Some gauge their value to an organization by the size or location of their office. For engineers, the measuring stick has long been their workstation specs. The more bells, whistles and horsepower under their desks, the higher their rank in the pecking order. Those days are rapidly fading as engineering teams realize mobility and collaboration not only improve their productivity, but unchain them from their desks. Thin and light have become the new bragging rights, but engineers still require high-octane workstation muscle. That’s where virtual workstations come in.
All the benefits of mobile computing and collaboration without their computing and security compromises are now available to engineers. Thanks to a slew of new technology advances, including virtual GPUs, compression capabilities and next-generation secure endpoints, organizations can finally tap into the benefits of virtualized environments for hardcore engineering work as an alternative or a complement to traditional workstation hardware.
Freedom and Security
Similar to other workloads migrating to a virtualized environment, virtual workstations centralize compute and graphics processing on a single platform or appliance, allowing users direct access to its resources through a thin client, entry-level laptop or even their old tower or mobile workstation.
Burns Engineering Fires Up Productivity
Burns Engineering Inc. is 200 employees strong, and its pipeline is mighty with more than 500 projects going at any one time with CAD designers, structural engineers and project managers collaborating across the company’s Philadelphia headquarters and 10-plus remote branch offices.
With projects and people spread out across the country, maintaining control over design data and making it easily accessible to project teams was a constant challenge, according to Bill Coffield, IT manager for the engineering and construction management firm. Moreover, each branch site (whether an individual job location or a full office) required its own IT infrastructure to support engineers and project managers, which meant that Coffield was constantly deploying gear to individual sites and connecting everything back through an internet router to the main office. The hardware alone cost about $50,000, not to mention, the weeks of travel time and expenses associated with deploying the on-site hardware.
Maintaining all this disparate IT infrastructure was also a burden. Coffield and his limited team were always on the run, patching, updating, issuing new licenses and replicating data across all of the sites. As the amount of data managed by the system swelled, so did the scalability problems. Users working at remote locations or from home were constantly frustrated by file replication latencies, which resulted in incomplete or inaccurate data. “I never knew if someone else was working on a file,” recalls Alex Krause, CAD operator. “If they made file changes needing replication across servers at headquarters and the branch sites, the file wouldn’t be synched for a long time.”
Working with Dell partner BOLDER Designs, Burns Engineering turned to a virtual workstation approach — the Dell Precision Appliance for Wyse. The platform delivers a cost-effective, end-to-end virtual desktop infrastructure that has dramatically eased the company’s IT burden, while providing greater scalability and business agility. The near-zero latency of the solution, which features PC-over-IP technology to transfer compressed display pixels over a LAN or WAN as opposed to actual CAD files, means engineers and project managers get the same experience as they have previously experienced with physical workstations — even those that have slow internet connections.
“One person who works from his home in the Virginia mountains, hundreds of miles away from the company headquarters, has just a 1Mbps connection, but he is using the Dell Wyse 5030 zero client for VMware there to run AutoCAD as if he is sitting in the office,” Coffield says.
Thanks to the virtual workstation approach, Burns Engineering has reduced deployment costs by $50,000 per branch site while streamlining IT management by cutting back desk-side visits. Virtual workstations have also bolstered engineering productivity by improving collaboration and positioned the company for modern-day engineering workflows by allowing for mobility. “I can confidently say our company is ready for the future,” Coffield says.
This computing model has a number of advantages particularly well suited for engineering workflows. In a virtualized environment, engineers are no longer tethered to their desks to work with CAD and simulation models or other critical intellectual property (IP). Instead, they can tap into powerful centralized infrastructure resources and collaborate from wherever they are working as long as they have an internet connection. For engineers, the flexibility to conduct design reviews or iterate concepts from a client site or from home is a boon to work-life balance and effective communication.
Because everything in a resides in a centralized location rather than dispersed individual engineering workstations, critical IP, such as product designs, remain in sync in a virtualized environment, ensuring that all contributors have access to the most current information, regardless of where they are working. This simplifies data management and eliminates version control issues.
Along with the promise of mobility and better collaboration, enhanced security is another upside. In a virtual workstation environment, secure compressed pixels are being streamed to endpoints, which are sending back secure compressed keystrokes and mouse movements. There is no data resident on the endpoint itself, so if it is lost or stolen, valuable data is not compromised. In addition, data centralization enables organizations to establish need-based access to IP based on enterprise governance and security policies, further ensuring that critical IP is properly safeguarded.
Ready for Engineering Work
Unlike early virtualization environments that weren’t fully equipped to handle the robust graphics requirements of 3D design and engineering software, new technologies such as virtual GPUs and compression techniques now ensure that virtual workstations perform on par with their traditional, physical counterparts. In addition, the leading independent software vendors, including Autodesk, Dassault Systèmes, Siemens and PTC, have taken steps to certify and optimize their CAD and PLM software to run on virtual workstations. As a result, engineers will find it difficult to distinguish between a virtual and physical workstation environment, stamping out any lingering concerns about system degradation or a compromised user experience.
Despite these well-documented benefits, many organizations will still bump up against cultural and organizational challenges as they contemplate a move to virtual workstations. Some engineers will dig in their heels, not wanting to give up what they perceive as more control and better performance with the familiar physical workstation environment. Top level execs have to budget for an initial upfront expense even though they are clearly convinced of the ROI resulting from streamlined IT management, improved worker productivity and greater IP protection.
A smart virtualization strategy, led by the right business champions, can allay cultural concerns and conquer organizational challenges. By moving to virtual workstations, engineers get the horsepower they need to streamline complex product development and design on a global scale with all the flexibility, security and simplicity of a modern computing experience.
To help explain the benefits of virtual workstations for graphic-intensive engineering work, DE has produced “Making the Case for Virtual Workstations” with support from Dell and NVIDIA. It answers common questions about virtual workstations, exposes myths associated with them, and outlines the return on investment opportunities. You can download it for free at here.