Extended Forecast—Partly Cloudy

By Nicholas E. Vlattas, AIA, and Deborah Marquardt

Having our head in the clouds used to imply we were dreamers. Not anymore. Now more than ever before, IT in the cloud means resource management that is firmly grounded.

Just a few years ago, Hanbury Evans made a strategic decision to invest in building information modeling without fully appreciating how the file size of Revit® models would explode.  With our work spread over three offices and several remote users,  and a professional staff that travels extensively, things got ever-more complicated. Then the recession hit.

Soon we faced another decision: Should we keep investing in ever-more-expensive workstations or virtualize? We gazed skyward. The motivation of being able to access a Revit model anywhere in the world was powerful.

The desire to be more flexible, accessible, portable, and collaborative has driven change, and there are still many options. Some firms may choose to continue working in a traditional manner with distributed IT (every office has its own). Others might adopt a hybrid approach, i.e., parcel some functions like email to a public cloud (like Amazon or Google) and keep the rest in-house, host a private cloud in-house (IT consolidation into one data center), or pay a service for private space in a multi-tenant cloud.

Cloud resource efficiency

Chris France, formerly with Charlotte-based Little Diversified Architectural Consulting, took that firm to a private cloud before moving to Advance2000, which hosts private clouds. In a 2010 AECbytes article, France writes that by switching to the cloud, “Little is on track to reduce workstation and laptop hardware expense by 67 percent or $2 million over the next 10 years.”

In his new role at Advance2000, France authored a follow-up AECbytes article in January.  He encouraged every firm to calculate the percentage of net revenue used for “IT spend,” (IT staff, hardware, software, telecom, and buildings—what it takes to house that data center physically), and decide whether that spend is within their means. By going to the cloud, France continues, one 300-person firm spending 5 percent of net revenue on IT was able to reduce its IT spend by 24 percent.

The decision to “rent” space in a multi-tenant cloud can reduce IT spend even further, France notes.  It is not so different from deciding to own or rent office space. What if you didn’t have to invest in physical space to hold IT? What if IT staff could maintain local assets, but someone else’s 24-hour staff could manage all the critical data that designers need 24/7?

At a recent AIA/CFO roundtable in Charleston, S.C., France presented data for a 100-person firm with two offices that chose the multi-tenant cloud model.  IT spend dropped from $3 million to $1 million over three years.

Cloud security

A recent Wall Street Journal article, “Seeking Safety in the Cloud,” suggests security concerns decline on the cloud. “Basic security tasks that often don’t get done at a small enterprise … are usually part of the plain-vanilla package in the cloud,” wrote John Bussey. “The more you pay, the more you get: firewalls around your data, high-end encryption, ‘private clouds’ that let you isolate critical information and still access extra processing muscle when you need it, hacker-attack notification and mitigation, and 24-hour tech support.”

Less outlay, more billable hours

Matt Lindner with Charlotte’s Moore Lindner Engineering conducted a methodical analysis before gravitating to the cloud. “We’re engineers, after all,” he says. Even then, Lindner asked for a two-month trial before locking the contract. As a firm with fewer than 10 employees, one engineer was wearing a second hat as IT chief. Driving the decision was a desire to maintain a flexible laptop force, yet be able to work as efficiently from anywhere as if working from an office desk. Although the firm had to install switches and routers to communicate with the cloud service and upgrade its bandwidth, “all of our servers are handled offsite with better equipment than we could buy,” Lindner says. “Moreover, although we had an IT back-up plan, it probably was not sufficient in the case of a hardware failure.” The company now purchases laptops that cost $1,000-$1,500, rather than $3,000-$5,000, and the engineer/IT chief is back on billable work.

Lindner says the next test will be engaging teams from Chicago, Seattle, and Vancouver in real-time collaboration for a national retailer project. “This is the only way to do real time collaboration.”

The best news

Hanbury Evans employs a hybrid cloud architecture, using both public and private cloud environments. We began virtualizing network servers and data storage in 2006. In 2010, we began to virtualize the desktop and currently have 40 virtual desktops, with a goal of 80. The break-even point for our “virtual desktop infrastructure” was just under seven months. Our strategy is to phase the work, using smaller servers that host fewer users. By 2013, the transition will be complete, with all data centrally stored in our Norfolk headquarters, and will reflect an anticipated savings of $500,000 over five years, not including additional savings from reduced electricity, heating and cooling, and consolidation of branch office servers.

The best news? No time lost for slow-loading software, and a more productive and efficient staff.

We would be interested in hearing about your cloud experiences. Please take the opportunity to comment below.


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