Virtual Desktops

We’ve heard it many times: Virtual Desktops (VD) are going to be the future. Those of us who use Revit enjoy laughing at that statement. We’ve tested them and had countless problems with Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) Graphics Processing Units (GPUs). Or, ran into limitations with Revit as Revit only utilizes one core of a GPU, so why pay for a VD that can handle heavy work loads when it would be underutilized. We’ve also had some less-than-fun interactions with Remote Desktop Connections (RDCs) and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

While Revit still only uses one core, the rest of the industry has made leaps and bounds in progress. It is worth a look now.

What is VDI?

If you are – or were – anything like me, those series of words and acronyms would send me running. My eyes would glaze over, and I would think ‘this is for IT’. Well, if you are – or were – also like me, you’ve experienced how BIM and IT have a sordid history. Since I know where you’re coming from, I’ll make the following as painless as I can!

VDI is the concept of taking a localized computer system, or resources, and putting them on a server. This server can be local to a company or cloud based and hosted around the country, or even world. VDI has been around for a while – so long that it has a connotation in our head usually around an old server in our IT person’s closet office.

Today, you are far more likely to hear “Virtual Desktop” in association with the company that you are purchasing the solution from. For example, WVD or Windows Virtual Desktop. Virtual Desktops are smoother and more cost efficient than ever.

Today’s Virtual Desktops have multiple users accessing a shared pool of resources from a host system or network of host systems capable of handling all anticipated users. Host systems are usually made up of servers, which are interconnectable computers dedicated and optimized to perform specific tasks. The host system or network provides whatever processing power and memory is needed for its users, scaling up and down dynamically. How is that even possible? As demand grows, additional hardware resources are engaged to meet the demand. Over time, as the user base and software needs grow, hardware is added or upgraded.

Figure 1

Each user has a local profile on this ‘supercomputer’ and functions as if the user were entirely on their own computer, but they can access it from any computer remotely.

Figure 2

Why would you use a Virtual Desktop?

Virtual desktops alleviate a lot of IT Infrastructure challenges.

Are you having issues with bandwidth or connectivity when doing work remotely or over VPN? Virtual Desktops are a window into work that is actually happening in the remote host system. There’s no need for enormous files to be transferred back and forth over the user’s personal network connection. The files, software, and resources are in the same bubble, with optimized connections to each other. This effectively bypasses bottlenecks from VPNs or your personal computer’s network.

Have your IT costs gone up more than anticipated trying to keep up with software demands? With Virtual Desktops, you do not need a high-end computer for every user to connect to the host system.

You can have a thin client (cheap computer) connect with a Virtual Desktop further reducing hardware costs. Virtual Desktops are also scalable, so you only pay for what you need when you need it. Within a short period of time, a baseline of the costs and usage would be established and therefore it is highly predictable. Think of it as a monthly subscription cost or fee instead of an upfront capital expense.

Is it difficult to keep everyone updated, on the correct versions, and to troubleshoot when there are differences and quirks that accumulate between every user’s computer? Virtual Desktops give your IT team centralized control over deployment, management, and updates with a lower failure rate. End-user experience is customizable, but access control is centralized. If something goes wrong, a new profile can be ‘spun up’ to allow a user to keep working while Virtual Desktop with an issue can be tested and sent through the troubleshooting battery of tests. That means less down time.

Have you tried a VDI solution before and had problems with multiple monitors? Today’s Virtual Desktops support that!

What do you need to consider about Virtual Desktops?

Licenses. If you decide to go with a Windows Virtual Desktop, every user will need a Windows 10 Enterprise account. This is one of the ways WVD stands out. WVD runs on Windows 10 with elements of Windows Server built in that allow multiple concurrent interactive sessions. Every user will have their own Windows Profile. Autodesk also requires Single-User Sign On.

Figure 3

Usage. You will need to have a good idea of the number of users, the applications required, and the uptime your organization would need. Uptime being the time your users would need access to the systems. Starting off with more than enough resources to meet demands is important for success, adoption, and getting that baseline cost as accurate and quickly as possible. You can always scale down later.

Training. This is not a big consideration but should be talked about. Users will need to understand which icon/software to open – so many symbols and names are similar. Further, if you do not have device redirect/passthrough as a solution, users will need to know how to get data from a local USB or other drive to the Virtual Desktop. The option to passthrough and connect the physical desktop to the virtual desktop is a real time and sanity saver!

What challenges exist with Virtual Desktops?

There are still minimum network and IT infrastructure requirements. Users will need their networks to handle 15/15 Mbps with 150ms latency or less. What is that? The 15/15 is referring to the upload and download speeds of your internet. Mbps is Megabits per second. Most users in urban and suburban areas who have internet at home should be able to get this easily. 150ms is saying 150 milliseconds. And finally, by latency, that is the delay between the time you click and when something happens. Humans start to notice and get annoyed at a delay of more than 150 milliseconds (which is less than half the time it takes you to blink an eye!).

Traditional VDIs may have additional issues. For example, custom commands on a computer that a user has programmed may not translate to the virtual desktop. WVD has a lot of those hiccups worked out.

Final thoughts

Windows Virtual Desktop works with Azure (a cloud storage solution) to make it virtually seamless to transition to a virtual workspace instead of a robust physical one. U.S. CAD uses this solution for our training: USCAD Cloud Workstation. We also have guest accounts set up for testing, demoing, and use for those who might be interested in seeing if a solution like this would work for them.

Local outages are less of a problem. With backups and redundancies handled by an off-site provider, less things go wrong and for a shorter time period, without the need for intervention by your internal IT team.

A technology partner can provide a Turn-Key Implementation service to help get everything set up, including configurations, deployments, and application installations while providing Best Practices and Tips to end-users. They can even help set up time-based scaling of the solution or autoscaling by threshold numbers. Remember, you pay for the uptime! Use these options to keep that cost as low as possible.

Brian Smith is a Cloud Solutions Specialist with many years of IT experience. He works with Panzura, BIM 360, Office 365, Azure, AWS, and more. He is skilled at interacting with all levels of personnel within an organization and can address client concerns quickly, accurately, and efficiently. Mr. Smith helps clients with consulting, configuration, and deployment of cloud services to meet their current and future IT needs.

Brian brings the knowledge of an IT Manager for Systems Administration, Software Deployment, User Management, and Virtualization together to make sure Cloud Solutions meet the needs of clients. Mr. Smith has assisted U.S. CAD’s clients throughout their cloud solutions product lifecycle, including: introduction, demonstration, proof of concept, deployment, configuration, training, support, upgrades, and expansion.

Andrell Laniewicz has working in the VDC world since 2011. During this time, she has been involved in everything from Model Coordination, 4D, 5D, and Quantification to Proposals, Site Logistics, and more. She has worked for General Contractors and MEP Design to Fabrication firms. She has taught BIM for Construction Management at Universities, presented at Autodesk University and BiLT, and consistently delivers social media content.

At U.S. CAD, Andrell works with clients to evaluate their existing workflows, implement solutions and technology, and providing training to get clients to their ultimate end goal. She focuses on Revit, Navisworks, BIM 360, FormIt, and MSuite within Architecture, Construction, and Fabrication. She has her Certificate of Management in Building Information Modeling from AGC of DC.