Is ‘the cloud’ still a dream?

Technically speaking, no.  ‘Working in the cloud’ is already a reality – look at your cloud-hosted email services and customer management tools – a tremendous amount of daily data exchange is already up there.   But should your team’s design data be, as well?

I ask this from a designer’s perspective – would I want to collaborate on MY projects in a ‘real time’ exchange with my consultants, my clients?  This is surely not an easy answer.

Who’s on the team?
A big first question is who would have access to the cloud-hosted design model? On many projects, only a few of the team members may be determined at the onset of the project, and others are added as time unfolds. Committing a project to the cloud environment could exclude potential collaborators who do not have the infrastructure (or skillset) to participate with that methodology.  Or, while it may not prevent them from drawing down your design/data, the limitations on their deliverables may circumvent the efficiency/benefits of YOUR workflow to support a cloud-enabled process.

Is ‘real-time design’ really necessary – or wanted?
Architectural design is rarely a purely linear process: we make decisions in plan, then change to form, then back to plan, then make decisions on structure, then reevaluate the impact to form, then back to plan, over and over.  Consultants, on the other hand, do work more linearly – in response to the guiding design decisions.  They are often looking for the ‘big moves’ – maximum height and total span; major services feed; proposed finish elevation.  They don’t – and in fact CAN’T – respond to every minor design edit, as they happen.  And if clients expect access to the real-time evolution of their project? Let’s ALL stop for a second and think that one through, shall we? That would be just a wee bit of pressure, wouldn’t it? If you’re a designer who doesn’t mind the potential of every shift or restrategy being critiqued before you reach a presentation point, have at it!

Does the cloud support my workflow?
The question about software licensing, and interoperability of programs hosted locally or in the cloud came up in a recent Revit User Group. No one really knows the answer, because every firm – in fact every project – may have a different set of tools and unique approach on how closely they all work together.  How about offices with network licenses who can’t dedicate a fixed number to one cloud-enabled project? How does my project tracking software manage distribution that happens from the cloud?  How does the IT department deal with one project having unique needs apart from all the other office projects (not to mention legacy projects being revisited?)

Is the cloud secure enough?
Another big open-ended question.  Security of data, in terms of bits, is fairly guaranteed.  Cloud service providers are masters at data storage and recovery, and often provide 24/7 service and even insurance against disaster.  What can’t be guaranteed, however, is if the access is secured. I’ve worked under NDA on several projects, while still wondering once I sent my PDFs through the internet just who was receiving them on the other end. Who ultimately controls access to a cloud-hosted project? How many users – vetted or not – might not recognize the need for privacy and or securing of sensitive information about the project? What liability is there when there are numerous people accessing the same pool of data?

Will internet access become a ‘weak link’?
If all of my design decisions reside on a remote server, by which I connect through a wire – am I at risk of being easily disconnected? Does all the state-of-the-art cloud storage technology hinge on the viability of my late-mid-century office building’s wiring? What if it does? What if it fails? What’s my back-up plan? If I do trust the cloud, and my access is lost, who covers that downtime? If I have to keep redundant on-site versions of everything hosted on the cloud, what’s the cost efficiency of cloud hosting, anyway?

I’m sure that these are just the tip of the iceberg – and equally sure that there are a lot of great benefits to taking the leap, and working in a fully collaborative digital environment.  I imagine that highly technical cross-discipline designs and schedule-driven projects (ie: hospitals and laboratories) are the foremost beneficiaries of such constant collaboration. My smaller scale projects would perhaps be more accessible to my structural engineer and could reduce our design timeline, and be more easily reviewed and approved by clients who could log on and take the design for a spin. Perhaps.

I’ve been following the hype of all the new cloud-enabled tools out there – Amazon hosting, Autodesk’s BIM Server, BIM9’s ‘private cloud’ setup services.  I’m glad to see them evolve and come to fruition – for some firms/projects – and hope that there will be public transparency as to how these experiments turn out.  I’ll continue to sit on the bench, however, regarding cloud-hosting my project designs, at least for now.




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