Why does CannonDesign use virtual desktop infrastructure, and how does it work with the high-end digital design tools we use? That was the focus of my presentation at the 2016 GPU Technology Conference (GTC) in San Jose, CA. The conference was hosted by NVIDIA, which is a tech company that produces graphic processing units (GPUs), otherwise commonly known as “video cards,” for desktop computers, servers, and other mobile technology. Being from the AEC industry definitely put me in the minority of those attending the conference, but that was precisely why I was there.

Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) is the concept of running a person’s computer desktop within a virtual environment hosted on a server. Other industries have been using VDIs for years, as they have been touted to provide benefits in terms of cost, security and management. However, the other industries that have adopted the technology often use lightweight, non-resource intensive applications and tools. The AEC industry, on the other hand, tends to use high-end graphic intensive tools and applications on a daily basis. Therefore, VDI has not been widely accepted in our industry, and powerful desktop computers have reigned supreme.

In relation to the rest of the AEC industry, CannonDesign was an early adopter of VDI. My presentation at GTC walked the audience through our VDI journey over the years. I shared our reasoning behind moving to a virtual infrastructure — citing how the traditional benefits other organizations saw with VDI were not necessarily seen as huge benefits for us. What we saw as a huge benefit were the opportunities for collaboration that were possible with this type of environment. VDI allows us to live our SFMO (single firm multi office) vision and have our best, and most qualified people all around the world work together on the same models at the same time. In addition, it enables us to invite outside consultants to work alongside us if needed. And as an added bonus, it also gives our employees the ability to work from anywhere they have an internet connection, and on whatever device they choose. Once we determined the value for our organization, we had to figure out how to make it work for our unique toolset.

While our early VDI designs in 2008 were innovative at the time, the technology was not quite mature enough to keep up with our elaborate models and high-performance tools. We learned about the limitations, and adapted our infrastructure to accommodate our needs as we went. However, by 2015, what this left us with was a very mixed environment. It was then that we made the conscious decision that we would, once again, innovate and develop a cutting edge new infrastructure developed specifically for our complex designs and high-end graphics applications.

Through the use of benchmarking tools and listening to our end users, we were able to identify the bottlenecks in our current VDI, and optimize them for our organization’s specific processes, tools, and workflows. Partnering with Autodesk, NVIDIA, Cisco, and VMware, we worked collaboratively to test newly released hardware and software. Through rigorous testing coupled with our extensive experiences as early adopters, we developed a cutting-edge new VDI design. With this new infrastructure, we expect a significant reduction in the amount of server space occupied for our workstations in our data center, which equates to less electricity being used and a smaller ecological footprint. We also expect to see a significant reduction in the amount of time required for our users who were using early VDI setups, which equates to a significant savings in billable hours charged to our clients. All of these benefits will help to position us as leaders in design technology, and pave a new path in creating design solutions to the greatest challenges facing our clients and society.

Read about Virtual Reality and it’s Role in Architecture >

Jimmy Rotella is a Design Application Specialist working with our Digital Practice group in our Chicago office.