In previous columns (November 2011 and February 2012), we discussed different aspects of technology that affect structural engineers today and looked at minimum system requirements for laptops. In this month’s article we will focus on cloud computing, providing information that we hope will be useful in evaluating how you can use “the cloud” in your office.

The cloud is the buzz at AEC gatherings these days. But, much as is the case with building information modeling (BIM), the cloud means different things to different people. The cloud is all about removing limitations, enabling you and your design processes. It frees us from geographic boundaries and fosters real-time collaboration. It allows your company to team with dispersed clients, peers and owners and to hire talent without relocation.

In its basic application, the cloud is really nothing new. It’s similar to the old mainframe and “dumb” terminals or what was called “client/server architecture” in its last incarnation. The primary difference is that yesterday’s fixed links between client and host can be a variety of impromptu Internet connections in today’s cloud. The end points can be computers, smartphones, or tablets, and the data and computations may be hosted anywhere in the world.

There’s no reason to be intimidated by the cloud. If you’ve set your DVR via your smartphone, you’ve touched the cloud. If you’ve synchronized emails, photos or music to your tablet, you’ve done the cloud.

Where the cloud gets interesting is in its potential to bring BIM and engineering functionality directly to your device, regardless of location. This assumes acceptable performance levels, which for BIM can present a challenge. BIM files can be large, and piping them through the airwaves takes some doing. The more clever offerings perform some sort of modification on the BIM file(s) to deliver only what is requested at that moment.

Two related technological developments have greatly enhanced cloud capabilities. The first is virtualization, which allows for several virtual machines (workstations or servers) to run on a single, robust host platform. The second is Microsoft’s vastly improved remote desktop protocol (RDP).

What applications are cloud-enabled?
AEC cloud development to this point has focused on the reviewing and editing of BIM files. There are currently more applications available for Apple’s platform than Android, but that gap is closing. Simple calculation and product selection applications are available, but only one major structural analysis vendor is looking to make their full suite available via cloud in the near term.

Test the waters
Even if you aren’t ready to use the cloud for BIM, there are ways to take advantage of the existing technology. Two ways to utilize the cloud without jumping straight into the deep end are cloud storage and cloud computing. Cloud storage is great from a disaster recovery standpoint alone, and is not necessarily BIM-related. Cloud computing provides bundled processing power for computationally intensive activities. Rendering, design optimization and finite element analysis are common examples in an AEC environment.

Three basic approaches to an AEC cloud:

  1. Turnkey, “BIM in the cloud” solution. This solution requires little upfront investment, but can, in the long run, be the most expensive (billed on a recurring basis). It also requires the most trust (your valuable data is no longer housed in your office). But, it can be implemented very quickly and has a proven track record.
  2. “Cloud in a box” solution. This approach brings a ready-made appliance into your environment. While more reassuring from the data security aspect, scaling up for additional users can be a challenge and it places more load on your company’s Internet pipes and security systems.
  3. “Build your own cloud” (or add BIM to your current remote solution). If you already employ some solution to enable a remote workforce, look for ways to introduce BIM functionality. If you don’t, you get to start with a clean slate and select best-of-breed products to create your company’s private cloud. This approach will take the longest time and more upfront investment to deploy but is yours and yours alone.

The cloud is the buzz at AEC gatherings these days. But, much as is the case with building information modeling (BIM), the cloud means different things to different people.

One cloud does not fit all!
Investigate where your company could benefit most from cloud technology and focus first on that service. It is important to make the best possible prediction regarding the maximum amount of data that will be accessed via the cloud and by how many users. These are the metrics upon which many providers base their pricing. Do NOT underestimate during the negotiation stage. You will transfer more data than you think, sooner than you would ever imagine.

What could possibly go wrong?
The cloud is NOT a “toy” for your IT department. In fact, security conscious folks in IT may be the most reluctant to adopt cloud technologies.

Security and reliability are prime areas of concern with the cloud. While cloud providers purport a high level of data security, make sure you don’t overlook things like an unsecured tablet with cloud access. Sharing your cloud data with clients and peers requires vigilant management of user accounts and their rights (read: IT admin time).

As technology continues to advance, it will keep removing limitations, allowing us to work remotely, wherever we can access an Internet connection. Our future truly is in the cloud (or whatever the cloud evolves into). Regardless of your present situation, cloud functionality should be in your firm’s long term strategy.

Dave Pluke is an AEC, IT and BIM consultant and author of the www.bim-ready.com website. Contact him at dave.pluke@BIM-Ready.com. Lisa Willard, P.E., and Brian Quinn, P.E., are with SE Solutions, LLC. They formerly worked for a combined 21 years at RAM International/Bentley Systems and can be reached at Lisa.Willard@LearnWithSEU.com or 805-482-8436, and brian.quinn@findyourengineer.com or 616-546-9420, respectively. Visit their technology website, www.FindYourTechnology.com

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