Month: March 2020

Why Every AEC Firm Needs to Move to the Cloud Now

Cloud computing is the future of everything digital. Modern IT environments use it. “Modern IT” is now hosting its infrastructure in some form of the cloud. Moving to the cloud is especially important for architects, engineering, and construction firms (AEC). A 2017 Sage Survey found that most of AEC firms had already moved to the cloud. It was quite a jump from an earlier survey conducted in 2012 when only 16% of construction contractors had migrated to the cloud.

That’s why most of them are on the cloud in one form or another. The AEC industry is highly fragmented, data-intensive, and project-based. Designing, building, and repurposing require all the traditional disciplines you’d expect, but also many ancillary areas such as energy, environment, and waste.

The Journal of Cloud computing: Advances, Systems, and Applications reported that sharing data and supporting coordination between people involved is difficult and reliant on third-party tools to support such capability. “We believe cloud computing provides a more efficient and robust mechanism for individuals within the AEC industry to collaborate and share data. Work is already underway in the AEC sector for developing data and process models to enable greater interoperable working between project participants.”

This research has led to the development of the concept of Building Information Models (BIM) – a design process that looks at a building’s life cycle. The BIM concept helps designers and others see how a building will use resources before it’s built. BIM was an evolution of ideas.  Start with a powerful digital drawing tool and then evolve it into a much more sophisticated program. The software works in partnership with the designer or architect. A set of drawings becomes an interactive database. When the designer draws on the screen, the BIM system computes the properties of the building and even suggest improvements for everything from energy efficiencies to people flow while costing out every conceivable option. Every variable is built into the AutoDesk software. Any design changes are immediately reflected in revised cost estimates. It tells how much energy the modified design will save. The architect is working with a set of drawings and a data model that understands the whole building as a three-dimensional living system. Keep in mind that BIM includes all the information about a building. It should be a complete 4D virtual repository of the data associated with the structure from beginning to the end of its life.

 

Being on the cloud facilitates hiring, and retaining, some of the best talents all over the world.
THE CLOUD ENABLES REMOTE COLLABORATIVE TEAMS to work seamlessly together on complex projects.

Collaborative working environments have been long-standing key aspects of AEC workflows. Traditionally, those collaborative teams had to commute to one centralized location. Today, offering work environment flexibility (home office or corporate office) has become somewhat of an expected perk. This was a trend long before the coronavirus reared its ugly head. Now, there are government mandates pressing the point even more. We’re all being forced to work from our homes. Coronavirus aside, future AEC firms don’t want to have their collaborative teams tied to one physical location. Not any more.

Jennifer Howe, VP of SMMA (an architectural firm headquartered in Boston) and acting president of the ACEC organization, Massachusetts Chapter says, “As much as I don’t want to be working from home, there are times when I need to be working from home. Our IT staff had us set-up to work remotely, but it wasn’t the same as what we have now with the cloud. I can be on my laptop with IronOrbit and see everything the same way as we see it while we’re in the office.”

She recognizes that it’s more of an employee’s market now. “The ability to offer talented candidates the option to work from home is an added incentive to join your team.” That’s especially true when nothing is lost while moving from the office workstation to your mobile device-of-choice working at home. But there are other reasons to migrate to the cloud.

A much more enhanced remote work experience is not the only reason to move the cloud. The biggest, more critical reason, is security. But it can’t be just any cloud solution. , The cloud environment needs to customized to the unique needs of the firm. Jennifer talks about the biggest threat every firm faces. “Ransomware attacks are a tremendous concern. An ACEC Mass member firm had a recent incident where they were hit with a cyber-security breach. That was very concerning to our entire chapter. ACEC actually hosted an informative event where they shared some of the issues that they had. For SMMA, as government contractors, we need to be very protective and careful with the information that we have.”

