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Case Study

Case Study: Moving High-Performance Graphics Workstations to the Cloud

The driving force behind this cloud innovation is Building Information Modeling

We have heard a lot about Cloud Computing and Saas, but what about moving high-performance graphics workstations to the cloud? This article describes how Little Diversified Architectural Consulting, located in Charlotte, NC, built a Private Cloud that included their high-performance graphics workstations (HPGW). The Little Cloud is in production and on track to reduce their workstation and laptop hardware expense by 67% ($2M) over the next 10 years.

Business Opportunity
The current economy has been challenging for all organizations and has caused everyone to rethink everything. The driving force behind this cloud innovation at Little is Building Information Modeling (BIM). Designers are now able to construct a fully documented, 3D building in a computer before they actually build it on-site. This requires a lot of computer power and a few obstacles. Little's cloud strategy "kills 11 birds with one stone" and has many applications outside of the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) industry.

Desktop Computing Needs Growing
As an architectural and engineering firm, Little has heavy desktop computing needs, very similar to the gaming industry. Their industry applications require a lot of simulation, analysis, rendering, and 3D modeling in order to design buildings. They had been on a two-year refresh cycle for their laptops. Each year, Little spent between $250,000-$300,000 and the laptops were getting more expensive as they added more software capability. In 2009, they could not afford to refresh their laptops as they normally did, but they still had increasing needs at the desktop. Switching to a workstation cloud strategy allowed them to shift to a 4-5 year refresh cycle by providing access to high-performance workstations. "Our laptops could easily operate as ‘cloud access devices' and new laptops could be purchased for less than $1,000 when the time comes. Now our laptops are kept until the wheels fall off," said Chris France, Little's CIO.

Collaborating Over Wide Area Geography
As a multi-office firm, Little's designers would be assigned to a project based on their expertise and the needs of the client project. It was very common to have people in Orlando, DC, and Charlotte working on the same building model. While the software vendors are working on solutions to make their products operate over a WAN and infrastructure companies can provide WAN accelerators - this still was not good enough. Was it too much to ask to have the distributed project teams working just as if they were sitting in the same office? Little didn't think so. By shifting everyone to the cloud, Little was able to give that "same office" experience to a distributed project team.

Collaborating with Outside Firms on the Same Model
The next logical step in BIM model development was to accommodate the standard industry practice of hiring consultants to help design the building. Many firms do not have all the design resources within their company. They regularly work with outside engineering, fire protection, or acoustical consultants - but everyone is working on the same building (and the same model). Now that many of these consultants are using BIM tools, it would be ideal if they could all work on the same model, just like employees of the same firm can do. Without this cloud technology, project teams have to trade models via an FTP or project websites on set schedules. Real-time collaboration is difficult between external entities.

IT Infrastructure Cost Consolidation
While the genesis of Little's cloud was to solve the BIM computing problem, it has yielded other benefits. Virtualization is another IT industry strategy that is central to building high-performance clouds. Increases in hardware and network performance, coupled by a corresponding reduction in price have made virtualization very attractive to IT leaders. Virtualization was initially justified purely based on hardware cost reduction.  In Little's case, they have 57 physical servers now running on two physical servers ($170,000 vs $35,000). Storage is virtualized as well.  Little manages approximately 50 terabytes of data.  Had they not virtualized their storage when they did, they would have added a large number of IT staff to manage various physical data volumes ($700,000 per year annual expense avoided). By using a combination of this sophisticated virtualization software, Little wanted to see the same reductions in their laptop/desktop infrastructure.

Regional Office IT Infrastructure Consolidation
Little recently consolidated two of their Los Angeles offices into one for more efficiency.  Faced with a decision to buy a large  2TB+ storage area network (SAN) or network attached storage (NAS), they opted rather to move their LA office "to the cloud." With the cloud infrastructure that was in Charlotte, they had on-demand resources to accommodate this disk expansion and consolidation of office space.  This strategy has allowed the regional office to operate exclusively in the cloud with no local storage and Little plans to move their other three offices to the cloud by the end of the year. Again, it is just like being in the same office and does n't matter where the physical office is located.

General Purpose Business Applications
Sure, designers love the raw power an $8000 workstation brings them but what about the rest of us?  With Little's virtualized high-performance graphics workstation, this technology is affordable to all firms, in all industries. Imagine the productivity enhancements of running Outlook, MS Office 2007, Financial, HR, or other business applications on a HPGW?  Seven to 10 BIM designers can work on one of these workstations.  Depending on the business applications, a firm may be able to have 20-30 users on such a box.  Now an $8000 HPGW running 30 business users costs $267/user.  Is that worth the productivity gained?

