Fueling Corporate Growth at Mead & Hunt with VDI Cloud Workstations

AECbytes Viewpoint #88 (July 31, 2018)

Andy Knauf
Chief Information Officer, Mead & Hunt

Imagine this – your information technology team has been tasked with opening a new architecture-engineering consulting office more than 1,000 miles away, and leadership wants it done in just three weeks. How would you possibly achieve this? When my team was faced with this situation, we were able to deliver a model that works well throughout our corporation, all with less cost and less hassle.

My team is part of Mead & Hunt, a multi-faceted architectural-engineering firm with very diverse service lines in multiple markets. It is the 139th largest design firm in the nation and continues to rise through the ranks each year. With a large staff and many office and jobsite locations, Mead & Hunt required a high-performance workstation solution that could take our corporate growth to the next level.

Information technology must support company goals

My team of information technology specialists manages the hardware and software needs of a large network of architects, engineers and technical professionals, spread across almost every state in the nation. We use more than 1,700 applications, including Autodesk, Bentley, ESRI and Adobe products. These professionals must collaborate not only with each other, across offices and job sites, but also with clients and partnering firms, often using extremely large graphic files. Physical workstations with NVIDIA GPUs were simply not keeping up with user needs.

Mead & Hunt has grown fast and far. In the past 20 years, Mead & Hunt has grown from just two offices to more than 30, and from 130 employees to over 650. In conjunction with this rapid physical expansion, revenue has increased tenfold, from $10 million to $108 million annually. To sustain this growth, our business model includes regular merger and acquisition activity, in addition to organic growth through high personnel increases nationally. Our strategic plan in 2015 had us doubling our revenue by 2025.

This aggressive, accelerated business growth model, combined with ever-improving technological advances, leads to a culture change within the corporation. More and more people want to work from home. They want files, software and resources available immediately and simultaneously, and user expectations regarding speed, safety and accuracy continue to rise.

With all these demands, an IT change was imperative. In our industry, we must be able to bid on projects regardless of location, access the very best talent anywhere in the world, and simplify IT and data management. In addition, we must support corporate growth plans.

A bold plan to address future technology needs

My team’s job was to make sure the information technology infrastructure could handle Mead & Hunt’s strategic plan. As the chief information officer (CIO), I realized that if we wanted to grow and be successful, the first step was file accessibility. We moved every file to the cloud, which immediately improved collaboration and data access. Having this technology helped in the goal of doubling our revenue in just the past five years.

However, we knew we’d need to make more IT changes to achieve the growth acceleration we’d planned. Mead & Hunt technical staff were demanding software speed that matched previous experiences, regardless of location. The fast response time of physical workstations provides a good user experience, but it comes at a hefty price. Deploying and managing physical workstations is time-consuming and expensive. It also constrains user productivity to an office setting, which means it limits our ability to work at the same level remotely. We needed to be able to run the software anywhere a project takes us.

Virtual workstation technology on trial

Over the years, we’d tried at least 10 different collaboration solutions. None of them worked as expected.

About six years ago, we tried a move to virtual workstations, using on-premises virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), and thought we found the answer. But this potential solution required massive capital expenditures for hardware requirements, just to get the first workstation up and running. After the first month, I asked an individual how they liked this new solution and the response was, “Well, I’m 15 percent less productive on VDI than on my regular workstation.” 

We tried other on-premises VDI solutions. Each had the same flaws – inferior performance that drained productivity, and high CapEx and OpEx. We couldn’t run Autodesk or Bentley products as efficiently as we had hoped.

It was clear we needed a cloud workstation solution. My team had already moved company data to the cloud on Azure and AWS. Why not have the workstations located right next to the data? So, we switched to a cloud VDI solution – and the performance was unacceptable. In fact, it was a complete disaster for any company where graphics-intensive apps and real-time collaboration are core to the business.

Despite much trial and error, we remained committed to finding a solution to this challenge. The next step was to find a new kind of cloud VDI provider. Ultimately, it was Workspot that proposed a different approach to achieve our business goals. The company offers cloud-native VDI, a crucial distinction from other solutions.

A new kind of virtual desktop

Workspot Workstation Cloud on Microsoft Azure is a high-performance, scalable cloud workstation service. It supports a range of 3D modeling, simulation and rendering workloads on applications such as Civil 3D, Revit, Power GEOPAK, Adobe Premiere and other applications.

