Change Leader Full Interview: Bringing AEC Collaboration to the Cloud
Israel Sumano is the senior director of infrastructure at Southland, one of the nation’s largest MEP building systems firms.
V1 Media: Please provide a brief background about your education and career?
Sumano: I’ve been in IT for more than 20 years. I’ve worked at Sempra Energy for about 15 years, and I’ve been at Southland about eight years. I’ve got just about every certification that you can think of over the years, and I’m currently working on my master’s degree.
V1 Media: Describe your current position and role at Southland as well as what Southland does overall as a company.
Sumano: I’m senior director of infrastructure, and my responsibilities lie from the help desk all the way to the network and security stack, so everything that has to do with the infrastructure side of IT. Southland is an MEP building systems firm—mechanical, electrical and plumbing—and we concentrate on very large buildings like hospitals, data centers, museums—a lot of government contracts—and large-footprint buildings.
V1 Media: How much of a problem are the new huge datasets involved with reality capture and modeling in the AEC industries?
Sumano: The industry has gone from paper to CAD drawings to 3D drawings, and the more complex these drawings get, the harder it is to replicate and collaborate on these models. Trying to replicate the data or having different geographical locations access that data has become a real challenge in the last few years.
V1 Media: At Southland, you created a cloud GPU [graphics processing unit] workstation implementation. Could you tell me what that is and why you use that particular formation?
Sumano: I wish we could take credit for creating it, but Microsoft is the one providing the GPU workstations. Workspot is the broker that provides access to those workstations. We chose Workspot because it’s so much easier to use than some of the other brokers in the market. So ease of use is one of the reasons we chose the solution. There’s no hardware that we have to purchase and maintain ourselves—everything is on Microsoft—and as hardware gets upgraded or gets better, we can always migrate to that hardware without any investment on our side.
V1 Media: Can you describe Workspot?
Sumano: Workspot delivers cloud desktops as a turnkey, enterprise-ready service, only on Microsoft Azure. Brokers like Citrix or VMware Horizon have a similar product, but they’re all based on-prem (i.e., on-premises), and you need on-prem hardware or a presence on some cloud provider to do it. Workspot provides access to on-prem hardware or cloud hardware wherever you need it.
V1 Media: How does Southland and Workspot work together, and what are the differences?
Sumano: Workspot is a partner. They’re the company providing access. Through Workspot, we get access to Microsoft workstations. They’re the broker that allows our users to log in to those workstations on the cloud.
V1 Media: And then what is the specific role that Southland has in putting these together?
Sumano: We’re their customer, and we hired or bought their product to be able to access these machines.
V1 Media: When you are building, did you look at other data-access sharing options, and, if so, why did you choose Workspot?
Sumano: Absolutely. We’ve been testing VDI [virtual desktop infrastructure] with GPU workstations for more than 5 years. We test two to three technologies every year, and through the years we’ve learned that it’s a very complex structure. We really wanted something that was simple and easy to use, and that really only materialized when Workspot came into the picture, giving us the ease of use as well as the performance we need with Microsoft’s partnership, to be able to have a very easy transition into VDI workspace.
V1 Media: Since you’ve set up these GPU cloud workstations, are there any quantitative improvements with actual data you can cite showing improvements?
Sumano: By deploying this solution, we were able to centralize all our data in one location, which increased collaboration. We can have users from anywhere in the country or any one of our locations draw on the same dataset without the complexities of replication. We can also hire engineers and talent anywhere in the country, even if there is no location—no office—for us to hire them from. They can work from home and access this GPU-enabled workstation on the cloud. Our investment in new job sites, or in new offices, is minimal, because we don’t have to buy a big footprint of hardware to deploy our data.
V1 Media: How do the engineers and those designing the buildings factor into this, and how are they using the system?
