4-page Case Study - Posted 6/3/2011
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Architectural Firms Collaborate Virtually, Avoid $90,000 in Hardware and Travel Costs
Zeidler Partnership Architects in Toronto, Canada, partnered with Snøhetta New York to win the bid for a high-profile Toronto project that had a tight budget and an ambitious schedule. The firms needed a fluid way for architects in New York City and Toronto to work together on the building model. Rather than ship huge data files across a wide-area network, Zeidler decided to keep all building data on one server in its Toronto office and create virtual desktops that architects would use to share models. Zeidler used Microsoft Hyper-V Server 2008 R2 with Service Pack 1 for its virtualization software. The virtual desktop solution is yielding seamless collaboration among all team members, and Zeidler avoided spending U.S.$50,000 on hardware and $40,000 on travel. Ultimately, Zeidler foresees offering new professional services and virtual desktop savings growing to $80,000 annually.
Since the 1880s, Zeidler Partnership Architects has been creating innovative designs that change the face of cities around the world. Zeidler has established itself as a premier architectural firm in Canada and has gained worldwide accolades. Current clients include Toronto Union Station, Trump International Hotel and Tower in Toronto, Mohawk College Centre for Innovation, Toronto South Detention Centre, and Juravinski Hospital. With 220 people worldwide and eleven offices in Toronto, Calgary, Victoria, and Vancouver, Canada; West Palm Beach, Florida; London, England; Berlin, Germany; Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; and Shanghai, Chengdu, and Beijing, China, Zeidler offers worldwide expertise with local relevance.
Using multiple offices and frequently collaborating with other architectural, engineering, interior design, and landscaping firms, Zeidler often works in partnerships. The firm also maintains a longstanding commitment to collaborate with clients and the design team in an easy and effective manner. Traditionally, these relationships meant that designers used file transfer protocol (FTP) sites to exchange large building files. However, FTP sites are best used primarily for intermittent or episodic sharing of information.
In February 2010, Zeidler and partner firm Snøhetta New York won the bid for the Ryerson University Student Learning Centre, a high-profile project in the middle of Toronto. The new project, which features three computing “collaboratoriums” (large-scale collaboration spaces), would require more than FTP file sharing. In April 2011, Zeidler unveiled the design.
“We knew the Ryerson project was going to require a new level of collaboration,” says Vaidila Banelis, Senior Partner at Zeidler Partnership Architects. “Our team would be in Toronto, and the Snøhetta team would be in New York City. We wanted the teams to have daily exchanges of information, even sharing building models, not just posting files to an FTP site.”
The firms discussed putting architects in one another’s offices, but the cost of relocating people was prohibitive. “In competitive bid situations, fees are always under pressure, so we needed to find a way to achieve a new level of remote collaboration that would also be cost-effective,” Banelis says.
The teams would be using Autodesk Revit Architecture building design software to perform Building Information Modeling (BIM). BIM models help architectural teams maintain their vision through design, documentation, and construction.
“Revit is a three-dimensional database representation of the entire building,” explains Ian Fairlie, Network Architect at Zeidler. “Since all the objects are 3-D, you can view the entire building from any perspective. What was different with the Ryerson project was enabling both the Zeidler and Snøhetta teams to work on the same BIM model at the same time, as if they were in the same office.”
The challenge was to find a way to exchange massive building models throughout the day. Although it’s possible to share Revit models across a wide-area network (WAN), this process typically involves continuously moving gigabytes of data over long distances, which requires expensive accelerator appliances at either end along with high-speed Internet connections, and extremely powerful workstations at everyone’s desk. Solution
Zeidler’s goal was to keep the BIM models in one location and to give the four Zeidler architects in Toronto and the four Snøhetta architects in New York City an easy way to access and share them.
||VDI gave us better coordinated results, so we can avoid construction changes that can amount to five percent of the building’s cost. That’s about $3 million on the $63 million Ryerson project.