Just a few short years ago, Google Drive and DropBox were the popular options between those who wanted to share large files. Those options weren’t great at protecting intellectual property. Concerns over security justifiably kept many AEC firms from utilizing them.
In addition to state-of-the-art firewalls, antivirus protocols, malware filters, and encryption, a truly holistic approach to security includes 24/7 monitoring.
Industry-Wide Concern for Security Is At An All-Time High

Carlos Charry is the Director of Technology for SMMA. He says security has been a top concern for everybody. “One of our competitors got hit with ransomware a few years back. It made me look at our own situation and ask, ‘Are we prepared for this?’ I knew we weren’t ready.”

The level of security provided by IronOrbit – the firm’s cloud solution provider is far beyond anything they could have accomplished on their own. The entire IT infrastructure is protected by state-of-the-art firewalls, antivirus protocols, malware filters, and encryption. The security doesn’t stop there. There is an entire team of engineers, rotating around the clock, monitoring the data centers for any type of potential security threat.

But Carlos adds, “The question of security aside, you still have to keep up with technology. That means having your IT infrastructure on the cloud. The cloud provides faster updates. Just keeping all your applications up to date saves you a lot of trouble. Most of my time before the cloud was spent handling IT issues.  Things like the network not being responsive or our server going down. I spent time on things like that and couldn’t devote myself to what I truly love to do which is to improve our business processes. I want to make them better so the company can become ever more efficient.

Carlos continues, “The cloud has enabled us to hire anyone anywhere in the world. The employee just needs a PC and an Internet connection of some kind and they can utilize our tools. We currently have people working for us from Maine and New York. Since we’ve moved to the cloud, my headaches have been reduced. Once an employee is connected to the cloud, I don’t have to worry about it. I know the data is automatically being backed up. My worries are basically gone.”

FINDING THE RIGHT WAY TO COLLABORATE IS CRITICAL TO RUNNING AN EFFECTIVE BUSINESS

Jennifer says, “Working with Carlos, our IT director, we’re always looking for better ways to do our work. SMMA is a full-service design firm. Collaboration is the key to our success. Finding the right way to collaborate internally and collaborate with our clients is a critical part of running an effective business.

MOVING TO THE CLOUD. WHAT IS IT LIKE?

People were hesitant at first. The cloud environment is different from having your server on the premises. It’s different. “As we were going up to the cloud, and trying to figure out how to use it, they weren’t sure at first what to expect. Is it going to make my life better or worse? Finally, through effective collaboration and communication, we found it to be an invaluable tool. I find that I can access whatever I need wherever I am.  One of the things that surprised me was being at a client meeting and just being on wi-fi and act as if I were in the office. I’m able to pull up any document I need at any time. For example, I do a lot of government work. When I’m doing a client visit, I often don’t have wi-fi available to me. No worries. I just turn on the hotspot on my phone and still be able to open up a CAD drawing. You’d think that would be impossible to do, right? But it really works quite well.”

 

Being able to be remote and share a CAD drawing on your laptop using the hotspot on a smartphone is amazing. “You think it’d be impossible, but it actually works very well.”

 

Hector Inirio is the Design Technologist. He says, “That the most attractive aspect of moving to the cloud was a blend of things. There are many aspects of advanced IT that are beyond our expertise such as high-end security threats. Ransomware is a good example. I really liked the fact that cloud technology democratized our computer systems. We’re not transferring any data from our local workstations. The workstations themselves, really become more like dumb terminals. So, no matter what kind the computer was at a particular desk, they all now respond like high-end machines.  Previously, due to cost, we’d only have some users on higher-end machines. The ones who didn’t need the computing power were working on equipment with less computing power. Now, all of them respond with higher specs.”

“I really liked that cloud technology democratized our computer systems. It made all of them perform like higher spec machines” – Hector Inirio

The computer terminals become virtual desktops because they are hosted by the external cloud server. Any slowness or frustrations you’ve experienced with your current Internet connection go away. Once users log in to the hosted desktop you’re using bandwidth from the cloud. There are separate gigabyte connections to the Internet. Your bandwidth virtually becomes unlimited.

