics users handling CAD, Revit, Photoshop and InDesign apps, or project teams working on huge BIM datasets. These issues have been compounded by evolving rendering solutions and growing client demands. When proposing sustainable and scalable technology solutions, IT departments must now overcome C-suite cynicism and user reluctance from previous poor experiences.

Can practices achieve the seemingly impossible? Is unshackling power users from offices achievable? Is a sustainable solution that improves global collaboration without introducing unnecessary cost and complexity realistic? The answer to all these questions is yes.

Five common VDI pitfalls and how to avoid them
Most VDI projects fail through one or more of the following five reasons:

  1. Lack of user buy-in
    Nothing can stop a VDI project in its tracks faster than a substandard user experience (UX). This can result from inadequate compute or storage resources, inability to access file shares, latency issues, sub-standard WAN connectivity, poor app optimisation, and client device problems. However, in the right hands, VDI can be engineered for the most demanding settings like super users working with big data or graphics-heavy applications. And, with purpose-built VDI and Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) solutions, they get tools and experiences identical to or better than they enjoy in the workplace. Look for a supplier with a successful track record designing and deploying remote working technologies in the AEC industry. Their experience and understanding of virtualisation in the cloud and how industry-specific apps and network services behave together will be invaluable.
  2. The weakest link
    Legacy infrastructure is often the most severe limitation. For example, data, monitoring and reporting must sit on the same LAN as the VDI. While WAN problems – that technologies like VMware Horizon can help fix – may not be the end of the world, there are no protocols to overcome LAN infrastructure issues like over-subscription, sub-10Gbps speeds, and availability issues. Engage a specialist with end-to-end expertise from devices, connectivity and cloud to storage, security and UX. Make sure you'll benefit from access to the latest technologies and regular updates during the contract, rather than having to rely solely on legacy on-prem hardware or having to invest in expensive upgrades.
  3. Hybrid working demands
    Managing security and compliance has become more complex since the transition to remote working. Now part of the corporate network, personal computers and devices are susceptible to a wide range of attacks and security issues making it hard to ensure compliance with data being accessed on WFH and BYOD systems. It is even more important that IT teams choose which workloads to deploy in the cloud and which to retain on-premise. To optimise ROI, look for a provider who understands how to meet industry requirements and offers VDI consumption in the cloud, on-premise or using a hybrid model in single seamless solution.
  4. Knowledge and expertise gaps
    Decide who manages what: in-house managed options – such as Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD) or on-premise VDI – or Desktop-as-a-Service supported by a VDI specialist. Be honest about your in-house skillset and resources available to support and manage long-term VDI deployment. The managed service provider (MSP) route can quickly pay back with savings on data centre space, infrastructure, upgrades, licensing, application deployment, support, and headcount. Scrutinise their technical credentials and be confident they can deploy the right solution and provide ongoing management, optimisation, and 24/7 support. 
  5. Unrealistic financial expectations
    Before and after IT infrastructure costs can remain flat or even rise slightly with VDI implementation. Providers offering VDI solutions designed solely to save money should ring loud alarm bells. A more realistic approach is to build support based on a specialist provider's ability to unlock much greater value for around the same outlay.

    Check that cost comparisons are like-for-like. In moving from on-premise VDI or WVD managed in-house to Desktop-as-a-Service delivered by an MSP, start by calculating the total cost of ownership (TCO), usually over a five-year period. In-house expenses should include hardware refreshes, virtualisation software and additional GPU, together with costs associated with system administrator salaries, power, rack space, out-of-hours staffing and training costs to support the deployment. Many providers differentiate between VDI profiles for ordinary and power users. To reduce TCO further some VDI specialists also offer scalable pricing. Clients pay per user, per month, per profile by purchasing credits stipulated and reallocated by IT teams in any way they like. Creating VDI burst capacity and instant scalability for fast-changing business needs.

Broadway Malyan – a solution for the remote working long haul
Award-winning architectural practice Broadway Malyan explored several VDI options to boost workforce mobility and project collaboration. None of them lived up to their promise. One solution got as far as trial but was too slow and couldn't handle big files and applications. Following industry recommendations, the practice selected Creative ITC's purpose-built VDIPOD platform, specially designed for heavy graphics application communities like AutoCAD and Revit BIM. Creative specialists met daily with the in-house IT team – exchanging knowledge, heading off potential issues and building a solid proof of concept. VDIPOD with thin clients was initially rolled out to 40 users based in the UK, Portugal and Madrid. The number of users doubled after just two months as the buzz spread around the business.

 "In a number of cases, VDIPOD beat the users' previous laptop or PC setup for speed and overall experience," said Ronnie Vasconcelos, Director of IT at Broadway Malyan.

Now, employees suffer less downtime and work more productively when sharing plans, designs and other large files. The practice is reaping IT benefits too, with specialist support freeing up in-house resources. Each software patching exercise used to tie up two people for around ten days. Now, the IT team can push out updates centrally, leaving more time for innovation. Moreover, the practice was able to switch seamlessly to home working during the pandemic and now has a scalable, sustainable solution to boost future collaboration.

So, VDI isn't mission impossible. In the right hands, DaaS solutions can be purpose-built using best-of-breed technologies that enable architects, engineers, project managers and construction professionals to effortlessly use heavy-graphics apps, control data and exchange large files – at home, in the office, or on the move. 

1 No full-time return to the office for over a million - BBC News

This feature originally appeared in AT Journal - Issue 140