Working from Home in BIM or CAD? Here are Some Options.
As the North American Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry shifts, as much as it is able, to a remote working environment due to the realities of the coronavirus, the need to be productive in Revit, AutoCAD and Civil 3D becomes paramount. While there is no single, one-size-fits-all remote access solution for all digital AEC practitioners, we can explore the options available, weigh their pros and cons, and help you determine what is the most reasonable and effective solution for your organization’s particular situation. We at MG believe there are four different avenues that can be explored for remote work. The end result should be the ability for you and your staff to access the applications and data they need to continue to be productive, whether those programs and files stay in their current office environment or shift to the cloud in some fashion.
Before we begin, ask yourself the following:
- How long do I anticipate needing to work remotely?
- How much am I willing to invest?
- How much down time before I need to be up and running?
- How much productivity am I willing to sacrifice?
Given the uncertainty of the current situation, answering the first question might not be possible. Put another way: are you just hoping to outlast the current situation? If so, a less expensive (even free) solution might be available to suit your needs. If your firm is considering a long-term telecommuting solution, and is willing to invest additional resources into it, additional options become available. Of course, it goes without saying that you get what you pay for.
For larger, long-term implementations, time is needed for setup and configuration. When it comes to any of these solutions it might not matter on which one you pick, but how you implement your strategy. Remember the 6 Ps: Prior Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance. (We omitted the seventh P to keep this article SFW.)
Remote Office Environment
When working from home and using any of the options below, consider these items related to your internet performance:
> Always try to use a hardline connection like a Cat 5 ethernet cable instead of your home Wi-Fi. This is typically how your workstation is connected to the local network (and internet) when you are at the office. Most routers have open Cat 5 connections to which you can connect your workstation. You might be surprised at how much better your internet speed is when connected using Cat 5 compared to wireless – it’s possible to double your bandwidth!
> Use online tools to test your internet speed, as well as your connection’s latency. The latency, or ping, can be the cause of the lag that you experience when working remotely. Unfortunately, latency usually can’t be fixed with a higher internet speed.
> Be aware of other devices and applications connecting to your home network, as they might impact network speed on your mobile workstation. Are you sharing this connection with other family members? What hours are you working? What else is running across this connection – TV, phone, streaming services, games, etc.?
Let’s now review the options for setting up a remote work environment for digital design and production work, and address the needs for rolling these out.
Remote Desktop, or RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol), allows your home computer to connect to, and control, another computer (eg. your network-connected desktop at the office) over an internet connection. This practice has been available for a long time and has generally not changed over the years. The greatest benefit of this solution is that you end up working on your office computer, which means no new setup or additional software to installation, and everything is familiar. Some typical platforms include Microsoft Windows Remote Desktop, Chrome Remote Desktop, TeamViewer, LogMeIn, AnyDesk, RemotePC.
Remote desktop is the easiest and most “stable” option but does not come without its setbacks, the primary of which is lag time. As you move the mouse on your end, it might take up to ½ second to see the cursor movement on the other end. The amount of lag depends on the internet connection (see above) which may vary from user to user. As the lag time is the largest complaint for this solution, it should be tested prior to committing.
Another consideration that might need to be investigated is the ability (or lack of ability) to control computer viruses from entering the office network environment from an “unprotected” home computer. Check with your IT department to see if this is a concern that might obviate this option from consideration.
Additional questions that you need to ask yourself and your IT department:
> What happens if you have two or more monitors at work? How many do you have at home? Does your version of remote desktop work with more than one monitor?
> What happens if your office machine turns off due to a power outage or some other unforeseen circumstance? Does someone need to physically be in the office to turn it back on if/when this happens?
Virtual Private Network (VPN)
A VPN allows you to access your office server(s) from your home computer through secured firewall(s). You can run applications directly on the PC you’re working on and access your office network’s environment (network drives, printers, etc.) VPN is well suited for non- or low-graphically intensive applications, such as Microsoft Office, e-mail, and even some CAD programs.