The technology needed to aid the construction industry’s complex workflows hadn’t become available until the past few years. There are now plenty of SaaS solutions available to make full use of what cloud technology offers. Most contractors are implementing cloud solutions. The few who are not risk losing any competitive edge they had. These firms are also in danger of becoming irrelevant as technology advances at exponential rates. They simply won’t be able to keep up. Remaining current with the speed of technology means being able to focus on human capital.  These are qualities like talent, skills, know-how, empathy, and creativity. All of these are undervalued human assets to unlock. You won’t be able to leverage this human capital if you’re stuck in the mud because your technology isn’t current.

MAKE FULL USE OF THE BENEFITS

Construction companies already on the cloud should evaluate if they’re making full use of being on the cloud. There is another benefit of cloud computing. Construction companies should be cashing in on the ability to store tremendous amounts of big data files onto more powerful machines. More can be done with fewer resources. Anywhere there’s an Internet connection you’re good to go. Being on the cloud removes hardware limitations, prevents loss of data, dramatically improves security (if designed correctly), and improves accessibility.

One of the key issues within the industry is the storage of building data throughout the whole life of the building. Data processing is also an important concern for the industry. During construction, a large part of the work takes place on-site where computing resources, up till now, have been non-existent.

The cloud offers data processing power. Drones hover over construction sites and take pictures with detailed GPS coordinates and metadata. Stitching these images into an orthograph requires more processing power than typical computers can muster. Visiting job sites can take hours. Now construction sites can be viewed via a SaaS platform. A design captain or engineer can get a real-time view of the location from anywhere in the world, and on any device. This technology also makes sharing data much easier. There’s a misconception that data becomes less secure on the cloud. It turns out the opposite is true. That is if the new cloud environment has been designed with tight security in mind. If the data is kept at a Level 3 Data Center with round the clock monitoring, cybersecurity is on an entirely different level. It’s in a league of its own. One that isn’t possible for on-prem servers or public clouds.

The Remote Work Survival Kit Under the Threat of the Coronavirus

There is no denying the impact COVID-19 has had on us over the past couple of months. The coronavirus has managed to work its way into every conversation, news headline, and social media post.

The coronavirus is a pandemic according to the World Health Organization. The threat of the virus spreading
has changed the way we live. We have to prepare ourselves for the upcoming months. Canceling large events and gatherings is one way to mitigate the spread of the virus. Sports, schools, churches and many businesses have closed. Or they avoid interaction with the public. Social distancing is the new mandate. Government officials have urged us to not congregate in large crowds. Stay at home if possible. Many companies are sending emails to employees asking them to work from home if possible. Companies that aren’t set up to work remotely are scrambling to make it happen. What was once an option has become a necessity.

This article will provide some options on how to deliver a great work from home experience. None of these technologies are new. If used in combination they will ensure a better work-from-home experience.

Let’s start with the one that can take on many forms and methodologies: BYOD. Bring your Own Device. Gartner defines BYOD as allowing someone to use a personally-owned device to access a company’s resources. This could be the company’s email. It could be actually installing a VPN client on their home computer. Each company has a different take on the level of access granted to non-company assets.

 

The “Bring Your Own Device” concept has been around since 2004. It is not a new trend. What is new is the popularity of using personal mobile devices on the job. The security risks of allowing access to corporate resources has discouraged some companies from adopting a BYOD policy.
Bring Your Own Device

In this post by Remote.CO you can get a sense of the varying level BYOD plays at different organizations. BYOD had its start in the mobile device world. Companies were tired of purchasing cell phones for employees. Employees were tired of carrying around 2 phones. Employees carried their personal phone and the locked-down, outdated one provided by the company. Since then, companies have other ways of getting business data secured on personal devices.

Mobile Device Managers

Microsoft Intune and VMware Airwatch are MDM programs that help protect corporate data on personal devices. Employees have access to an Enterprise app store where they can consume their internal data while using their device of choice. The employee first opts in to install the MDM agent on their device. The list of devices with current modern Operating Systems is no longer limited to only smartphones. Once the agent is installed, the company can push down a profile that allows the device to be managed. Both Intune and Airwatch have a robust set of policies available for Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android. What degree of enforcement the company has on the phone will vary on the company and device type. Once the agent is deployed, and the configuration of Security baseline is set, the device can be actively monitored and secured. This could mean enforcing Bitlocker encryption for Windows 10 devices or managing Filevault on macOS with Intune.

