The Challenges of Working Remotely
During the past year, companies have had to adapt to the restrictions imposed by COVID-19. For many companies, the new normal has meant that their employees are now working from home. This has created challenges in administrating the software an employee uses and providing an efficient means for an employee to access data that they need to accomplish their job.
This article will look at strategies for administering both SOLIDWORKS and SOLIDWORKS PDM in a remote environment. Since many employees will continue to work remotely after the pandemic, these strategies will continue to be useful for many companies.
When an employee works remotely, there are generally three ways to connect to an organization’s servers. These are:
- A virtual private network (VPN)
- Using a remote desktop (RDP)
- A cloud solution
Each of these has its advantages and disadvantages. For example, a VPN may be the simplest solution to implement, but high latency and bandwidth issues can result in poor performance when accessing a company’s server. An RDP solution can address the latency and bandwidth issues, but this solution requires two computers and can increase maintenance costs. Like an RDP solution, a cloud platform can minimize latency and bandwidth issues, but unlike an RDP, there is no need for two computers.
To help us better understand the challenges of working remotely, a basic understanding of what impacts network performance is important. Understanding what latency, throughput and bandwidth are and how they differ is crucial.
Latency, usually measured in milliseconds (ms), is the delay between a user’s action and a web application’s response to that action.
Throughput is the amount of data that can pass through a connection over a given period of time and is normally measured in packets per second (PPS). A packet is a unit of data that is routed between two points.
Bandwidth is a measure of how much data can be moved in a given amount of time and is usually measured in bits per second (bps), kilobits per second(Kbps), megabits per second (Mbps) or gigabits per second (Gbps).
While throughput and bandwidth may seem similar, they are not. Throughput is impacted by latency, so throughput will always be lower than bandwidth. If latency is high, throughput can be significantly lower than the available bandwidth.
When data travels between two points, it will likely traverse multiple networks, each introducing its own delay or latency. While the delays are small, usually in milliseconds, these delays are compounded by back-and-forth communication and can add substantially to round trip times (RTT). RTT is the amount of time for a response to reach a client after a client request.
Latency can also be impacted by the physical distance between the client and server. While latency delays are usually measured in milliseconds, just as with bridging multiple networks the latency is compounded and becomes significant. This is why SOLIDWORKS PDM offers a replication solution, since accessing large amounts of data on the other side of the globe can be difficult. Issues with hardware can also add significantly to latency. DNStuff’s article titled “Network Latency vs. Throughput vs. Bandwidth” gives a good overview of the relationship between latency, throughput and bandwidth.
Figurative representation by DNS Stuff.
A simple test, such as the one in my blog, “Testing Connectivity to SOLIDWORKS PDM Archive Server using the Ping Test,” can provide a rough idea of a connection’s throughput. This is a rough approximation and there are applications that can provide a much more detailed view of the characteristics of a connection.
Many of the issues that lead to high latency, and therefore reduced throughput, cannot be addressed by an end-user. A company’s IT may improve its network performance but the data still must make its way through the Internet. There is one thing that an end-user can do that reduces latency, however, and that is to connect their computer directly to their router/modem. Further, while hard wired to a router/modem, disabling Wi-Fi can prevent attempts by a computer to send data on an active Wi-Fi connection. The reason for these measures is that latency is normally higher on a Wi-Fi connection.
If there is no option but to use a Wi-Fi connection, Wi-Fi boosters, extenders and repeaters can boost network performance, especially in areas where Wi-Fi performance is poor. These devices generally do not offer the same performance as being directly connected to a router/modem, however.
On top of reduced throughput that occurs because of latency, there is now greater demand for bandwidth in many homes. Whether it be a partner that is also working from home or children attending online classes, an end user’s bandwidth can be quickly consumed. Of course, an employee working from home can choose to add more bandwidth, but there is an associated monetary cost. A potential workaround is to transfer files between an employee’s computer and a company’s server(s) when Internet use is lower.
So how do all those factors impact administering remote employees? The simple answer is that it makes things much more difficult—but these challenges make some tools that are already available more attractive. Tools such as Microsoft Active Directory can be used to deploy software. For SOLIDWORKS, a SOLIDWORKS Administrative Image can be used to deploy a SOLIDWORKS installation.
Creating a SOLIDWORKS Administrative Image.
Neither Windows Active Directory nor SOLIDWORKS Administrative Image will increase throughput, but the use of these tools can control when these updates occur. For example, when Internet usage on the client computer client side is most likely lower, such as at night. A SOLIDWORKS Administrative Image can be configured to deploy an update at a specific time.
Scheduling SOLIDWORKS Administrative Image Deployment.
