Not so long ago, an engineering consultancy like Buro Happold would have had studios filled with drawing boards and engineers rushing to complete technical drawings for clients – who would no doubt want a small change “here” and a modest amendment “there”, necessitating the engineers to start afresh.
Computer-aided design (CAD), of course, has been a huge productivity boost for engineering consultancies, and has also enabled them to expand, for staff to collaborate across the world – with each other and with clients – and to serve customers that straddle the globe.
Group IT director Shaun Mundy is focused on ensuring that the company’s systems can keep up with the needs of such demanding customers, starting with Buro Happold’s desktop environment.
Like many companies, it stuck with Windows XP on the desktop throughout the 2000s, wisely eschewing a large-scale move to Windows Vista when it finally emerged, but perhaps being a bit slow to consider a move to Windows 7.
Part of the reason for that, says Mundy, was because when he joined, the company had many disparate operating systems – including 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows – with local flavours adding to the complexity.
“It’s [now] a very centralised environment and very standardised,” he says. “We have done a lot of work over the past few years and are now at about 85 per cent Windows 7, 64-bit. One of the things that made it easy for us to move to Windows 7 was the performance improvement we got at 64-bit over XP, which was as much as 30 per cent,” he says. As a result, staff were very willing to make the move.
The benefits of migrating to Windows 8 – which will be formally launched next month – are less clear cut.
The change in interface, for example, needs to be examined closely, given the importance of “power users” in an engineering consultancy, and in particular how the split between the traditional desktop interface and the “Modern UI” of Windows 8 impacts usability.
However, there are many functional benefits in terms of business flexibility, believes Mundy, especially with the development of Windows 8-based ultrabooks.
“Windows 8 is all about the tablet for us,” he says. “We are going to watch and try Windows 8 to see what it does for tablets. We are not going to jump just because it’s Windows 8.”
Surprisingly, there are not too many iPad-toting staff at Buro Happold – perhaps because the work the company undertakes requires far more powerful devices and specialised software.
This has enabled Mundy to approach the issue of “bring your own device” (BYOD) at a more leisurely pace than many organisations.
“We have been conducting a ‘consumerisation’ study with HR, which I think is the right way to do it because there’s the people aspect of it as well as the internal IT consideration,” says Mundy.
It is, he adds, not just about security, but manageability, covering such simple and mundane things as the interface, if staff wish to connect their iPad or iPhone directly to their PC. The recent change to the connection interface to Apple’s products, for example, could prove expensive and wreak havoc in many organisations. Staff sporting new Nokia Lumias, meanwhile, might want Qi-compatible wireless chargers and connection devices instead.
“We are trying to work out how we can do it, rather than why we can’t,” adds Mundy.
Security, though, remains a major hurdle to BYOD. “We can’t allow anything to just connect to our environment when we don’t know how well protected it is,” says Mundy.
That does not just mean whether the device is protected from malware that it might import from outside the corporate environment – which is a particular problem with Android-based devices – but also the security of data that staff might want to download to their iPad or other tablet computers.
“It’s about knowing end-to-end that the machine is secure and has got the right software, the right package and the right version,” he says, because even just managing different file formats in the various different complex CAD and engineering packages – even between different versions – can be a challenge. After all, CAD file formats are not as simple as, say, word processor file formats. Indeed, says Mundy, the BIN file extensions environment is a fast-changing target and can be a headache in its own right.