Virtual Desktop Infrastructure

VDI technology has taken many forms over the years. In its purest form, VDI is accessing a virtual machine over the network from a client or web-browser. This enables companies to have virtual machines always available on the internal network. These virtual controlled Existing management systems control these machines. Security tools protect the company provided applications and data. Having a proper VDI solution for employees to use can be a major advantage. Especially if they need to travel or work from various locations and/or devices. If a company already has VDI in place today, the process of deploying new virtual desktops is easy. It only takes seconds to accommodate new users.

VDI began as a technology installed on-premise or in a company’s private data centers. Later VDI transitioned to the cloud. The major VDI players Citrix, VMware and Microsoft all have major cloud offerings. This is called DaaS or Desktops as a service. Citrix and Microsoft host their DaaS offerings within Azure. VMware can host desktops in AWS, Azure, and the IBM Cloud. Google Cloud is coming soon.

The ability to leverage cloud-based virtual desktops has great advantages. Especially in certain situations like Disaster Recovery. Traditional VDI takes longer to procure and deploy new hardware. DaaS has some extra benefits like less IT overhead. This is because the cloud provider manages more components.

 

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is a means of which a computer user is granted access only after successfully presenting 2 or more pieces of evidence (factors) to an authentication mechanism. These are usually having to do with knowledge (something only the user knows); possession (only the user has it); and inherence (like fingerprint voice scan, or retina scan).

Let’s discuss the use of a multi-factor authentication solution. Two-factor authentication (2FA) is a subset of multi-factor authentication (MFA). It ensures you can pass multiple criteria for identity. This includes something you know (password or security PIN). It also includes an object like a security token or fob. Finally, something physical that is specific to you (fingerprint, retina scan, facial recognition). A 2FA solution would offer only 2 of these mechanisms to prove your identity.

We’ve all had to input our email or phone number when signing up for an account online. Using a mobile banking app is a good example. An authentication mechanism can be a one-time-password sent to you via text message. It could be using your phone’s builtin face or fingerprint reader. These are ways to prove your identity.

The FBI warns MFA solutions are not completely foolproof. Still, it’s the best way to thwart cyber-thieves from stealing your data. Having a second form of authentication proof is safer than only having a long password. Most modern smartphones and laptops have a built-in fingerprint or smart card reader. There are several key players in the MFA space. The top leaders include Okta, Microsoft Azure MFA, and Duo (recently acquired by Cisco). Duo uses a simple cloud-based 2FA approach. Their system integrates with various types of applications. When a user attempts to gain access, a VDI or VPN provider sends a push notification to your smartphone. The user acknowledges the push notification on their smartphone. There’s no need to enter a second password or copy a 16-digit PIN for verification.

The order from management is to stay at home. Do not come to the office for the next 2 weeks. Work remotely until government and health organizations deem the coronavirus has been contained. Don’t worry about a report or project plan saved on your office desktop. Embrace VDI technology.

Do Your Work, Anywhere, and on Any Device

 

If you’re new to working from home, make sure your technology is in order. One important aspect of working remotely is communication. Make sure you have the bandwidth needed to support your tasks throughout the day.

The order from management is to stay at home. Do not come to the office for the next 2 weeks. Work remotely until government and health organizations deem the coronavirus has been contained. Don’t worry about a report or project plan saved on your office desktop. Embrace VDI technology.

VDI means working from a virtual desktop every day. Your data is always available, accessible from wherever you are and protected. Your data is more secure now than it ever was when kept on-premises. The data is backed up across different geographic regions within the cloud. There is no need to worry about catastrophic power or network outage at your local data center. It’s also always on and provides a consistent experience whenever you need to access it.

Maybe you don’t need a full Windows Virtual Desktop to get your work done. You just need access to a handful of SaaS apps like Salesforce.com. An Okta or other MFA solution can help authenticate you from an outside connection. This allows you to gain entry to those specific internal resources without the need to install a VPN client.