Sumano: In the past, we would have to replicate all the building data to every single one of our locations. We were replicating more than 50 terabytes to 17 different locations, and that footprint kept growing, so it was unsustainable to replicate all that data. Engineers need the data local to them, so we had to centralize all our data and still allow our engineers across the country to be able to draw on that centralized point of data. Workspot provided an ability to access the resources on Microsoft’s cloud, to have our engineers draw on the cloud rather than local workstations. They can go to Starbucks and pull up their laptop, and the resources for them to do all their drawing, designing and detailing are all on the cloud, and they can access that through Workspot.
V1 Media: So are these 17 locations the various Southland firms across the country?
Sumano: Yes, there were different job sites, offices, wherever we needed the data to be for an engineer to draw. Sometimes we would open an office or hire someone: for example, we hired two engineers in Chicago. We spent $150,000 setting up an office just for them—two people in Chicago, because we needed their expertise. With Workspot and the way we’re doing things now with centralized data, all we have to do is give them access to a cloud workstation. We don’t have to make any investment in any location wherever the talent is.
V1 Media: Can you now tell me a little bit more about the AEC industry in general? From your perspective, how have you seen the industry evolve in terms of coping with the data volume and related issues? What are some of the things they’ve tried and maybe learned from, and where’s the direction heading?
Sumano: It began with using basic replication: models got bigger, and there were more requirements for data locking so people wouldn’t overwrite the data. The AEC industry started going in the extension of appliances as well as network acceleration devices, which are also expensive, to accelerate the network traffic, because bandwidth is so expensive. So that’s where we were in the past. That’s what Southland did as well during the last seven years to be able to provide collaboration for users and engineers. This is really the next step in the evolution: rather than trying to replicate data everywhere, so it’s local for the engineers, we’re centralizing it all in one place and then bringing the resources to the engineers through the cloud.
V1 Media: Do you think Southland and Workspot in particular are leading in this area, as opposed to other technology firms? If so, why?
Sumano: Absolutely. We have tested VDI with GPU-enabled workstations for the last five years. We’ve built our own at Southland to try to test them. We’ve tried different cloud providers—I don’t mean major cloud providers like Microsoft, but little mom-and-pop shops. There are several that provide similar services. However, the performance has never been there. Workspot allows that to be a cloud-based broker and deliver that desktop wherever you need it, as well as Microsoft providing those resources, which they were the first ones in the business to do that, really has changed everything, and Southland was one of the first AEC firms to adopt this.
V1 Media: In terms of going forward, where do you see areas that can be improved?
Sumano: I think reporting is one thing that we can improve on, as far as what resources are being used and how they’re being used. On the business side of things: data management. As models get bigger, we still need to address that as a company and as an industry. Models get bigger, and people keep treating them like they’re paper models, and we really need to start thinking about how we can manage all that data in a more robust way.
V1 Media: Can you share a tip with engineers they can apply to what they’re doing now to help them do their jobs better?
Sumano: This technology really brings collaboration to an entire new level that we haven’t seen in AEC. It enables joint ventures, which is a great step forward in how we do buildings in this country; it’s already a very well-accepted methodology in Europe, as far as how buildings are built, but joint ventures are really taking hold now, and this really changes how a joint venture is managed, how the data is managed. Change management is critical to be able to have a company and business accept this new technology.
V1 Media: What might be the first step they could take to head them down this path? What would be the first thing you recommend they do?
Sumano: I say change management: approach your business leaders, let them know what you’re trying to do and what the benefits of this new technology are. Get the key people, executives, business people and those who are actually doing the work: engineers and detailers. Have them test it; start with change management.
V1 Media: As they’re approaching management, how would you describe this technology in the simplest terms?
Sumano: It’s a cloud workstation, so instead of having a machine on your desk that you do your work on, you’re getting a desktop, a Windows operating system, in the cloud, that sits right next to your data. And by giving you that workstation with a GPU, and a GPU is a graphics processing unit, all that heavy work that makes this happen when you are using 3D models, it’s happening in the cloud rather than local in your workstation, and really that is the essence of it. Centralizing all your data in one place and providing a way for engineers to have the workhorse they’re used to having at their desk, but have it in the cloud, so they can access it from anywhere.