With that being said, in an Autodesk Revit workshared environment (multiple people using Central and Local model files), you need to be aware of serious issues when using a VPN solution. With Central models, Revit needs to communicate element status and changes from the Local file back to the Central model on a continual basis. This is constant, not just when the user Syncs to Central. If there is too much lag, which is a concern when connecting over a VPN, model corruption will most likely happen, and will result with someone needing to clean up the mess and a corresponding loss of productivity and work. The more people working on a project, the worse this issue is likely to become.
Because of this corruption issue and the inherent risks involved, VPN is not recommended or supported by Autodesk or MG for use with workshared Revit models. You are simply playing with fire by going down this path, and would need to do a lot of testing on your own if you do choose this option.
Before completely dismissing the VPN option, consider that this solution does give you the ability to get things done in the office outside of working in Revit. We all have many non-design-related documents that we need to access, so for the rest of your work, VPN is a great solution. VPN could be partnered up with another solution such as RDP or BIM 360 to make a complete overall solution.
BIM 360 Design
Autodesk’s BIM 360 platform is made up of several different solutions, from Document Management to Model Coordination to Field Management, built on Autodesk Forge. The primary solution for design model collaboration is BIM 360 Design, through which you can access your active Revit models, and those of your consultants, in a collaborative workshared environment. At its essence it is a cloud-based server that hosts the Central and linked models, so as long as you can connect to the internet you will have access to your files.
While BIM 360 Design does not solve all the issues related to using Revit remotely, it does eliminate the primary problems of lag and potential file corruption. From our experience, and from that of our clients, BIM 360 Design is a stable environment for design work, collaboration, and tracking milestones along the project timeline. Other benefits include:
> Ease of coordinating with outside consultants
> Ease of adding users and additional files
> A great backup system, when used properly
> The ability to use the Autodesk Desktop Connector, which functions like a cloud drive similar to Box, Dropbox, OneDrive, etc.
BIM 360 Design is not without its drawbacks. For example, the initial project setup can be tricky if a strategy is not set related to working with other file types outside of the main Revit model. Examples of such file types include your company’s Revit family library, linked AutoCAD files, Shared Parameter text files, Keynote text files, etc.
Considerations for implementing BIM 360 Design for you project or organization include:
> How many projects will need remote access, and how large are the files?
> Are the project teams large in size, and/or are the team members located in multiple offices, possibly in different states or countries?
> Are you able to invest in BIM 360 training or support for the team members using it?
BIM 360 Design requires a subscription outside of your Autodesk AEC Collection licensing, but it can be paid on a month-to-month basis or under a contract of up to three years. In our opinion, a combination of BIM 360 Design, Desktop Connector and a VPN works well for longer-term telecommuting solutions going beyond one month.
Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) or Terminal Server
VDI is on the opposite spectrum from a VPN or RDP in terms of costs and setup. The extra layer of software required to host a VDI system is typically centered around Citrix or VMware. This is the solution that MG uses for our remote training needs. It works well with large and small offices, however it is not without drawbacks, such as time for setup, testing, and pricing. The implementation can take well over a week of planning, along with a period of testing, to ensure everything is set up correctly. VDI incurs larger up-front costs, and adding more users to the environment requires additional computing resources, so the price will only go up.
As mentioned above, there are several key questions that need to be addressed prior to proceeding down one of the remote work paths.
Remote Desktop is a great, easy transition to start working from home. It has very little cost and setup, and you benefit from working on your usual work computer. Possible drawbacks include needing another computer at home from which to work, translating a multiple-monitors setup to one with a single monitor, and connection lag. Don’t forget, what happens if the host computer needs to be turned back on or rebooted?
VPN is really not an option for Revit, as it will eventually corrupt your Central models. Of course, there are those out there who will roll the dice, so it’s important to remember that this setup is not supported by Autodesk or MG. However, it is a great system to connect to all the other files and documents needed to support Revit.
BIM 360 Design is probably your best bet if the current situation is longer than a month, as it is built for Revit and manages multiple projects and users very well. It can support additional file types, and in combination with Desktop Connector and VPN it can truly be a complete solution. However, it does come with a cost, and some initial setup can be tricky.
VDI is a great hardware-based system, however it takes time to set up and test, and comes at a price. Unless you have already invested in this solution, or anticipate it as a permanent solution going forward, it might not be an option to consider.
Additional questions related to Revit or BIM 360 Design? Reach out to us at https://www.mg-aec.com/.