Like many, I start 2021 with an optimism that this year will be better than 2020 was. Only time will tell if that optimism becomes a reality. While many questions remain about what the post-2020 world will look like, it seems undeniable it will be noticeably different from our pre-2020 world. Driving much of that change is what many are now calling the Great Dispersion.
Before the pandemic, workplace culture primarily centered around a physical location everyone reported to daily. Because of the Great Dispersion, the workplace locality has more to do with a common interest in our companies' goals than our geographic location.
While I hope teams will once again collaborate in person soon, I also expect many parts of our remote work practices to persist in our post-pandemic world. Even before the pandemic, many of the top employers placed an intentional focus on work-life balance. As we discover our post-pandemic normal, working from home will become a vital part of the work-life balance firms strive to provide for their employees.
Recognizing this paradigm, the trend I see among firms focuses on answering how more flexible work-from-home policies can be supported by their organizations. Among the many facets of this question is, how do teams collaborate when some or all team members are working remotely?
Like most things related to IT, there are many answers to that question, but the purpose of this post is to explore six possible options for Civil 3D users. So without any further ado, let's jump in.
Option 1: Manually Copy and Reconcile Drawings
When remote collaboration is only an occasional endeavor, a decidedly low-tech solution might be the best approach. Although a reconciliation of edits is necessary, this approach avoids typical internet bandwidth constraints present with other collaboration forms.
Despite these advantages, the manual reconciliation process cannot be overstated. That reconciliation, coupled with the asynchronous visibility of edits made to the project, only introduces new opportunities for project errors and omissions. For these reasons, such a workflow is only recommended for occasional remote collaboration – if ever.
- As a simple file-based operation, no additional purchases are necessary.
- Working from the local computer, remote workers can open and save drawings without experiencing network latency.
- Teams can work on projects with neither a network nor an internet connection.
- Reconciling edits can be more time consuming than the benefit gained from working remotely.
- Teams have no visibility into edits made until edits are manually reconciled at a later time.
- The asynchronous work dynamic provides no guarantee other team members are working from the latest project version.
Option 2: Collaborate using Cloud Storage (OneDrive, Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, etc.)
Today, cloud storage services like OneDrive and Dropbox are ubiquitous workplace collaboration tools. Over the last several years, Autodesk has even worked to build integrations between the most popular cloud storage services and AutoCAD. While these integrations are well made, none specifically accommodate the unique Civil 3D functionality, such as Data Shortcuts.
Beyond potential functional limitations, cloud storage tools like OneDrive excel at individual collaboration, not project collaboration. While such services can be a step-up from manually copying drawings to your computer, the limited data governance associated with them can be a liability for projects.
- Because of their inclusion with Microsoft 365 and Google Workplace, cloud storage services often require no additional purchase to begin using.
- Drawing edits automatically synchronize between individual users, reducing the possibility of team members working from out-of-date drawings.
- Many of the most popular cloud storage services have direct integrations with AutoCAD, including viewing and comparing modifications between versions.
- Despite tight integrations with AutoCAD as a foundation to Civil 3D, cloud storage services are not compatible with critical Civil 3D functionality such as Data Shortcuts.
- Cloud storage services excel at individual collaboration and are often limiting when implemented for team collaboration.
- Data governance over operations such as users' ability to create public links is limited and can pose data security concerns.
Option 3: Leverage Remote Desktop/VNC to Access Work Computer from Home
The large file size of Civil 3D drawings makes editing them over a VPN connection difficult. An easy way to mitigate this is to leverage Remote Desktop or some other VNC service to access your work computer from home. With Remote Desktop, your work computer's screen is streamed as a video to your remote computer, while your remote computer relays mouse and keyboard inputs back to your work computer.
While Remote Desktop will reduce bandwidth usage compared to opening and saving drawings over a VPN connection, the method is not without bandwidth concerns. The live video broadcast of your work computer consumes bandwidth. Consequently, this method's viability is a function of both the bandwidth available at your office and the number of concurrent users. As the number of simultaneous users grows, so too will your office's bandwidth demands, and remote employees could begin experiencing laggy video.
- Open, save, and edit large drawing files without the latency of a VPN.
- Teams open drawings from your existing file server, thus maintaining a single source of truth.
- Remote Desktop is included with Windows and requires no change in your current data infrastructure, such as file servers.
- The video quality of remote connections will quickly degrade as the number of remote workers increase and consume a more significant amount of available internet bandwidth.
- Each remote worker must have access to two physical computers, including a Civil 3D workstation at the office and a second computer at home.
- Setting up Remote Desktop to work from outside the office can be tricky, and even after setup will not automatically reconnect after rebooting your work computer.
Option 4: Leverage a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) Service like Workspot
Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) services like Workspot provide a way to overcome many of the challenges of using Remote Desktop at scale across an organization. Like Remote Desktop, remote workers use a host machine to connect to a remote workstation collocated with your drawing data. The critical difference between Remote Desktop and a VDI service like Workspot is where and what that remote computer is.
