Editorial: Computing in the Cloud

One of the tech buzzwords these days is cloud computing: the delivery of computing services—servers, storage, software, databases and so on—over the internet.

You are already using the cloud if you have Google Drive, Dropbox, iCloud, or another online backup account. Your data may live  on your hard drive, but a copy is also on one of the data centre servers that, in a dark warehouse somewhere, makes up the cloud.

Storing files on the cloud allows them to be accessed remotely, and also allows them to be selectively shared with clients and collaborators. Toronto firm Sustainable recently transitioned from a local network to a system where files are synced to the cloud. “We used to use different services like Dropbox and WeTransfer to send files to clients,” says designer Joel Anderson. “This consolidates and streamlines the whole process.” Files can also be quickly pulled up at site and client meetings.

Perkins+Will’s new Toronto office uses a hotelling approach to workstations, enabled by cloud computing. Photo by Scott Norsworthy

Another aspect to cloud computing that architects are beginning to tap is the idea that data processing can be done over the internet, rather than by the hardware on a personal computer or laptop. Processing a complex rendering, for instance, can be done by a powerful off-site computer (or set of computers), rather than having a dedicated rendering machine at an office. Diamond Schmitt has servers for in-house rendering, but for large jobs, says associate Dan Gallivan, “we go to a cloud service and use their computing power.” For renderings, the firm uses a service called Rebus Farm, and for virtual reality visuals, it turns to Origami XR.

A cloud-computing approach has been taken up in a comprehensive way by Perkins+Will, which has some 2,400 employees globally. Their cloud-based infrastructure setup “allows every single employee the power to compute large amounts of data without having to lug around a high-performance computer,” explains design application manager William Daravong. Each employee is assigned a laptop, and with an internet connection, they can work with project files firm-wide as well as software that lives in the cloud, rather than on their personal computers. “Perkins+Will employees have access to our large infrastructure resources almost anywhere.”

The firm’s cloud-based computing is an in-house system, while the storage aspect is a cloud-based network similar to Google Cloud. The company also worked directly with Autodesk to set up a token-based licensing system. Rather than having individual licenses, employees pull from a pool of Perkins+ Will tokens to use any Autodesk program.

The setup simplifies collaboration between the firm’s offices. Through their laptops, staff can securely access the network in any Perkins+Will location, as well as connecting to infrastructure such as printers and meeting room screens. Even in another city, “it’s like working in the same office, because the tools are identical,” says design director and principal Andrew Frontini.

When Perkins+Will’s Toronto office recently relocated downtown, their cloud setup allowed the studio to adopt a hotelling approach where employees do not have assigned seating, but can choose to work at any open desk.

“We leveraged the potential of the technology in our office design,” says Frontini, explaining how the office is structured as a series of touch-down, task-focused spaces, rather than dedicating a desk and phone for each employee. In the previous office, individually assigned desks were unoccupied 40 percent of the time; the change in spatial strategy allowed the firm to shrink to a smaller footprint in a more central location.

The mobility within the office floor plate enabled by the technology was “a revelation,” says Frontini. And the insight they’ve gained from their experience with the technology goes beyond their own walls, suggesting ways to design for clients who are increasingly working with their fingertips in the cloud.