Analysis

Q&A: BDP’s Alistair Kell – how we are keeping the business running during lockdown

24 March 2020

Alistair Kell, principal: IT and process at BDP, explains how the firm got 1,350 staff working remotely in just 48 hours amid the coronavirus crisis.

So what’s the remote working strategy at BDP?

We’ve had to work quickly to enable home working for our entire staff base. We got an early flavour of this when our Shanghai and Singapore studios shut for a period at the beginning of the year. This allowed us to consider options, troubleshoot some early issues and test systems.

Our major challenge since then has not necessarily been enabling a remote working strategy but addressing how modellers can adequately work with the complexities of BIM software.

Were you already geared up to this anyway?

From a staff base of approximately 1,350 in 16 locations around the world we already had 650 laptop users, who can all connect into the BDP network using Microsoft Direct Access, allowing day-to-day working from any location. This system works successfully for the majority of software, but is not appropriate for Revit. This is well understood and various options have been tested over a number of years.

We were due to upgrade Direct Access but have paused this working on the principle that “if it’s not broken you don’t need to fix it”. One key point of our approach over the next few months is to keep our IT environment stable and not make any unavoidable changes.

We also have an element of Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI), which allows staff in our London and Manchester studios to work remotely seamlessly on a standard BDP defined set of software. This, however, only allows for a maximum of 60 users in each location.

We are currently averaging 750+ daily Revit users so our current VDI capacity would never deal with this. While our strategy is to progressively increase this number, timescales were not going to allow for this.

The three areas we looked to address to enable full home working were:

Devices - Did staff:

a) have a BDP-provided laptop?

b) have a personal device they could use to access the BDP?

c) need to be provided with a means of accessing the network?

Means of Access - How were staff going to access the network and what would they need to do? Solutions needed to address Revit working were:

a) BDP laptop users carry on as normal if not a Revit user;

b) If staff have a personal device they can use Splashtop, a piece of software that allows remote access to workstations. This has been provided to allow a one-to-one relationship to be set up between home and their BDP workstation in studios;

c) If staff do not have a personal device we secured a number of low-cost consumer grade 15.4-inch laptops, which have been given to staff with Splashtop installed operating as outlined in b);

d) A number of specific projects have been allowed to maintain VDI access.

There have been a small number of special cases also catered for, however, the strategy has been to provide the simplest solution to the widest group of people initially then address more individual/complex needs.

Connectivity - Adding 1,000 staff to your external access points is always going to cause a strain. BDP has a traditional MPLS network with a “hub and spoke” arrangement. We have advanced a number of initiatives allowing us to:

  • Increase our existing internet lines by a multiple of five;
  • Install local internet breakout in our local offices giving bandwidth improvements of ten times and removing traffic from the MLPS network;
  • Advance plans for SD-WAN (software defined wide area network) deployment.

We have also needed to consider home connectivity for a small number of users who have been given wi-fi dongles tied to the provider with the best signal coverage they can get from home.

What kit are you using?

For general communication and IT we are currently still using Skype for Business across all studios but have enabled Microsoft Teams so staff can collaborate with external organisations that have this in place. Project teams are also setting up informal WhatsApp groups for ad hoc communication and also to support one another.

For BIM and digital construction we are carrying on as normal, we have looked at various options but have taken the view that our approach was the least impact that could be implemented to the widest group.

Have you invested in new technology? 

Not new technology yet, only low-cost laptops and the Splashtop software.

Any glitches to iron out? 

There have been a number of small issues that we’ve attempted to troubleshoot along the way. Communication is key and for the past three weeks I’ve been having twice daily skype calls with 40+ people.

What are the main challenges? 

Individuals thinking their issues are more important than others, I’ve taken the view that we provide initial benefit to the widest group possible then consider individual cases.

The main concern now is keeping everything stable and ensuring there are no unnecessary changes to our underlying infrastructure without fully understanding impacts and testing scenarios. All of this has needed to be done with the increasing pressure of allowing people to work from home quickly.

Do you think this way of working will become the norm? 

Yes, but I do not believe that the measures we’ve quickly adopted will be the ones we keep as we move forward. We had been developing our IT strategy for the next five years, which will focus on flexibility and remote working as this was seen as a business need, but “the cloud” offers so many opportunities and technology is developing so quickly that I know we can provide more robust solutions given more time.

What lessons will you take from this?

I honestly thought that we would be facing two or three weeks of turmoil in getting our teams equipped to continue developing their projects remotely, but within 48 hours of announcing that staff might choose to work from home it does seem as though the whole process has been as smooth and seamless as anyone could ever have hoped for.

It is difficult to know what the future holds for us all but it is encouraging to see how people can pull together to support each other and make necessary changes for everyone’s benefit. In the meantime, we’re all participating in the “virtual pubs” that seem to be springing up at 5pm on Fridays with teams getting together via Skype for a drink and a chat together.