The Cloud Connection and Zoomin Magazine are sponsored by HP

Web-connected, cloud-based services make the AEC business more mobile and profitable.

By David McCormick

We often challenge ourselves and others to think outside the box in an effort to find new solutions to business challenges. In the current economic environment, architecture, engineering and construction professionals and firms are looking for solutions to help them work faster, smarter and from anywhere.

Thomas Edison, arguably one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, was inspired by a singular point of view: “There’s always a better way.” Today, the same principle is bandied about almost daily in IT circles as high-tech innovators strive to make our jobs easier and, in the process, shift workloads and reshape the way we operate.

The latest evolution accelerating the pace of technology is, of course, the cloud – a means of storing, sharing and accessing information via servers on the Internet instead of on local servers. Within the AEC community, this new genre of computing is helping architects, engineers and contractors work more efficiently without adding a lot of overhead. To stay competitive, firms can take advantage of the latest cloud and mobile printing apps – especially if they need to do business on the go and across multiple locations. According to Comscore, more than 8 percent of U.S. Internet traffic already comes from tablets or smartphones, and that figure is growing fast.

Liberating workers

Customers, colleagues and even friends often ask me to define the cloud. I tell them it’s just a new name for things they’ve been using for a while now. If they’re getting directions on the web, paying bills electronically or even shopping online, those are cloud services. It’s computing, storage and networking at a remote location that is managed by someone else. Web connectivity is the key facilitator.

The cloud frees users to focus on the parts of their business that are important – designing, building and selling. It also frees users from having to think about compatibility among devices and software. Lastly, it frees them from having to think ahead about what documents they need to have with them when they are away from the office. You can do business from wherever you are – the job site, the client office, anywhere with an Internet connection.

In the old days, it took tens of thousands of dollars to buy servers, storage and software to enable remote access to drawings – plus more money to hire someone to configure and maintain this equipment. Only the largest firms could afford the capital investment. Now, with the cloud, local computers no longer have to do all the heavy lifting to run applications. Instead, the network of computers that make up the cloud handles the bulk of the workload. The user’s computer needs only to run the cloud computing system’s interface software, which can be as simple as a web browser. Even the smallest studio or contractor can access these services for a very low cost or even for free. Hosting programs on someone else’s remote servers also reduces costs by eliminating the need for multiple software licenses per workstation.

Growth of cloud computing and related solutions is projected to quickly accelerate in the coming years as adoption becomes more widespread. The on-demand Software as a Service (SaaS) delivery model – one element of cloud computing – represents more than a $12 billion market that may exceed $21 billion by 2015, according to Gartner Group projections. Despite this growth, there still is ample confusion about what makes a cloud service, and what makes one particularly good. Most people in AEC fields, where collaboration and mobility are keys to success, understand how the cloud can address cost pressure, but many are uncertain as to how they can best harness cloud-based capabilities to streamline the design-and-build process.

The great equalizer

Most workers in their mid-20s do not remember what the pre-cloud workplace was like. Then again, those born in the 1970s don’t remember the paradigm shift from server/mini-computers to desktop PCs in the ’80s. Suddenly, even small businesses could access the computing power that the “big guys” had been using for decades. Then, in the mid-1990s, slick Internet websites began to disguise the smallness of many companies. Online, even tiny firms can appear much larger than they really are. The ongoing IT trend over the past five decades has been to democratize access to benefits previously affordable only to large enterprise companies.

The cloud is following this trend and having a similar, equalizing affect on AEC firms. Many large companies have infrastructures in place for remote document access and sharing. Now, cloud-based tools like HP ePrint & Share are bringing these capabilities to smaller AEC firms, such as independent architects, small contractors and related companies around the globe. No matter how large or small your business is, high costs are no longer a barrier to entry, making easy information and data sharing accessible to firms of all sizes via the cloud.

It is no secret that the AEC industry has been hit hard by the economic crisis. The resulting impact has increased competition for fewer projects. Design and bidding cycles have accelerated. Many firms are striving to collaborate more effectively.

To expedite tasks, technology is enabling people to work where they are. They can access files at job sites, at client sites, in taxi cabs or, dare I say, from sunny beaches while on vacation (provided they have cell service, of course).With tools like HP ePrint & Share, they can print from any of these locations using their smartphone or tablet so that the team back in the office has the latest hard copy of the file. They also have the security of knowing they have a virtual “copy” of their print stored in the cloud, accessible and reprintable at any time.

The cloud also allows them to design, mark up and print plans on the go using cloud-based applications such as AutoCAD WS, a free web and mobile application for viewing, editing and sharing DWG files from virtually anywhere through a web browser or mobile device. According to Autodesk, there were more than four million downloads of the AutoCAD WS app at the end of 2011, a mere 14 months after launching.

This anywhere-anytime work style is becoming commonplace, as more employers embrace the virtual office and telecommuting. Consider that only 34 percent of employees work from a single location today, according to research from Motorola. That means two-thirds of the workforce is mobile and on the go, working at multiple sites.

Cloud printing infrastructure

Saving time and money is all about taking steps out of the process. In the aforementioned “old days,” you had a PC, a server (maybe) and a printer on the same local-area network (LAN). But if you were out of the office or didn’t have LAN access, idle and unprofitable downtime ensued. More recently, remember when you had to download drivers or firmware upgrades for your large-format printer or plotter? Now you can plug in and print directly from a USB stick or download updates automatically with HP’s web-connected printers. How about emailing a PDF document to your colleague so she could print it locally in the office? There’s no need anymore – you can print from where you are using HP ePrint & Share. Best of all, perhaps, is that you don’t need an in-house expert to figure out the printing function. It’s all quite intuitive today.

The cloud and related technologies are opening new doors for AEC professionals and firms willing to make the leap. In most cases, cloud-based offerings are affordable for customers of all sizes (sometimes, they are even free like HP ePrint & Share). They can introduce new levels of efficiency, make your team more mobile and provide easier collaboration with partners no matter where they are based. If the cloud seems scary or intimidating, you’re not alone, but the opportunities really are too good to miss. So what are you waiting for?

David McCormick is the Web Services Team Lead for Designjet Marketing at HP.

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