Full Mobility
How many employees work exclusively in their physical office at all times? With the consolidation of leased space, more workers telecommuting from home, more freelancers and consultants competing for jobs all over the place, people need to be able to run all their office apps anytime, anyplace, just as if they were in their office. This has been difficult up to now as people would have the applications on their laptops and their data scattered between local and remote sources. There have been improvements from the WAN accelerator companies to allow individual users access to accelerate their laptop traffic, but again, this still wasn't good enough. With a secure remote cloud gateway, Little's people are able to attach to their HPGW which is sitting right next to their data on a gigabit LAN. Their laptop is nothing more than a cloud access device for most of their computing. Employees have realized that working on the cloud from home on their cable broadband Internet connection is faster than working on their laptop connected directly to their broadband Internet connection. This is because the HPGW is better than their laptop and the corporate Internet connection is way better than their residential broadband. Once Little adds a corporate soft VOIP phone to their cloud access device, their entire office will be mobile.

IT Automation and Support Reduction
While a cloud strategy does not change your software licensing agreements (or costs) with your software vendors, it's much easier for your IT staff to deploy and manage new applications. Many software applications have a network or concurrent licensing model. That means anyone can work on any workstation as long as there is an available license in the pool. If everyone in the company needs access to a particular application, the traditional approach was to use sophisticated scripting or software automation to push an application to 200+ laptops. This is time-consuming and problematic as it is hard to update a laptop that rarely connects to the corporate network. Little can run their entire company on 20 HPGW (aka cloud computers). These 20 HPGW are stationary, located in a datacenter and available 24x7; this makes it much easier for IT to update 20 stationary computers rather than 200 mobile computers. Depending on the application and number of users, Little will put it on one cloud computer and people just log in to it when they need to run it. Problem solved.

Business Continuity, Disaster Recovery, and Security
How many firms back up their user desktops and laptops? Not many due to the time and disk requirements. However, IT knows that many people have all kinds of corporate and client information on their laptops. With the cloud strategy, Little was able to keep corporate and client information "in the cloud" where it's backed up and replicated. If your laptop is stolen or the hard drive crashes, you are out of commission until your IT department can get you a new laptop or rebuild it after it is repaired. With a HPGW cloud, if there is a failure, there is no data lost since it is on the SAN, and there is no downtime. Little has spare capacity on the cloud just for DR purposes. For example, if cloud box LC-0000 goes down (LC stands for Little Cloud), IT tells the people assigned to that box to log in to LC-5000 and keep on working. Their profiles and user data migrates over with them. If their cloud access device dies (i.e., their laptop), IT can hand them a spare laptop and they keep on trucking. If they are on the road, they can walk into any electronics store and buy a $400 laptop to access the cloud. Finally, security is greatly enhanced, particularly for the client data. People can leave their data in the cloud and not have to bring it to the local laptop. If there is a situation where people need to present and need data locally, it will be a copy and not the source.

Locked Down Corporate Desktop, Unlocked Personal Computer
How long has IT tried to lock down corporate desktops so that they will be consistently available for business? Now try to balance that need with the people's need for autonomy, local software innovation, and the ability to respond to clients' needs without having to check with IT every time. Little's cloud offers the best of both worlds. They lock down their cloud computers and don't allow any personal applications or data (iTunes being the most popular). The local laptop, in effect, becomes their place for personal data, pictures, and applications. If people want to back up their laptop, the company recommends the employee purchase their own USB hard drive or buys a subscription to an online backup service. Now when people blow away their local settings and data or their laptop becomes so infected with spyware, IT can quickly replace their laptop. Their business apps and data are unaffected.

Rendering and Animation Farm
Most large design firms have a 3D animation studio where they create photo-realistic renderings of their buildings. Many take it to the next level of making short movies, fly-throughs, or full cinematic storytelling to give clients a real sense of what their new facility will look like. These rendering programs crunch frame by frame of a video and could take several days to complete. By having a HPGW cloud, these studios can use the cloud at the same time people are using the cloud, just at a lower processor priority. When people go home, these programs crank up and fully utilize the CPU all night long. On some jobs, Little has seen rendering time drop from 53 mins/frame to 7.3 secs/frame. With all this additional number crunching ability, you would think things would get done quicker. Normally, that would be the case but Little's designers have now decided to move into high definition (HD) rendering to achieve a higher level of quality, client "WOW" factor, and further enhance their ability to compete.

Dual Duty: BIM Cloud and Rendering Animation Farm

How Are Business Opportunities Realized?
Since the central theme of this article is the adoption of a virtualized High Performance Graphical Workstations, minimal explanation will be given to virtualizing other IT assets such as servers and storage.

First, Virtualize Your Servers, Storage
As a method to save money in buying new hardware, Little began testing VMware ESX server. After initial piloting on low-risk servers, tools and techniques were worked out and now all servers are placed into a virtual infrastructure. Now that significant reductions in Little's hardware expense have been realized and they have seen greatly increased operational capabilities such as "instant" provisioning, disaster recovery, and business continuity, they were able to deliver on the corporate challenge to "do more with less."

Next Little chose to virtualize their storage to save money and to be able to manage a mountain of data with the existing IT staff. They standardized on the EMC CX500 and have a big pot of disks they carve up as needed for applications and servers. That pot-o-disk is approaching 50 TB on two redundant EMCs.