Or, what if all you really need is to access your corporate email and files on your phone while safe at your home? Having your smart device enrolled in your company’s Mobile Device Management solution can provide the access you need while keeping the business data secured.

Deciding how to start a remote work enablement plan for your team can seem like an overwhelming task. Like other challenges, it can is not so daunting when done in small steps. Better yet, it is a good idea to bring in experts who can design a solution that works best for your business.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. While there are many ways to enable employees to work from home, there is only one that is perfect for your needs.

Many adversities are beyond our control. It is helpful to focus on those things we can control. We can take steps to prepare for the uncertainties ahead. We can do what is best for our employees and our loved ones.

Using the cloud to work remote is less to do with “social distancing,” and more to do with benefiting your company. Being on the cloud will democratize opportunities for you across the board. You’ll see that remote work is not so much a challenge to overcome, but a business advantage to achieve.

 

The Coronarvirus Tests Global Readiness for Remote Work
As the threat of a coronavirus pandemic wipes away trillions of market value dollars, the largest mass exodus from the traditional office is underway.
The coronavirus threat pushes the question, “Are we ready to have our employees work from home?” Organizations want to do whatever they can to help contain the spread of the virus.

One of the top healthcare conferences of the year HIMSS canceled at the last minute. Everyone knows why. The canceled HIMSS conference was only the first of a series of conference cancellations this month. How many more conferences are going to be canceled. Only time will tell. A click survey online shows that Google, Intel, FaceBook and Twitter have canceled many of their conference plans. The South by Southwest, or SXSW Conference, has not yet buckled under pressure to cancel.

Andrew Keshner reports in a MarketWatch article that, “As the Coronavirus spreads, companies are increasingly weighing if they should, or even can, have workers do their jobs from home.” The article goes on to announce that Twitter told its 5,000 employees around the world to work from home. The BBC News reports Twitter’s head of human resources Jennifer Christie said, “Our goal is to lower the probability of the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus for us – and the world around us.” Twitter has been developing ways for employees to work from home. Their mandate moving forward is to enable anyone, anywhere to work at Twitter. Twitter’s began moving to a more mobile workforce before the coronavirus. Now, many companies are taking steps to enable employees to work from home. Asian-based organizations, the ones that could, have already implemented work-from-home options. Several giant multi-national companies such as Citigroup have restricted travel to Asia.

The Best Advice: Plan and Prepare

The media seems to report on the idea that there are only 2 states you can exist in. One is ignorant bliss. The second is a state of panic. There’s a wide territory between those two extremes. People should not panic. They should be aware of what’s going on, have an appropriate level of concern, and respond. People need to consider what’s going on so that they can take action. Managing risk is an important part of life. It’s also an important part of leading a business. Understand the risk. Understand what might happen, and make decisions to keep business moving.

Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, has announced they can’t contain the coronavirus. So that means we’re down to implementing mitigation strategies. This means the CDC is going for non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs). This translates to things like closing schools. Mitigating strategies also include preventing people from attending large gatherings. If necessary, issue self-imposed quarantine orders. If self-imposed quarantines don’t work, CDC will issue a contained quarantine order. This means there’s no choice in the matter.

The CDC recommends that companies encourage telework. “For employees who are able to telework, the supervisor should encourage employees to telework instead of coming into the workplace until symptoms are completely resolved. Ensure that you have the information technology and infrastructure needed to support multiple employees who may be able to work from home.” There have been technologies enabling employees to work remotely for some time now. And the interest has grown over the years. It has been a matter of just deciding to offer that flexibility to your employees. Managers have to determine the ratio of working in the office with working at home.  It’s more of a leadership decision rather than any limitation of the technology. But the coronavirus threat will certainly act as a catalyst accelerating the adoption of remote collaboration tools. Most companies will be forced to have their employees stay home.  Microsoft has announced free upgrades. Office 365 users can now make full use of the video conferencing and recording features of Microsoft Teams.

