Virtual workspaces simplify the process of adopting BIM Level 2. This CPD, sponsored by Creative ITC, looks at the advantages of visual desktop infrastructure


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There are many reasons why a growing number of companies are moving over to virtual workspaces, also known as the “digital workspace”. 

Factors for consideration include the ease of managing the system, lower running costs, a better use of resources and streamlined operations and mobility. In recent years, many of the issues that previously held back an enterprise from moving to the digital workspace have been addressed as the technology has matured. 

Thin clients – effectively centrally-managed computers that have no hard or disk drive – are now capable of handling elements such as advanced graphics, Voice over Internet Protocol and video streaming, making them much better adapted to running as an enterprise resource.

However one of the major drivers for virtual desktop technology within the architecture, engineering and construction industry is the growing shift to Building Information Modelling (BIM) models, primarily although not exclusively through the use of Autodesk Revit. AutoCAD drawings historically used many smaller files to create a tiered CAD project model. 


Revit is a single application built for BIM with features for architectural design, MEP (mechanical, electrical and plumbing) and structural engineering and construction. 

However, Revit is not BIM. Revit is built for BIM. Revit and other applications made for BIM help designers to design, simulate, visualise and collaborate in order to capitalise on the advantages of the interconnected data within a BIM model. 

The key word in BIM is “information”. BIM is centred on models made up of objects. Revit creates these objects, which consist of data, which designers can see in different views – 2D drawings, 3D models and schedules, or lists. When one piece of data changes in one view, it is updated in all other views automatically by Revit because each view is displaying the same data. 

Objects can also be related to other objects. So, again, if one object changes, any related objects reflect those changes as well. 


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BIM can streamline the process of refining complicated architectural designs


The move to BIM allows different disciplines to work on their specific specialist areas independently. With BIM and Revit files, the numerous and unique disciplines are combined into a single multi-layered file. 

However, just the sheer size of these creates problems for IT infrastructure, and when different companies need to collaborate on a project and share files, it can clearly be seen that BIM adoption has led to a variety of technical challenges.

Fortunately, the timing of Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) coming to maturity has coincided with BIM Level 2 adoption, therefore providing an answer to the file handling challenges.  

The general industry consensus is that CAD is moving from 2D to 3D, with 4D (time analysis), 5D (cost management) and finally 6D (facilities management) being not too far in the future. As BIM models grow in size due to the increase in content the technical challenges will continue to mount up on companies using traditional IT desktop infrastructures.

BIM collaboration is fast becoming a major driving force behind enterprise purchasing decisions, and a virtual workplace is well suited to accommodating this trend. 

A virtual workflow is able to follow a user around, allowing tasks to be performed wherever they are located without losing the thread of what they were working on and without having to wait for a system to boot up. Users are then able to search the cloud for those files that they had open on their regular PC. 

Coupled with an access control token or single sign-on (SSO) solution, a simple touch of the wrist or swipe of a card will almost instantly open the user’s profile, revealing what they were working on last time they tuned in. 


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Users can visualise 3D models of projects, and changes appear in all views


In addition to these collaborative benefits, the government’s 2011 Construction Strategy defined four levels of BIM and mandated in the 2016-2020 revision that any company working on government projects is contractually obliged to adopt BIM Level 2, if projects are centrally funded. 

The long-term strategy for the UK is set out in the Construction 2025: industrial strategy document, published in 2013, and sets a forward-looking view of how the industry and government will collaborate in order to put the UK at the forefront of global construction. 

Numerous references to “Digital Built Britain” within the various documents that make up the stages of BIM adoption state a target for “increasing maturity of BIM level 2 to a point that supports development of BIM level 3 at a later date” by 2020. 

Reading between the lines, industry consensus is that the mandated adoption of BIM Level 3 is targeted for 2025. Level 3 BIM represents full collaboration between all disciplines by means of using a single, shared project model that is held in a centralised repository, allowing all parties to access and modify the same model, removing the final layer of risk for conflicting information. 

This is commonly known as “Open BIM”. Current nervousness in the industry around issues such as copyright and liability are intended to be resolved – the former by means of robust appointment documents and software originator/read/write permissions, the latter by shared-risk procurement routes such as partnering. 

