London architectural firm ttsp faced a major challenge when it needed to deploy CAD users on site. However, due to the lightweight architecture of MicroGDS, it was able to run fully functional CAD software on thin clients with the help of off the shelf Microsoft technology, writes Greg Corke.

Like many architecture and design firms, ttsp handles a diverse range of projects. Its portfolio includes work for both the private and public sectors and the London-based practice’s core business comes from space planning, fit out and refurbishment work, particularly for large banking organisations in London. Through a combination of architectural and interior design, ttsp has not only helped these leading financial institutions make best use of space, but also stamp their all important corporate identity on their new offices.

With ever-increasing time pressures for building refurbishment and fitting out, ttsp has found that these projects can be better delivered with a dedicated design team based on site. This has proved hugely beneficial as, if and when problems arise, they can be resolved much more quickly enabling projects to move forward without delay.

“All of the drawings have been done in the office, but when you get them on site there could be a problem because the original building wasn’t quite the dimension that everybody thought it was,” explains Ian George, Systems Manager, ttsp. “What they need is someone to actually get inside the drawing and say: that’s changing, how is that going to impact other layouts?”

Multi user CAD

ttsp is a long-term user of MicroGDS from Informatix, a CAD product that is well known for its ability to manage concurrent workflows in design teams. “The multi-user capabilities of MicroGDS are essential for ttsp,” says Ian. “It’s something we need to have. We are used to having people working on the same building, in groups.

“We split things down by packs – packages of information – so we’ll put all of our furniture drawings in one area, all of our drawings relating to the raised floor on another. The same is true for demountable partitions and doors, and ceilings,” he explains. “It means that people can work on all aspects of the design at the same time. It needs to be managed, but if it’s managed right and the skill sets are correct then it works very well.”

Within ttsp’s Central London office, the management of its CAD data is relatively straightforward. Each MicroGDS user works on a local desktop machine and data is accessed live from a central server over a local area network (LAN) connection. This ensures that all members of the design team are always working on up to date design information.

When the challenge of deploying CAD off site arose ttsp knew it would have to replicate this process, and live links with its central server would need to be maintained. It also identified that any enabling technology would need to be cost effective and easy to manage.

Terminal velocity

ttsp’s IT supplier suggested that it should look in to Terminal Services, a Microsoft Windows Server technology that enables applications and data to be accessed on remote computers. Having overcome a few teething problems with printing and open files / sessions on the system, ttsp completed a successful trial. It then rolled out the technology as the backbone for remote use of both MicroGDS and core Office applications.

With Terminal Services [now called Remote Desktop Services as part of Windows Server 2008] all of the processing is carried out on the server so the end user only needs a thin client and a web connection. All the client does is send keyboard and mouse strokes and the image is seen on the screen. This means the CAD data is always safe and secure.

“Although they’re logging in remotely and they’re working on live data, the data never actually leaves our building,” explains Ian. “It’s never actually stored on the local machine which is great as we always have control.”

Terminal services has also removed a lot of headaches from the on site deployment process and virtually no set up is required client side. It has made support much easier and everything can now be handled remotely. “I can control what people are doing externally and can also log on and take over people’s sessions,” explains Ian. “So if someone is doing something in MicroGDS and it’s giving them an error, I can log on from my desk and see what they’re doing and be able to help them and fix it if necessary.

ttsp carries out a broad range of space planning, fit out and refurbishment work, particularly for large banking organisations in London. Suffolk County Council (pictured above) and a project for Tradition Images courtesy of Nick Guttridge

“This is extremely useful as trying to explain to someone verbally what’s happening and trying to get technical support to answer that question is difficult. It would be a nightmare if I had to keep sending people out to site to fix a problem.”

With all the processing carried out on the server, the requirements client side are very low. All that is necessary is a low powered PC running Internet Explorer or a lightweight desktop client called Desktop Connection. This has proved extremely beneficial in harsh environments as ttsp can deploy old office PCs, which proves less costly if they get clogged up with dust or bashed about on site.

Bandwidth and compute

In order to run MicroGDS with Terminal services effectively over the Internet ttsp has found it requires a certain level of sustained bandwidth. However, by today’s standards, this is certainly nothing special.

“Bandwidth is always an issue, but we don’t have a particularly big line here [2Mb up and 2Mb down ISDN line] and it works fine for us,” explains Ian. “When we first tested MicroGDS with Terminal Services, we tested it with a 56k modem. It wasn’t rapid by any means but it worked and you could actually draw!

“Most sites now are giving 2Mb connections to the desktop and this seems to work fine. We have people that have logged on at home and they have done 3D rendering and it copes with it.”

On the server side the compute requirements aren’t huge either. ttsp currently runs Microsoft Server 2003 on a six year old Dell server with a single 2.4Ghz Xeon processor and 4GB RAM. According to Ian, this is down to the fact that MicroGDS continues to be an extremely lightweight application.

“We tried working with other CAD applications in conjunction with Terminal Services, but it was so clunky it was unusable,” says Ian. If compute load on the server does become an issue each user’s resources can be increased and load balanced. “If we find that we have a lot of people logging onto the server, but only three using MicroGDS, we can increase their pull off the server’s priorities and lower everybody’s who are just using Word or Outlook,” explains Ian.

Running MicroGDS as a thin client over Terminal Services has proved hugely successful for ttsp. As CAD data never leaves the central server, the management of remote users has been seamless.

In addition, with no set up time required on the client side as long as there’s an Internet connection on site the remote design team can be up and running in minutes.

The flexibility of the technology has also proved extremely useful in times of emergency. Any of the design team can run MicroGDS remotely from home at evenings or weekends or, as all Londoners will certainly appreciate, on those frustrating ‘bad weather days’ when the capital’s creaking transport network grinds to a halt.