The 25-year itch
CAD workstations have always been a specialist kind of computer designed specifically for running CAD software like AutoCAD, Revit and many others. The last major innovation in the area of CAD workstations was in the 1990s.
In 1996, Microsoft introduced Windows NT 4.0 Workstation Version, which made it possible to run CAD applications on workstations with the Intel i386 CPU. Up until then, only the expensive, Unix-based workstations (Silicon Graphics) had enough power to run 3D CAD Software.
Since then we have seen generation after generation of continually improving CPU performance to run CAD software. Today's high spec CAD machines are packed full of powerful graphics cards, enormous memory and run on Intel chips with several cores (processors).
In the early days of CAD, operators of CAD software would use their software on so-called graphical – sometimes dubbed “dumb” terminals that were connected to a big central computer - anyone remembering the CADAM software that ran on an IBM mainframe?
For the last 40 years, though, CAD workstations have been accessed locally - you could only use the workstation if it was physically in front of you - either on a desktop or laptop computer. However, in the last couple of years a major change has started to happen. CAD workstations are now available on the cloud – and this has big implications for how professional designers work.
The underlying technology to make this possible has been developed over the last 5 years by Citrix (desktop virtualization) and Nvidia (grid technology).
Citrix’ software has become much more powerful than the good-old terminal-server days. (As well as Vmware’s comparable desktop virtualization solution). Since 2014, one of its flagship applications - XenServer with the HDX 3D Pro technology - can “pass-through” the GPU to large screens and dual monitors.
On the GPU side, Nvidia (and AMD) has developed server-side graphics board (grid cards). These graphics chips can be virtualized with software from Citrix (and later also VMware), meaning the graphics performance from the grid chip can be divided amongst several (virtual) desktops.
These cloud-based Virtual desktops are hugely popular with large Architecture, Engineering and Design organizations. A silent witness of this trend is the surge in proprietary, private clouds that engineering, architecture and design organizations have built to to run their professional 3D CAD applications.
How does a cloud-based Virtual Desktop work?
A virtual desktop in the cloud (also referred to as: desktop as a service) provides you with a powerful virtual computer with comparable performance (RAM, GPU, Cores, Disk) as a physical computer. This virtual desktop is accessible over the Internet. You can use any laptop or desktop to virtually connect to this virtual desktop in a cloud data center. Using a cloud-based virtual desktop for CAD feels the same as using a local desktop or laptop machine. The difference is that you do you not have to own a high-end machine yourself. Instead you pay a subscription based on how often you use the service.
What are the benefits of a virtual desktop as a CAD machine?
A virtual desktop works in much the same way and with the same performance as high-end desktop machines you will have used in the past. The only real difference is that you need an internet connection and can use any computer (including quite basic laptops or PC’s) to make changes to the model.
But why would you use a virtual desktop anyway? There are several benefits to this approach:
1 - Access the latest technology
With desktop as a service, the company providing the service will continually update the underlying hardware, so it comes with the most powerful GPUs from Nvidia or AMD, chips from Intel with multiple cores, lots or RAM and disk sizes up to 2 terabyte to deliver the performance a CAD application needs. If you buy your own a similar physical laptop or PC with a decent graphics board, it will cost you several thousand dollars, so you will expect to use it for many years. However, this means that it will be ‘out of date’ relatively quickly.
2 - Subscription model
Like most cloud-based services, desktop as a service is provided with a monthly subscription. Starting at $50 per month you can access high performance computers. On the other hand, if you bought a local CAD workstation outright it would set you back thousands of dollars.
3 - Remote working
Perhaps one of the most attractive things about virtual desktops is that they support remote working. If designers, architects and drafters can access models in the cloud they do not have to physically be at your office to do work. This has obvious applications for times when remote working is enforced, while research also shows it improves people’s work-life balance.
4 - More secure
High performance CAD machines are likely to be a target for theft – either from unattended offices, in people’s homes or while travelling. On the other hand, a virtual desktop simply cannot be stolen. At the same time, all your designs are held securely online, rather than on a local machine that could get damaged or lost.
5 - More flexible
With a virtual desktop you only pay for what you use. This means that you can be much more flexible. If, for instance, you only needed to do CAD design for a short period of time you could quickly access a computer, use it for the time you need and then close it down - without having to purchase some very expensive hardware. Similarly, companies that need a designer with specific skills can source freelancers from anywhere in the world and give them access to a workstation with great performance.
Learn more: Our guide to CAD in the cloud
What are the implications of virtual desktops for CAD?
With virtual desktops available over the cloud, designers, drafters, architects and engineers now have a whole new way of working. The implications for how CAD work is done are significant:
- Enables much more remote working
- Reduces CAPEX costs for companies
- Encourages more international collaboration
- Supports freelancers to work from anywhere
- Enables a whole new kind of working style
Why pay more for a local CAD workstation?
For almost 40 years, CAD workstations have been accessed locally on desktops and laptops in people’s offices. However just like so many other technologies - from word processors to 3D computer games - it is now perfectly possible to do CAD design work over the Internet.
Virtual desktops for CAD provided by Designair offer some of the hardware performance for designers at a fraction of the cost of a local workstation - all you need is an Internet connection.