 

Businesses can replace in-person meetings with video and increase networking options. Now is a good time for businesses of all kinds to start preparing. If you don’t have the infrastructure already in place, start planning it. Most organizations are not prepared for wide-spread enablement of remote departments. Many are still evaluating requirements and solutions. Workers can work as effectively at home than in the office. Research indicates employees are even more productive working from their home offices.

Moving to The Cloud Has never Made More Sense Than Now

Cloud technology and remote workspaces enable organizations to be flexible with their staff. It’s also an attractive incentive while recruiting talented employees. Astute business leaders want to be in a better position to offer remote collaboration tools to their employees. They want to establish parameters in which work-from-home culture thrives. Jennifer Howe, VP of SMMA an architectural firm in Boston, and acting president of the ACEC Massachusetts said,” Remote workspaces are invaluable these days. You can’t recruit and retain talent without that kind of flexibility.”

A recent article on the Fortune website calls it the “world’s largest work-from-home experiment.” There are millions of businesses all over the world trying to stay productive amidst this growing crisis. The article goes into detail on the level of upheaval for companies. This is particularly true in Southeast Asian countries. “One of the most unsettling factors for employees is the rapidly-changing impact of the virus. It is prompting daily changes in corporate directives. We’re seeing that kind of impact in the states as more and more cities declare a state of emergency.

 

A giant experiment is underway to see how well new technologies can enable successful mass remote working for employees.

 

Managers worry the exodus from the office will lower productivity. There have been many studies done to support that the exact opposite is true. Productivity doesn’t go down. It goes up. The 2017 Stanford University Research is often quoted. That study found a 13% increase in productivity. A study conducted at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office showed remote workers had a 4.4% increase in output. The consulting firm Deloitte did a recent survey that found 82% of white-collar workers using flexible work options.

 

Unlike companies that are designed from the start to hire work-from-anywhere employees, traditional in-office companies have to decide how this will work. Management has to set parameters on how remote work happens.
What Does Remote Work Look Like?

Unlike companies that are designed from the start to hire work-from-anywhere employees, traditional in-office companies have to decide how this will work. Management has to set parameters on how remote-work happens. They have to communicate to their employees what the expectations are. How will the team stay in contact with each other throughout the day? What is the level of responsiveness needed? Does your staff need to access robust programs like Autocad, Maya 3D, or Adobe After Effects? If so, then how, on a technical level, is that going to happen? For example, GPU hungry programs will need to be hosted on a virtual server. The work-in-progress files will have to be stored in some central location. This is also something that isn’t accomplished overnight. Now is a good time to start having those discussions.

The worst thing you could do is not do anything. Business leaders shouldn’t ignore the situation as it continues to escalate. Ask yourself, if this continues, would your company be able to operate productively. To what extent will your company be forced to stop its activity altogether?

At some point, we are all going to enter the coronavirus tunnel and make it through to the other side. The collective experience will force us to redefine the way we work. We will consider how we interact with each other. Who operates as a self-starter? Who needs closer supervision?

Alvin Toffler was a writer, businessman, and futurist He envisioned the digital revolution long before it happened and foresaw the remote workforce as an inevitable 21st Century trend.

The idea of remote work is not a new one. It goes back 50 years. Futurist writer Alvin Toffler wrote about remote work in his 1980 book THE THIRD WAVE. “When we suddenly make available technologies that can place a low-cost “work station” in any home, providing it with a “smart” typewriter, perhaps, along with a facsimile machine or computer console and teleconferencing equipment, the possibilities for home work are radically extended.”

Cloud technology enables a home computer…a “low-cost workstation” as Toffler calls it, or any mobile device for that matter. The home computer, smartphone, or tablet essentially serves as a dumb terminal. The processing power actually comes from a virtual desktop. For all practical purposes, it’s just like working from your office. You have access to the same emails, the same software applications, and the exact same files.

Right now, the coronavirus is forcing us to reconsider work-from-home scenarios. Moving personnel to a more comfortable and safer work-from-home environment has its benefits. For some businesses, this means building some kind of infrastructure.

I’d like to close with a question posed near the end of the Forbes article. “If you are an employer and you have the power to offer greater freedom to your workers, should you not being thinking about how to do so?”