Network Architect, Zeidler Partnership Architects
One factor in solving this problem was the fact that the firm has used the Remote Desktop Connection (RDC) technology in the Windows operating system since 2003 for a wide variety of projects. This meant that the designers knew that using RDC was effective and easy. As part of Remote Desktop Services in the Windows Server 2008 R2 operating system, RDC enables users to access and use applications and data on a remote computer over a network.
Another factor was that Zeidler incorporates server virtualization in its data center to run most of its virtual servers within a smaller number of physical host servers.
Fairlie’s solution was to combine the two technologies. “I thought, ‘why not set up virtual workstations to run inside our BIM collaboration server so that architects can edit BIM models in real-time without ever leaving the server?’” says Fairlie.Virtual Desktop Collaboration Server
To implement desktop virtualization for the Ryerson project, Zeidler needed virtualization software that would accommodate the large memory requirements of the Revit software—20 times the projected BIM file size, which in the Ryerson model would start at about 150 megabytes (MB) per file. Because Fairlie had successfully used the Windows Server 2008 R2 Enterprise operating system to virtualize Zeidler servers, he decided to also use Hyper-V software to virtualize the new desktops. However, instead of using the full Windows Server 2008 R2 operating system, Zeidler chose to use Microsoft Hyper-V Server 2008 R2, a scaled-down version of the Windows Server 2008 R2 operating system that contains only the Hyper-V hypervisor and Windows Server driver model and virtualization components. It provides a small footprint and minimal overhead.
Fairlie deployed Hyper-V Server 2008 R2 with Service Pack 1 (SP1) on a new Dell PowerEdge R710 server to create the virtual desktop collaboration server. He used the virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) architectural model to create ten virtual desktops inside the data center server. “Hyper-V Server with SP1 offered a two-terabyte RAM limit and supported up to eight processors on the host server, which we needed to support the extremely large file sizes we would be using,” Fairlie says.
Fairlie manually allocates memory resources among the virtual machines, and then relies on the Dynamic Memory feature in Hyper-V Server 2008 R2 SP1 to adjust memory needs in real time. Dynamic Memory is an enhancement to Hyper-V that allows memory on a host server to be pooled and dynamically distributed to virtual machines based on workload demand, without service interruption. This provides more balanced and consistent system performance and simplifies management for administrators.
Fairlie uses Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008 R2 with Service Pack 1 to manage the virtual machines and to manage the memory boundaries for each virtual machine. Each of the ten virtual machines has four processor cores and 4 to 24 gigabytes (GB) of RAM assigned to it.
On each virtual machine, Zeidler runs the Windows 7 Enterprise operating system with Service Pack 1. All the virtual desktops run a suite of graphics applications that includes Autodesk AutoCAD Revit Architecture Suite 2011 and Autodesk 3D Studio Max 2011.Same Model at Same Time
From their virtual desktops, the Zeidler and Snøhetta architects now work on the same BIM model simultaneously. Instead of sending gigabytes of data over the WAN, they simply send keystrokes and screen shots over the Internet. The server sits in Toronto, and the Snøhetta employees use Remote Desktop Connection to access the VDI workstations from New York City. About once an hour, everyone updates the central database file within the Zeidler local area network (LAN).
“By using an integrated data set within a single LAN, we eliminate data-synchronization corruption problems which can lead to extremely complex workflows, delayed updates, and work lost,” Fairlie says. “It is a significant advantage that the Revit ‘Save to Central’ command updates files at LAN speeds, which are much greater than WAN speeds.”Benefits
By collaborating over virtual desktops, Zeidler and Snøhetta architects are able to work on the same building model—on the same server—at the same time. Zeidler avoided spending U.S.$50,000 on hardware and $40,000 on travel. Expanding the use of VDI, Zeidler foresees the virtual desktop management savings growing to $80,000 annually. Another important benefit is that the firm can now offer new professional services to clients.
