Case study Architects, Engineering & Construction

Architecting a flexible practice

Deploying 3D Virtual Desktops at London based architectural practice Robin Partington & Partners improves workplace mobility, collaboration, flexibility and the user experience.

A frustration for many architectural practices is the traditional static and expensive workstation-class hardware technologies that are used to provide 3D computer aided design (CAD) and building information management (BIM) software tools. These ground the architects in the physical office during intense design cycles and are expensive to purchase and maintain. Until now, the graphics application demands could only be supported by this type of technology. Recent developments with 3D accelerated virtual desktops, means users can now run their CAD applications from anywhere, at any time.

Robin Partington & Partners (RPP) is a rapidly growing and innovative practice who recognised the advantages of having a more mobile and flexible practice. Removing physical location constraints means the practice can respond better to clients and be more productive during critical phases of the design process. Furthermore, they wanted to remove risks associated with single points of failure and improve business continuity, safeguarding themselves and their clients against an outage.

With current workstations coming to end of life, RPP chose to investigate the possibilities of adopting VDI for end-user computing infrastructure. The company’s client-centric design approach, which often requires architects to work remotely and collaborate on complex projects, meant the flexibility and mobility offered by virtualisation was extremely appealing.

It offers the flexibility and productivity we need for
our workforce. And it enables our designers to work
on projects and collaborate with remote teams from
any location
Shaula Zanchi – Operations Partner at RPP

As their key IT service management partner, we also believed the technology could be used to drive down the total cost of ownership of their IT service through lower hardware costs and less maintenance and support time.

However the viability of this technology for RPP depended on proving it could deliver a solution that was not just cost effective, but acceptable to the company’s employees. The performance of key software packages, including Bentley AECOsim and Adobe Creative Suite needed to match that which RPP’s team had come to expect from their enterprise workstations.

Performance when running heavy programs like
AECOsim and Adobe Creative Suite is improved,
and I really like the ability to access my software
packages and files from wherever I am
– it helps me make the best use of my time
Mark Williams-Jones - RPP's architects team

The graphics performance required by the different types of employee at RPP varied widely, from support staff running basic productivity and administration software, to architects working with graphically intensive CAD and BIM packages. Any VDI solution would need to meet the performance needs of the entire user spectrum whilst delivering the collaborative, flexibility and mobility benefits that RPP were seeking to achieve.

Implementation

We developed a proof of concept for RPP based on a Dell PowerEdge R720 2U rack server with two NVIDIA GRID™ K2 boards using VMware Horizon View. This proof of concept solution (PoC) was then tested with a wide range of users, including senior architects, architectural assistants and key support staff.

The PoC began by installing and configuring all RPP applications on a tuned, golden image virtual desktop running 64-bit Windows 7. This desktop used virtual shared graphics acceleration (vSGA), with the VMware 3D SVGA driver allowing simultaneous access to the NVIDIA GRID hardware. vSGA provided a good level of performance for general task workers, but severely constrained the performance of CAD application Bentley AECOsim due to vSGA only supporting Direct X 9.0 / OpenGL 2.1.

With vSGA not providing the graphics performance needed, we reconfigured the environment to test virtual dedicated graphics acceleration (vDGA). vDGA exploits pass-through to allow a virtual desktop to connect directly to a GRID GPU in the host, and uses the NVIDIA display driver (rather than the VMware display driver used during vSGA). vDGA offered an incredibly high level of graphics performance for CAD users, however, it limited RPP to only four virtual desktop users per host (2 users per GRID card) and was therefore not a cost effective solution.

During the PoC, NVIDIA announced NVIDIA GRID vGPU technology. vGPU is similar to vDGA in its ability to provide virtual desktops with direct access to the GRID cards using an NVIDIA graphics driver, but it also has the benefits of vSGA by allowing multiple virtual desktops to share access to the 3D cards.

Waterstons and RPP negotiated privileged access to the vGPU Early Access Program (EAP) alongside companies such as Airbus, Lockheed Martin, Siemens Wind Power, and global architecture firms such as AECOM and CH2MHILL. The PoC environment was then reconfigured to provide users with access to vGPU accelerated desktops, and this proved to be an instant success.

RPP provided virtual desktop access to their architectural team working on a major project in West London - who made side by side performance comparisons to gauge the experience alongside state of the art workstation hardware. The team used various software packages throughout the project, and their feedback was incredibly positive with virtual desktops a clear winner.

This technology gives me the performance I need, but also peace of mind knowing I can access my desktop virtually anywhere and come back to my work exactly where I left it. That reliability and reassurance are the biggest benefits to me"
Leo Cripps, RPP Graphic Designer

The benefits

Desktop virtualisation has delighted RPP users with quick load times and smooth performance in key software. Desktops can be updated centrally when application updates are made available, and pushed out to users without loss of personalisation or other persistent data to reduce IT support costs. There is no need for costly and time consuming workstation replacements, and the potential for significantly reduced costs in workstation cooling and power on the design floor. Workplace mobility, previously impossible for CAD users, has had a tremendous impact on productivity with remote access to the full suite of applications from any device including tablets. The ability to work and collaborate effectively, no matter where a project or client may be, is also supporting RPP in delivering outstanding client service.

NVIDIA GRID vGPU gives me remote access to all my live files and makes collaboration easier because I don’t have to worry about synchronising versions or clashing with other users over access. It means that I can keep my finger on the pulse even when I’m away from the studio
Robin Partington Managing Partner, RPP