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    Credit: Headcase Design

What does your office’s computing infrastructure look like? Is it a local-area network (LAN) tied to a server? Or is it a “cloud”-hosted service connected to your computer by broadband? Are your graphic workstations stand-alone powerhouses? Or are they inexpensive, portable laptops tapped into a data center? These are the kinds of questions that preoccupy information technology (IT)–minded folks. And increasingly, the term “cloud” pops up in financial and computing news and in tech-related water-cooler chatter. But what can the cloud do for architectural practice?

Potentially, lots: expedite collaboration, bolster productivity, and liberate firms from costly hardware updates. But first, a definition. Essentially, cloud computing is Internet real estate. The cloud, virtual and accessed from almost any Web connection, offers remotely hosted server space and software via a broadband connection. Rather than building an on-site data center to support a LAN, which requires dedicated office space and utilities such as electricity and cooling, any company can purchase data space on an easily-accessed cloud server (off-site, rack-mounted computers). And in common parlance, the term “cloud” is lingo for software hosted on the Internet. If you’ve used software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers such as Google Docs or Flickr, then you’ve worked in the cloud. Typically, companies use SaaS providers for e-mail or accounting tools, but building industry–specific applications are increasingly available.

“It’s a big database in the sky,” says Rick Rundell, senior director, simulation product line, in Autodesk’s AEC division, which offers several cloud-related applications. Cloud computing “allows a bank of computers to look like whatever the user is interested in. You can specify hardware and memory and pay by the minute or the hour. It allows you to run analysis applications and outsource traditional IT infrastructure to a flexible, high-performance infrastructure.”

At the moment, Autodesk is fine-tuning Project Butterfly, previously known as Visual Tao before it was acquired by the software giant in 2009. “It’s kind of like Google Docs for AutoCAD,” says the Web app’s Tel Aviv, Israel–based co-founder, Tal Weiss. “We’re taking the desktop drawing to the Web and making it accessible from anywhere.” Multiple users can work on a single AutoCAD drawing file in the cloud or download a version to their local desktop. Autodesk’s cloud-computing philosophy equates ubiquitous and instant access with easy collaboration, bringing architects, engineers, consultants, contractors, and clients into a virtual conversation. Similarly, Autodesk’s Project Bluestreak is designed to facilitate team collaboration around BIM. Bluestreak doesn’t support editing a digital model in the cloud, but it is designed as a social networking–type of software that runs alongside Autodesk’s Revit models.

While the “public” clouds offered by Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and other companies have the potential to make emerging practices appear more robust, they also come with growing pains. Low-bandwidth SaaS products for payroll and e-mail are generally hassle-free, but the dream of BIM in the public cloud, which would involve files of enormous size, is more problematic. And then there are the legal and security questions of data storage, such as “My building model is located in what country?”

Chris France, CIO at Little Diversified Architectural Consulting, is an advocate for firms building their own private clouds. In 2000, he set up an ersatz data center/cloud in Little’s Charlotte, N.C., office. These days, it’s populated by several really fast computers that provide the technology capability for the Charlotte office as well as Little’s outposts in Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and Orlando, Fla. Desk-by-desk savings offset the investment in powerful cloud computers. A single traditional CAD workstation costs $4,000 and needs continual updating, while a “cloud box” (France’s term) costs $8,000 but can be accessed by four to 20 users via much-cheaper laptops, “depending on the type of programs run and the size of data models,” France says.

And unlike the public cloud, this private one can host BIM. “We’ve built a virtual office out of geographically different offices,” France says, which has big ramifications for the way business is conducted: “You can bring an expert or designer in to work on a project from anywhere.” In France’s model, talent is no longer fixed to a single project in a single city; rather, each design team is pooled from across the country.

Perkins+Will consulted with France when the firm needed to figure out solutions to large-team workflow. Cloud computing helps with mobility and team collaboration, and a private cloud boosts productivity, says firm CIO Richard Nitzsche. Additionally, cloud computing will help the bottom line, he notes: “We expect to eliminate server rooms in favor of a few strategically located data centers—and with that, we’ll shed an entire class of facilities issues and return overhead space to our offices for use in revenue-producing purposes.”

The potential impact of architectural cloud computing (public or private) on practice is enormous, and the desire is there to make it as seamless as e-mail. The Holy Grail at the moment for AEC tech providers is efficiently leveraging the power of off-site servers to run analyses on drawings and building models uploaded into the cloud. Similar to “rendering farms,” where firms outsource 3D-image processing, a suite of computers can calculate a model’s energy load quickly, without taxing in-house workstations. And it’s easy to imagine cloud software crunching numbers for geographic information system analyses, parametric computations, or building animations.

Compared with, say, the financial-services industry, architecture has been slow to catch on to every technological trend. And while the IT lag was made worse by the economic downturn and a reluctance to invest in new hardware, the move into the cloud is coming along at just the right time. With cheaper hardware and software refreshes, it’s a competitive boon for smaller practices lacking the in-house computational might of larger firms. And that’s a silver lining.