Remote Work – It’s Okay to Not Be in the Cloud! (…fully)

NOT the cloud – Two programmers work on the ENIAC (U.S. Army Photo via Columbia University)

I decided to move my final paragraph here to save you the time of reading to get to it.

The point of this post is to say that it’s okay to cobble things together for remote working. Don’t listen to the person who says all the smart people are fully in the cloud. We don’t need to know everything all at once. Gradual evolution is possible. Each of us has different needs for what we need our technology to do for us in delivering our services. Technology (and the cloud) is not necessarily the savior of working remotely. The savior is knowledge and knowing what tools to use and when. Oh, and back up your work. Definitely back up your work.

(And… you should at least be somewhat in the cloud. I think/hope the cloud will be pretty awesome when we get there fully…)

The beginning of the post:

April 1, 2010, was the day we opened a Juneau office and entered into the world of long-distance communication and collaboration. Last Friday, (just two weeks short of ten years of remote integration), Anchorage’s Mayor declared that we ‘shelter in place’. All non-essential businesses were told to stop their on-site operations. This was our turn for what seems to be a global watershed moment for remote interactions. We saw this coming, and I thank my lucky stars that I’m in the professional services sector where we have ongoing projects and can replace face-to-face with screen-to-screen (unlike the approximate 12,000 food services employees in Anchorage that have lost their jobs). And again, I feel lucky that we already have our infrastructure in place, have recently upgraded laptops, and it’s easy to set up our in-office desktop computers for use as remote workstations as needed.

I programmed games in BASIC as a kid, and I provide much of our firm’s IT because I enjoy it. I actively look at resources to try to figure out how to spend our money most wisely when it comes to hardware and software. I thought I’d just share where we are right now, getting into the weeds since some of you might find this of interest.

So, below is a bit of a stream of consciousness. My goal is to get my firm fully into the cloud within the next few years, but we’re not there yet.

(Note: We are a landscape architecture firm in the Architecture/Engineering industry. We use AutoCAD, Civil 3D, the Adobe Creative Suite, 3D modeling software and other similar packages. That’s what our technological needs are based on.)

Our Connection to the Interwebs 

Our offices have 150mbps download, and 20mbps upload. This means that communication between them is limited to 20 up/20 down. Established 14 years ago, we are on our third server, replacing them on a five-year cycle. While I hope that our next server will be cloud-hosted, I’m still a bit unsure about that… but continue to assess that as a very desirable option.

Email

We hosted our email locally on our last server. When it crashed (due to an update!), within a day, we were using cloud-based email through Office 365. That was a great thing to happen to us! More than just email, it exposed us to and encouraged us to use the other features of Office 365.

A Side Note on Back-Ups

I recently had my personal external solid-state drive crash (1TB Samsung EVO NVMe M.2 in an external enclosure). I didn’t have a backup!!! I cobbled together most of it from other drives (undeleting many of them from a previous hard drive the files had been on – thank you Recuva), but I lost 1.5 years of some important word and excel files where I stored information. I can rebuild it, but that takes time. Those files SHOULD have been backed up or in the cloud. There was no reason they weren’t.

For work, our server is Raid 10 and is backed up on a Synology 4 drive unit, and then duplicated onto a Synology 2 drive unit that is off-site with incremental daily updates to keep it current. FYI… I love the versioning capability of Windows Server 2016. Everyone can smoothly go back to a file from yesterday, instead of needing to go to the tape back-ups, we stopped doing three years ago.

Workstations

I’ve been specifying workstations for almost 20 years, and have usually had a target of spending around $2000 for a workstation (when I used to purchase from DELL). I could lower that when I started building them on my own. The two critical things are whether your software is single-threaded or not, and what kind of graphics card you need. AutoCAD is single-threaded, so the best processor is the one with the highest processor speed. The number of cores is irrelevant (but relevant to the other software we use that is multi-threaded). For graphics cards, Nvidia Quadro or AMD Firepro have the best compatibility for AutoCAD. Their error checking is not as crucial for rendering packages, where high-end gaming cards give you much more bang for your buck. In a desktop, it might benefit you to have one of each (allowing working on AutoCAD on the quandro/firepro and rendering on the gaming-type card).

Laptops/Tablets

We have Surface Pro Tablets for our principals and have been using Lenovo laptops for staff when they want to be remote. I just got a great deal on two Lenovo Flex 15 laptops at Costco. Their specifications are great for what they are. Consumer computers now often provide more than enough horsepower for what we need them for.

VPN

We can easily VPN into our server to gain direct access to everything. This is limited by internet speed, and you definitely don’t want to try to look at pictures on the server or work directly on more complex workflows. In other words, an excel spreadsheet is fine to open direct, and maybe a small CAD file, but not photoshop or other more resource-intensive files.

Remote Desktop Connection

Our workstations are enabled for Remote Desktop, and it is incredible how well this works, depending on internet speeds. When latency (as evidenced by mouse arrow lag) is good, it’s like being in the office. If latency is off even a little, it’s like being drunk… and angry.

The Right Tool at the Right Time

We know when to package an InDesign or AutoCAD file and put it on our desktop to work on it directly. Then we know to put it back on the server to ensure it gets backed up. THAT is the challenge of remote working. Having access to your files in a way that they are backed up and safe(!!!), and there’s not a worry that someone else was working on the same file. Luckily we’re a small firm, we typically aren’t working on the same files.

I’ve been cobbling together effective solutions for a long time. I know how to optimize my efficiency with the tools we have. I certainly look forward to when we have our server in the cloud, and we use our laptops as terminals to access virtual desktops from anywhere. These virtual machines will have all of our software in them and be a dream to use! We’re not there yet. I imagine we could be, but we don’t NEED to be yet. I’ll blame where I live for lousy bandwidth or some other poor reasoning.

Microsoft Teams

Talk about good timing. We started using Microsoft teams a few days before Anchorage went on lockdown. MS Teams is a game-changer for us. Within a week, it has resulted in us chatting within our firm instead of emailing, encouraging us to video chat more often, and allowing us to integrate project management and other tools directly into one workflow. This has not been an incremental change; Microsoft Teams has provided us with an opportunity for a significant leap in how we work. But… I think that probably deserves another more focused post.

Stay healthy. Stay safe. Enjoy what you do.

About the Author: Peter Briggs is a landscape architect who has an ongoing preoccupation with the business of design. For more bio information, please see: www.highestexpertise.com/who-is-peter/

 

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