The Construction Industry Council’s BIM Protocol makes provision for these. The adoption of BIM Level 3 is significant since it will implement a markedly different process of project participants updating a single, shared integrated building model in real time. As things stand today the only way to deliver this solution with the technical performance required to drive a multitude of very large files is VDI.


Virtual workplaces are also better for the environment, with market analysts at research firm Gartner estimating that the IT industry contributes a 2% share of total global COemissions. Recent studies conducted by the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology in Germany revealed that a combination of IGEL thin clients and virtual desktops based on VMware View software (a commercial desktop-virtualisation product) proved to have 47% less environmental impact than a similar, PC-based environment.

Furthermore, a virtual desktop infrastructure created especially for BIM users is far cheaper to purchase and run than a high-end CAD modelling workstation environment, with thin clients costing substantially less than their “fat” counterparts, and running at as little as 1 watt of power when idle. 

Thin clients use on average between 61% and 77% less power than PCs and in comparison can cost on average around 30% to 50% less than their “fat” PC counterparts – this is without factoring in the accepted lower total cost of ownership of a virtual environment.


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What is VDI? 

Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) introduces a way to manage user desktop and application environments with fewer resources, increased manageability, performance, and security. 

Organisations no longer need an expensive physical workstation for each user. Workstations can be replaced with inexpensive zero clients (no operating system) or thin clients (small and simple operating system). VDI virtualises the physical workstation that users access through a remote desktop protocol.

Management of physical desktops has always been expensive and time-consuming, due to the number of different models used and hardware components that have to be maintained. VMWare’s ESXi hypervisor server allows multiple desktops to run as separate desktops on a single physical server. The virtual desktops share the server’s resources such as a central processing unit (CPU), memory, storage and networking. This avoids hardware compatibility issues associated with using numerous physical workstations in an environment. Unlike Windows Terminal services, which uses centralised computing, VDI uses independent desktop computing for each virtual desktop, which guarantees a minimum level of quality of user experience.

Problems resolved

Physical workstations offer a number of constraints in terms of management and administration. Each workstation contains its own operating system that must be installed and loaded with user applications. The operating system and applications must be constantly updated with security patches and program updates on a regular basis. 

Hardware drivers can cause issues on physical workstations; having multiple workstation models makes it extremely difficult and time-consuming to troubleshoot and fix. For management and administration of a handful of workstations this may not be an issue, but when there are hundreds or even thousands of physical workstations, this requires significant time, money and people to administer.

VDI resolves these problems by adding centralised management capabilities. It allows the creation of one user desktop master image, allowing each user to receive the same desktop. With each user using the same desktop, management and administration is cheaper, faster, and requires fewer resources. 

Security patches and operating systems updates need only to be installed on the master desktop image. The new updated image is then deployed to all users at their next log-on, typically the following morning. Updating physical desktops often takes weeks to complete, often with less than completely successful results. 

Benefits of VDI

Utilising VDI allows 100% of the desktops to be updated within hours, or even minutes. This greatly improves security against zero-day attacks. 

Applications no longer need to be installed on each individual physical workstation. All common applications can be installed on the master VDI user image, allowing all users to access the common applications in the organisation. 

As with operating system update and patches, all applications only need to be patched or updated on the master VDI image.


Revit models support up to eight users working in the same BIM model – VDI provides the ability to deliver this access to subject matter, experts and various other types of CAD user located across different physical locations with ease.

Revit requires low network latency, so the workstation needs to be on the same Local Area Network (LAN) as the BIM data. VDI is the only answer to many of these issues, since if users are to collaborate from all parts of the world, they all need to be accessing Revit applications on the same LAN as the actual BIM data.

The recommended latency between VDI client and the Data Centre holding the Virtual Desktop and BIM data is a 180-200 milliseconds round trip.

A typical VDI client uses 300Kbps of bandwidth to deliver comparable high-end workstation performance and seamless adoption.

VDI best practice is to use 1:4 physical to virtual CPUs, meaning four virtual desktops can all share one physical CPU, which again provides cost savings. 

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