This solution leverages Azure N-Series instances fueled by NVIDIA GPUs, enabling Mead & Hunt to run high-performance workstations and GPU-intensive applications in multiple Azure regions across the nation – and, as we grow, around the world. With this solution, Mead & Hunt architects, engineers, designers, as well as the technical teams that support them, can collaborate at cloud scale and speed, in real time, from anywhere in the world.

In the fall of 2017, we agreed to a pilot of the solution. It was up and running in just a few days, which was a pleasant surprise after the many months it took to set up on-premise VDI. In our evaluation, we found the solution’s performance was the same as the high-end physical workstations. We are currently synching 65 terabytes of data between office locations with Panzura. We put a virtual Panzura appliance up in Azure so people can quickly and easily access that data, and the speed is incredible. We are seeing one millisecond ping time, 2 Gbps down and 4.5 Gbps up. This creates a great experience for our power users.

There are many benefits to this solution. There were no upfront capital expenses, and no infrastructure to maintain. Having a cloud VDI solution that performs extremely well enables our employees to be creative and productive from anywhere, accessing their cloud desktops from low-cost laptops. We can hire people based on talent, expertise and skill without being limited by their geographic location. If Mead & Hunt opens a new branch office, we can make it happen faster and at significantly lower cost. This cloud solution also lets us pursue new revenue opportunities anywhere in the world. Finally, this solution means that we can reallocate IT staff hours that were previously spent on VDI infrastructure management to higher-value projects.

Technology solutions allow focus to shift back to people

Disaster recovery and business continuity are real concerns, especially for a distributed company like Mead & Hunt. Last year, we had two East Coast offices in the path of a hurricane, and a third office just a few miles from the wildfires in California. Having a cloud solution means we were able to focus solely on the safety and well-being of our employees rather than material issues like offices and equipment. If disaster had occurred, it would have been easy to set up interim VDI home offices until new office space could be established. Now, we can focus on what is important – our people. Because provisioning is instant, we’re prepared for disasters like we’ve never been before.

Mead & Hunt recently opened a new office in Tallahassee, Florida. My IT team only had a couple of weeks to make sure the new design staff had what they needed to address their client’s needs. In the old model of local physical workstations and storage, we would have to install a fiber connection, which would have taken 60 to 90 days – and we didn’t have that kind of time.

Instead, all it took was a cable modem, a non-symmetric line (which we normally don’t use anymore), a router and a switch. It took just three weeks to go from locating new office space to having people working efficiently and effectively. We were able to spin-up workstations in Azure instantly. These workstations had high-speed access to all the production files in Azure, so the new employees were productive immediately.

The “old way” to establish a new office like Tallahassee would have cost, at minimum, $60,000 for equipment and software, plus 30-40 hours of labor to set up servers, not to mention travel expenses. With our new solution, we simply shipped the router and switch to the new team, they plugged them in, and voilà — they were up and running. The process was easy, cost effective, and the feedback from users was fantastic.

VDI, a better way to work

These new changes my team and I have implemented to our IT infrastructure are helping Mead & Hunt reach its goal to grow at least 15 percent per year. When executed correctly, cloud VDI significantly improves productivity and allows us to better support our clients and partnering firms.

This was a calculated risk in our technology journey to support a high-tech firm. Our corporate philosophy is defined by innovation—we pursue new avenues and, when necessary, step out of the status quo. As the CIO, I push my team to equate their own efforts and success with Mead & Hunt’s success. We look forward to the next innovation that will help Mead & Hunt achieve its goals.

About the Author

CIO/Vice President, Andy Knauf's primary responsibility is securely connecting Mead & Hunt professionals with each other and our clients. As head of the Information Technology Department, he stays on top of the latest information sharing, asset management, design and communication technologies. Andy oversees IT-related purchasing, including vendor negotiations, anticipates future network needs and security, and identifies proactive solutions to satisfy needs.

According to Andy, "We live in an exciting time, where technology continues developing ways for us to get more done faster."

About Mead & Hunt

Mead & Hunt provides clients with expert planning, design and engineering services across a wide variety of sectors, including architecture, dams and hydropower, food processing, military, municipal infrastructure, transportation and water-wastewater. In each of these disciplines, we've developed unique methodologies and processes to deliver cost-saving solutions that meet our clients' needs.

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