End users can also be allowed to deploy the Image manually by means of an email link. This allows the end-user to perform the update when they know Internet use is low.
Deploying SOLIDWORKS Administrative Image Manually.
A better understanding of SOLIDWORKS Administrative Images can be gained by reviewing Scott Durksen’s blog titled “SOLIDWORKS Administrative Images Setup Guide.”
While there can be challenges with updating software, updates are infrequent and if managed properly, the pain can be mitigated. The day-to-day access to data is likely much more painful to an end-user who is working from home. Some of this pain can be mollified by using SOLIDWORKS PDM. While latency can still be an issue, files can be cached locally, therefore eliminating the need to access files located on a network drive during save and rebuild operations.
SOLIDWORKS PDM can alleviate issues related to latency, but it does not eliminate them. At some point, an end-user will need to perform operations, such a check-in/out, that require accessing a company’s PDM server(s). At this point, low throughput will lead to poor performance or prevent PDM operations.
Problems can be greatly reduced by using a remote desktop (RDP) solution. With an RDP, a user can access their purpose-built CAD station which is located at a company’s facilities. This access is accomplished from a system located in an employee’s home office. In this scenario, the amount of data being transferred is much less than accessing files through a VPN connection, and therefore latency should have a lesser impact. Also, with an RDP, updating systems can be easier as the employee’s workstation is located on their company’s local area network (LAN).
The downside of an RDP solution is that two systems are required. This can add increase maintenance and may require purchasing a second system. Granted, the home system does not require the same specs as a CAD workstation and therefore should cost less, but this still is an additional cost. Of course, a user may be able to use their own personal computer to access their workstation through RDP, but this can introduce security issues, as the user’s computer may not have the same level of security as a company’s computer.
A cloud computing solution can address some of the latency issues of a VPN solution and the costs and security concerns of a Remote Desktop. As Ryan Moffatt, who heads Javelin Technologies’ cloud computing solution, explained: a cloud computing solution offers scalability and security that a company’s LAN rarely matches. He also explained that a cloud computing solution could greatly reduce issues related to latency, such as those that can occur from working remotely.
There are several cloud solutions available, with Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud being among the most popular.
In a cloud computing solution, a company’s computing requirements are hosted on a cloud platform. This can range from simply storing data on the cloud to what amounts to creating a virtual machine on a cloud platform. The article by builtin.com, titled “Cloud Computing 101“, gives a good overview of what cloud computing is.
For the purpose of this article, we can think of a cloud platform as a virtual machine. A company can configure a cloud platform to meet a company’s requirements for specific applications. This could include a server to host PDM or a CAD platform to run SOLIDWORKS.
There are many advantages to cloud computing. These include:
- Reduced IT Costs: For some cloud computing plans, hardware and software updates may be included. Since there are no computers to maintain, there are fewer requirements for IT resources. Changes to systems, such as adding additional space or increasing performance, can be accomplished quickly.
- Scalability: Cloud computing platforms can be quickly added or removed to meet a company’s requirements.
- Business continuity planning: Data stored in the cloud ensures it is backed up and protected in a secure and safe location that can quickly be restored in the event of a disaster. With the increasing occurrence of ransomware, this is a critical advantage.
- Flexibility: With a cloud computing solution, a user can work from anywhere, as long as they have access to the Internet.
As I mentioned earlier, a cloud computing solution can be used to just host PDM and the above advantages make a cloud solution ideal for PDM server(s). But if the end-user is connecting to cloud-hosted PDM server(s) through a VPN connection, latency can still be problematic. Latency should be less, though, as there are likely fewer network connections involved.
To achieve maximum performance while working remotely, hosting SOLIDWORKS on the cloud can drastically increase performance. Essentially the servers and clients are hosted on the same highly efficient local network. A cloud solution may even eliminate the need for PDM replication.
Like other monumental occurrences, COVID-19 has introduced serious challenges and these challenges are catalysts that drive change. The demand for flexibility in where people work will likely remain. Companies can meet these demands by evaluating and investing in technologies that make this flexibility possible.
To learn more about 3DEXPERIENCE and SOLIDWORKS, check out the whitepaper Developing Better Products in the Cloud.
About the Author
Joe Medeiros is an Elite Applications Consultant at Javelin Technologies. Javelin Technologies is a premier SOLIDWORKS reseller, servicing customers throughout Canada. Javelin offers SOLIDWORKS customers expertise in implementing and using SOLIDWORKS solutions.
Joe has been involved in many aspects of the SOLIDWORKS product family since 1996, and as an award-winning blogger, he regularly writes about SOLIDWORKS and SOLIDWORKS Data Management solutions.