As the "virtual" terminology in the term VDI implies, the workstation remote workers connect to is not a physical machine, but instead a virtual machine located in a data center. Since your Civil 3D workstation lives in a data center, you can access a virtually unlimited amount of bandwidth. Beyond that, VDI services provide a suite of tools to manage tasks such as rebooting your machine or adding new workstations as your needs grow. Despite the many advantages of VDI services, you will also need to migrate your Civil 3D data to the cloud to realize their benefit fully.
- Cloud VDI services are often more economical than procurement and management expenses associated with workstations, and server infrastructure.
- With files stored in datacenters open and save times can be significantly faster than typical workstation SSDs.
- Machine images make scaling to a larger workforces.
- Cloud VDI services like Workspot often requires migrating your data to a cloud provider like Microsoft Azure.
- Performance dependent on remote workers internet connection.
- Storing drawing data in the cloud could have contract implications (ie. Some government projects).
Option 5: Leverage an On-Premise Document Management Solution like Autodesk Vault
Document Management solutions like Autodesk Vault function under the concept of creating managed copies on a user's workstation. Under this model, a user will check-out the drawing they need to edit. Doing so will lock that drawing to prevent others from editing it and simultaneously copying the latest version of that drawing to a user's machine. From that point, the user who checked out the drawing can open, save, and otherwise edit that local copy without limitation.
This basic workflow lets users edit drawings without bandwidth constraints while also avoiding the creation of conflicting versions commonly encountered with unmanaged copies. While this is a benefit, it's important to note other team members will not be able to view the latest edits to a drawing until a drawing is checked back into the Vault. Likewise, as an enterprise document management solution, a qualified Vault system administrator is necessary to perform system administration tasks such as backups.
- Managed local copies of drawings allow remote workers to open and edit drawings without latency.
- Once checked out from Vault client, remote workers and open, edit, and save drawings without an internet connection.
- Each drawing check-in creates a new version of that drawing on the server that can be compared with past versions of the drawing to identify updates easily.
- A knowledgeable Vault system administrator is required to perform essential system administration tasks such as backups.
- Edits are asynchronous; users must check-out drawings before they can be edited and checked-in before others can see changes.
- Drawings are only accessible from the Vault client and are not accessible from Windows File Explorer.
Option 6: Leverage a Cloud Document Management Solution like Autodesk BIM 360 Docs
As a product built by Autodesk, it should come as no surprise that BIM 360 offers the best overall integration and support for Civil 3D. Fundamentally, BIM 360 works like general-purpose cloud storage services like OneDrive and Dropbox in the way that a small application, the Autodesk Desktop Companion, caches copies of drawings on your computer. This means you're able to open and save drawings without the latency of a VPN.
Although the mechanics of BIM 360 work a lot like OneDrive and Dropbox, there are some critical differences. Concerning Civil 3D users, BIM 360 is the only cloud storage service built to work with Civil 3D Data Shortcuts. In addition to this, BIM 360 is project-oriented and offers unlimited storage (including file versions) and granular permissions for data governance.
Despite the many advantages of BIM 360, there are a few requirements that might dissuade some. First, teams need to use Civil 3D 2020 or newer to utilize BIM 360 on their Civil 3D projects fully. In addition to this, Civil 3D users will need both a BIM 360 Docs license and a BIM 360 Design license to work on Civil 3D projects using Data Shortcuts. The good news is non-Civil 3D users only require a BIM 360 Docs license, which includes robust viewing and markup functionality that could reduce your Civil 3D (AEC Collection) license usage for passive software users.
- The Autodesk Desktop Companion application caches drawings on the local machine, making it possible to edit drawings without latency.
- Robust AutoCAD/Civil 3D DWG viewing and markup functionality built into BIM 360 could reduce Civil 3D (AEC Collection) license use for reviewers.
- Data governance is managed through a project-based structure that provides unlimited storage and unlimited versions for project teams.
- A separate BIM 360 Design license is required for Civil 3D teams to use design collaboration features such as Data Shortcuts.
- Teams must invest time to migrate data from existing file servers to BIM 360.
- Civil 3D 2020 or newer is required to use design collaboration features such as Civil 3D Data Shortcuts.
While I am optimistic we are nearing the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, I believe many of the work habits we have adopted over the past year will persist for years to come. In my opinion, remote work is among the work habits from 2020 that will continue. Of course, what remote work looks like at one firm will likely vary from another.
How your firm defines remote work into the future will determine what option or combination of collaboration options are best for your company. For companies whose primary focus is to get through the current pandemic, I would start with a tool like Remote Desktop. It mitigates challenges associated with opening large drawings over a VPN while also leveraging tools your company probably has in place already.
By contrast, for companies looking for a solution that will support them today and well into the future, my default recommendation would be BIM 360. Although relatively new in the Civil 3D space, BIM 360 is well established among Revit users. Where a majority of companies self-hosted their Exchange server 5-10 years ago, a majority have adopted a cloud service like Microsoft 365 today. Just as companies incrementally migrated to services like Microsoft 365, I believe AEC firms will adopt BIM 360 in the same way over the next several years.
What has the remote work dynamic looked like at your firm, and what tools have you leveraged to support it? Let me know in the comments below.