Virtualize Your High-Performance Graphical Workstations
Now Little wanted the same benefits for their desktops that they had realized with their servers and storage. They tested various desktop virtualization products but didn't virtualize the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU), which led to poor performance. Chris France, Little's CIO, was really looking forward to telling their users that he was moving them to a cloud that will be slower than their laptops (heavy sarcasm). Like that would happen. "The key to getting our users to the workstation cloud was to provide not just the same experience as their laptop, but an experience that was way better than their laptop. I wanted a workstation cloud that people couldn't touch with their laptop computers," said France.

"What if we took a baby-step into Desktop Virtualization and created a hybrid approach? I had a vision where we could have a smoking fast workstation sitting in a data center that we could get to via various remote desktop protocols. But this wasn't good enough. That approach still needed a one-to-one mapping of people to workstations. This really didn't save us any money. But what if we could turn a single-user workstation into a multi-user workstation - call it a workstation server? To our end users, it would look virtualized to them and be in the "cloud." To the IT staff, it was a piece of shared hardware. I challenged our IT staff to come up with a concept to build this and they did. Based on our benchmark testing, we were able to put 10 people on these shared workstations," France stated.

"The Secret Sauce"

  • Rack Mounted Workstation
  • (2) 3.0 Ghz Xeon Quad-core Processors (8 cores Total)
  • 32GB RAM
  • 1.5GB Video RAM
  • Fast Local Hard Drive
  • User/Design data mapped to virtualized storage on our SAN
  • Client access device: their primary Windows Laptop


  • Microsoft Windows 7, 64-bit Desktop Operating System
  • Utility Software for multi-user access, load balancing of CPU, network, and memory resources.
  • Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) used for client remote access

Based on a company the size of Little (225 people), they can provide design services on 20 HPGW cloud computers. These workstations will not need to be refreshed every two years like their laptops. France states, "We are guesstimating that we'll refresh every 4-5 years with maybe a component upgrade in the interim. Our primary laptops will only need to be replaced when they die - and we're hoping to get four years out of them. With most of the computing load moved off our laptops, when we do need to replace laptops they will cost $800-$1000 rather than $2200-$2500." France figures to spend $1M over 10 years rather than $3M to buy desktop computing hardware.

Lessons Learned from Production Users

  • With multiple users using the same workstation, Little was able to see how underutilized their laptops really were. Most of the time, they are sitting idle when people are in meetings or out in the field. This makes desktops ripe for consolidation.
  • Not all users computing needs are the same - some consume much more memory and CPU than others. The IT staff worked with them to see if the need is legitimate or if there was a training issue.
  • Memory was the biggest constraint. Early on, Little had a "cloud burst" by having too many people consuming memory on one box. They locked up the box. By reducing the number of designers per box from 8 to 7 and adding more memory, the cloud bursts were eliminated.
  • Some applications don't lend themselves well to a remote desktop strategy. Little had to tweak their AutoCAD program because the mouse-pointer "cross hair" caused too much data to be sent. Real-time video compositing also did better with local hardware. Be sure to test your mission-critical apps. This approach was better, butbnot perfect.
  • We can drive utilization of these boxes to nearly 100%. When people aren't using them, we turn these into our "rendering farm" that generates computer animations. Since these processes run at a lower priority than our user apps, they can be running at the same time as people designing. Any additional capacity is used for new users and disaster recovery purposes.
  • Running on our cloud is faster from Home than your laptop hooked into a broadband cable service.
  • People forget where they left their stuff. IT people take remote desktops for granted since they use them every day. It takes a little coaching and practice on the users part to realize what's going on. But once they catch on, they are all over this new computing method.

Benefits Realized
All 11 business opportunities have been realized for Little and they will continue to improve and come up with more.

  1. Desktop Computing Needs Growing
  2. Collaborating Over Wide Area Geography
  3. Collaborating with Outside Firms on the same Model
  4. IT Infrastructure Cost Consolidation
  5. Regional Office IT Infrastructure Consolidation
  6. General Purpose Business Applications
  7. Full Mobility
  8. IT Automation and Support Reduction
  9. Business Continuity, Disaster Recovery, and Security
  10. Locked Down Corporate Desktop, Unlocked Personal Computer
  11. Rendering and Animation Farm

France sees this private, hybrid, high-performance graphical workstation cloud to be viable for 2-4 years until the main software vendors have created software that can truly virtualize the GPU. At such a time, Little will upgrade their cloud infrastructure to be able to run 225 designers on two physical high-performance graphical workstations. We can only dream.

More Stories By Chris France

Chris France is the CIO for Little Diversified Architectural Consulting and CEO/Principal Consultant at Chris France Consulting, located in Charlotte, NC. When he is not strategizing, building, and maintaining Little’s IT infrastructure, he is working closely with clients as a consultant to formulate their IT strategies that will achieve the organizations’ mission. Then as the owner of the IT strategy, he provides IT Consulting, Staff Development, Project Management, and Infrastructure Services delivered through the Private Cloud Technologies.

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