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Delivering the Future of Work, Today

· 6 min read
Yangzhi Zhao

How Skidmore, Owings & Merrill achieved complete digital transformation with Frame.

Delivering the Future of Work, Today

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) is a leading global architecture, engineering, and planning firm, renowned for designing iconic buildings such as the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, One World Trade Center in New York City, and Willis Tower in Chicago. With a focus on innovation and sustainability, SOM is constantly pushing the boundaries of design and engineering. That focus has now extended into their approach for end-user computing.

A Pioneering Vision

Jilbert El-Zmetr, SVP,  Head of Technology & Engineering, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

Jilbert El-Zmetr, SVP, Head of Technology & Engineering, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Courtesy Jilbert El Zmetr | SOM

In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, SOM had no presence in the public cloud. Each of their global offices relied on high-end GPU workstations to access design software such as Autodesk, Adobe Creative Suite, Revit, and Rhino. However, a significant shift occurred when Rob DeMillo, who previously spearheaded the use of DaaS (also leveraging Frame) in the media and entertainment industry at Nimble Collective, joined SOM in April 2019 as Chief Technology Officer. Under his leadership, DeMillo assembled a world-class team of cloud software engineers, headed by technology industry veteran Jilbert El Zmetr, SVP of Technology & Engineering, to work with the formidable existing technology team.

With their combined expertise, SOM set an ambitious goal — one made even more urgent due to the pandemic — to become the first entirely cloud-based architecture and engineering firm by October 2021. This pioneering vision propelled SOM to embark on an unprecedented digital transformation journey, migrating their on-premises infrastructure to AWS and adopting Frame's Desktop as a Service (DaaS) model.

A Thoughtful Transformation

The team at SOM identified three key pillars in their digital transformation strategy:

  1. SOM Fabric: A geo-distributed file system with clustered nodes and local-caching across the globe, SOM Fabric enables efficient near real-time access to large file data stores. This was a critical step in the transformation as it laid the foundation for a seamless migration to the cloud and DaaS, allowing users to simultaneously share and collaborate on project files, which is essential to architectural practice.

  2. SOM Stream: Powered by Frame, SOM Stream replaced high-end workstations with lightweight Samsung Chromebooks accessing Frame virtual desktops hosted in AWS. This allowed SOM to systematically eliminate expensive workstations and move towards a more sustainable and cost-effective infrastructure, and proved instrumental in continuing SOM's operations during the pandemic. SOM Stream has proven to be a reliable and robust solution, as El Zmetr explains: "Frame is nearly flawless; when there are issues with SOM Stream, something else, like end-user connectivity, is almost always the culprit."

  3. SOM Spin: SOM Spin integrates Slack with Frame via Frame Admin and Session APIs to provide end-user awareness of potential waste and on-demand VM provisioning. This innovative approach enables users to be more conscious of resource utilization while providing them with the ability to extend Frame sessions if necessary.

SOM Spin

SOM Spin makes it easy for users to extend their Frame session via Slack, while minimizing infrastructure waste by leveraging Frame Session API. Courtesy Jilbert El Zmetr | SOM

Delivering Work as an On-Demand Experience

SOM's digital transformation journey has revolutionized the work experience for their studios across the globe. By utilizing Frame, SOM can now deliver an on-demand work experience, enabling employees to access their workspaces from any device with a web browser. Frame allows SOM to optimize computing resources, including CPU, memory, and GPU, to each user's specific needs, from structural analysis to modeling and visualization. This flexibility supports seamless work from any location and at any time, promoting greater collaboration and productivity across the organization.

Custom Analytics Dashboard for SOM Stream

Custom analytics dashboard for SOM Stream leveraging Frame Admin API. Courtesy Jilbert El Zmetr | SOM

As the world continues to embrace remote and hybrid work models, SOM's commitment to providing a flexible, on-demand work experience positions them at the forefront of digital collaboration in the architectural industry, ready to tackle the challenges of the future. The transformation has also enhanced data security, as the endpoint device becomes a low-value target for potential threats.

Moreover, the transformation has significantly streamlined user onboarding. As El Zmetr shares, “Now that we have Frame up and running, we're able to start the planning process for onboarding just four days before the interns arrive.

Creating a Sustainable Future

SOM's digital transformation journey has not only streamlined their operations but also significantly contributed to their commitment to sustainability. It contributed to the firm's ability, in 2022, to become a net-zero energy operations business, through a combination of reductions and offsets. This carbon-conscious approach is evident in their architectural designs, such as their recently-announced Climate Exchange campus with Stony Brook University on Governors Island, which will set a new model for sustainability in New York City and beyond.

Delivering the Future of Work, Today

Rendering of the New York Climate Exchange, a first-of-its kind international center for developing and deploying dynamic solutions to our global climate crisis. © SOM | Brick Visual

SOM's digital transformation has also played a crucial role in reducing their carbon footprint. With more than two-thirds of their high-end workstations already replaced by Chromebooks running Frame, SOM's shift to a more sustainable infrastructure is well underway. Since IT operations are by far the most energy-intensive function in their studios, moving to the cloud is projected to decrease electricity use by more than 75 percent in their three largest offices. This substantial reduction showcases SOM's unwavering commitment to sustainability in every aspect of their business.

Looking Ahead

As SOM looks to the future, they are focused on optimizing their AWS infrastructure costs while simultaneously improving session performance. This continuous improvement mindset is crucial in their ongoing evolution, as El Zmetr relates, “We're a year and a half now into Desktop as a Service, but we're still figuring it out — but I think that's okay; it's an evolution.” Balancing both cost optimization and performance, SOM is well-positioned to embrace the future of work and sustainable practices.

SOM's digital transformation reflects its broader commitment to sustainability and innovation as architectural practice evolves in the era of cloud computing. As they continue to shape cities and skylines around the world, SOM's forward-thinking approach to technology is one of many aspects of the firm's ongoing industry leadership.

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Yangzhi Zhao

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Yangzhi Zhao
Yangzhi 'Z' Zhao is the VP of Product at Dizzion responsible for product management, product marketing, product enablement, and GTM strategy. With over 15 years in the end-user computing (EUC) industry, Z started his career at Citrix. There, within the consulting service organization, he supported hundreds of clients with their Citrix deployments as a Field Architect. After leaving Citrix, Z served as SVP of Business Development at Cloud Nine, a NYC-based consulting firm specializing in EUC. Prior to joining Dizzion in June 2023 (as part of the acquisition and merger with Frame), he was the Director of Product for Frame at Nutanix. An alumnus of the University of Michigan, Z currently lives in the Metro Detroit area with his wife and son.

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