By outfitting teams in the two cities with virtual desktops running on the same server that runs the BIM model, Zeidler was able to give architects a fast, convenient way of working together on the same building model throughout the day.
“Team members feel more integrated,” Banelis says in Toronto. “It’s common in our industry, when working with partner firms, that you have different office cultures and design philosophies. When you get a set of documents, there’s an inherent desire to critique it from your perspective, which can be problematic. Our virtual desktop collaboration environment really helps us avoid that. Everyone’s engaged with the same set of documents all the time. There is no sense that ‘We own this part of the model and you own that part.’ Everyone has a vested interest in the work, because everyone’s hands are on the model all day, every day.”
Designer Jon Kontuly, who works on the Ryerson project at Snøhetta New York, adds. “It seems like Revit is running on my desktop PC. I started out using an older PC running the Windows XP operating system, and the software performed as if I had a high-performance workstation.”
||By using VDI, we avoided the need to buy seven workstations at $5,000 each, a $35,000 savings. We essentially got ten workstations for the price of three.
Network Architect, Zeidler Partnership Architects
Fairlie notes, “VDI gave us better coordinated results, so we can avoid construction changes that can amount to five percent of the building’s cost. That’s about $3 million on the $63 million Ryerson project.”Hardware Cost Avoidance of $50,000
By using a virtual desktop infrastructure, Zeidler avoided the need to buy eight or more expensive workstations for the Ryerson team. The Dell server purchased for the virtual desktop collaboration server cost $15,000, and on that, Zeidler was actually able to create ten virtual workstations. “By using VDI, we avoided the need to buy seven workstations at $5,000 each, a $35,000 savings,” Fairlie says. “We essentially got ten workstations for the price of three.”
Further, by using Dynamic Memory, Zeidler was able to achieve greater virtual desktop density on its server. “Without Dynamic Memory, we would have to cap our virtual desktops at 10 GB of RAM, versus 24, and limit the number of virtual machines we could create on the server,” Fairlie says. “We would have needed twice as many servers—a $15,000 cost avoidance in this case.”
Banelis adds, “Most of our bids are fixed bids and very competitive, so anything we save on overhead goes directly to our profit. It’s quite amazing that with VDI, our architects can use a laptop, a refurbished machine with as little as 2 GB of RAM, or a Windows XP–based PC, and they all perform as well as if they were running a powerful workstation.”Travel Costs Halved, Saving $40,000
By providing the inter-city design team a fluid way of working together over a local area network, Zeidler also saved on travel costs. “We bid the Ryerson job on the premise that we would be using long-distance collaboration of some type, and the VDI solution has been so effective that we believe our travel costs will be about half of what they would have been otherwise—roughly a $40,000 cost avoidance,” Fairlie says.
Potential Desktop Management Savings of $80,000 Annually
Zeidler has had such a good experience with VDI on the Ryerson project that it is presently expanding the technology’s use for everyday work in the company. This will not only provide hardware savings but desktop management savings.
“Managing our firm’s 200 personal computers is a great deal of work,” Fairlie says. “We’re in the process of developing standard images for both our notebooks and our graphics workstations. VDI will greatly simplify PC maintenance. We intend to create standard VDI images and maintain them centrally, so that users can access them as needed. This will give employees a higher quality standardized experience and will greatly reduce support problems. For Zeidler’s three IT teams, the use of VDI images could eventually result in huge time savings, which could be worth as much as $80,000 a year, or more.”Potential for New Customer Services
VDI has become a standard element in the firm’s long-distance collaboration offering and increases the firm’s competitive advantage. For example, the firm envisions using VDI to extend new services to customers. “Ideally, a building’s BIM data should stay with the building after the occupants move in,” Fairlie says. “The facilities management staff really should continue to use BIM data to manage changes, repairs, and additions over the life of the building. With VDI, we could maintain the BIM models on our central server and offer remote access to it to building management and consulting teams. This is another value-added professional service that can distinguish Zeidler as a technology leader within architecture.”
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