Virtual Desktops For CAD And BIM - What Are The Costs?

Virtual Desktops For CAD And BIM - What Are The Costs?

Do remote desktops make economic sense for your design workforce? 

When one architect described the costs of enabling remote working with CAD and building information modeling (BIM) as a “massive financial burden,” he spoke for many in the architecture, engineering, and design (AED) industries. The coronavirus lockdown forced hundreds of thousands of AED professionals to work remotely, and this has introduced significant costs to businesses.

And with potential repeating waves of the disease, more local lockdowns, and a greater number of employees demanding a remote work option, the temporary cost of providing BIM and CAD software remotely could become a permanent expense. But what are the costs of running CAD and BIM software remotely, and how can you minimize them?

Various Approaches to Remote Design Work — and Their Drawbacks

AED companies have implemented a variety of measures to help their CAD (2D and 3D modelling software such AutoCAD, Solidworks, Catia, Siemens NX, BrycsCAD) and BIM (Revit, ArchiCAD, BrysCAD BIM) designers with remote working. Some of these are short-term, temporary measures; others are more comprehensive and sustainable. When coronavirus lockdowns were first implemented, many AED businesses sought out quick-and-dirty solutions which would allow their designers to continue working from home, such as these common approaches:

1: Using a VPN to provide remote desktop access. 

Virtual private networks (VPNs) allow your users to access their office desktop computer from home. VPNs can be reasonably cheap — they start at around $10 per user per month. Also, you will need a piece of remote access software, such as RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol), Teamviewer or Splashtop: they all stream the user interface of the computer running in the office to an endpoint, e.g. a home-based computer. 

During the coronavirus lockdown, many AED firms opted for VPN and RDP as a first response. However, the major drawback of this route is that your corporate network becomes overloaded, often making it painfully slow for users to access even simple desktop programs, let alone heavy Revit files. These bottlenecks make it almost impossible for design professionals to do their jobs remote — which equates to a big drop in productivity. 

2: Transporting company computers to employees’ home offices. 

During the pandemic, many workers took company desktops home so they could keep working with powerful BIM and CAD software remotely. This was certainly a useful workaround, and cost companies next to nothing.

However, this is not a sustainable option. Carrying powerful computers to and from the office is just asking for damage and theft. And, if employees want to work more flexibly - e.g., two days per week at home for focused work on a detailed AutoCAD drawing - and three in the office to collaborate in close contact with colleagues , then transporting a machine every couple of days is simply unrealistic.

3: Buying (or renting) new laptops and desktops for remote employees. 

Some companies responded to the remote working challenge by furnishing their design teams with high-powered machines for home use. After, all major CAD vendors ( Autodesk, Dassault, Siemens, PTC) have certified their software (Autocad, Revit, Solidworks, Catia, NX, Creo) for use on laptop since decades.

Alas, this option is simply too expensive to do at scale. Purchasing the kinds of high-powered machines needed to run BIM and CAD programs will typically cost thousands of dollars per unit. Renting the machines is also an unsustainable operating expense in most cases, especially if you are paying for software licenses too.

While the three options described above helped many companies respond to the immediate coronavirus lockdown, they are far from perfect. In the long run, cloud-based CAD and BIM is the only truly cost-effective and convenient alternative to working in an office.

Hosting Virtual Workstations

A virtual workstation involves running your CAD or BIM software on third-party cloud servers, and then accessing them from remote*. Your employees then simply log in to the platform using a regular home computer; this allows them to use a high-spec machine without having to actually purchase one. This is sometimes referred to as Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI). Autodesk, for example, has certified most of its applications to run on virtual desktops. 

There are two ways of accessing virtual workstations:

1- Private cloud. 

In this option, your company creates its own cloud data center that people can log into from their desktop or mobile device anywhere in the world. While this option gives you complete control of the environment, it is prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthiest companies. 

2- Public cloud. 

With this route, you rent out machines on someone else’s cloud servers. (The vast majority of companies already do this when using Google, Microsoft, or Amazon’s run-of-the-mill cloud services.) Cloud providers now also provide specific cloud-machines which can support the horsepower needed for CAD and BIM software. This completely bypasses the company VPN, as your designers access their workstations through RDP** via the public internet to the provider's datacenter, and not your company's VPN.

The second option — using virtual desktop infrastructure on a public cloud — is far cheaper than building a private cloud, more flexible than buying laptops to be transported home, and much more secure than other methods too. But not all public-cloud virtual machines for CAD and BIM are equally cost-effective.

CAD and BIM Virtual Workstation Costs

There are several different public cloud options for providing your BIM and CAD designers with a virtual machine on the public cloud, which can vary wildly:

1- Spin up your own virtual workstation with a major cloud provider. 

In this approach, you create your own virtual workstation by renting out high-powered computers from cloud providers like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google, or Azure, then installing your preferred CAD/BIM software on this cloud. (Note that to run graphics-intensive software like BIM and CAD, you will need to rent a powerful machine with a graphics processing unit [GPU].) 

2- Use a turnkey, ready-made solution. 

Platforms such as Designair provide AED designers with a powerful machine which is specifically tailored to virtual cloud working with their preferred CAD/BIM software. These are typically built on a solution stack from NVIDA and Citrix. This is important, as vendors such as Autodesk have been supporting this technology for quite some time. 

Every business is different, and the needs of your AED designers will be unique. At Designair, we believe that a turnkey solution is perfectly suitable for the vast majority of remote CAD and BIM applications. Nonetheless, we know some companies will prefer building their own personalized environment.

In either case, the table below compares the cost of each route. We compared Designair with AWS, since Amazon offers Elastic Graphics, a cost-effective option to add GPU power to its virtual machines.


As this comparison shows, for the same raw computing power as the AWS option, Designair is more cost-effective. (Different plans are available, depending on how intensively remote workers will be using the technology.) It also provides a ready-made, turnkey solution that enables users to get up and running in hours.

Unlike ad hoc workarounds, BIM and CAD in the cloud is a sustainable solution that gives designers the flexibility and freedom to work remotely when they want, in a way that is secure and cost effective. And, while some firms may wish to build a highly customized virtual workstation in a public or private cloud, many more find the ease, flexibility, and cost-effectiveness of a turnkey solution is more than sufficient for their needs. To find out if this approach is right for you, start a free trial today. 

*There is no need, though, to also purchase a remote desktop solution from splashtop or teamviewer. Most cloud providers rely on RDP (remote desktop) from microsoft or offer their own streaming client *

** With public cloud providers there is also no need for a remote access software, such as splashtop or teamviewer. AWS, for example, works "out of the box" with rdp on the Windows OS.