For Daemon Langdon, the digital triaging began in late February. Langdon’s eponymous San Francisco–based IT consultancy specializes in servicing architecture and engineering firms, which include Surfacedesign, Blitz, and Van Meter Williams Pollack. “When the pandemic first started hitting, some clients got in front of working from home as quickly as possible,” he says. “Then there was a major panic that came down the first and second week of March.” By his recollection, he and four full-time employees worked nonstop through March 25 to set up 600 work-from-home (WFH) stations.

Autodesk’s 2016 move to subscription services may have spared Langdon’s team some burden last month. Whereas transferring perpetual-license software would have required deauthorizing a license on one machine and reactivating it on another, subscribers log in from home as they would anywhere. As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, the software giant is taking more active steps to help users adapt to WFH. Since the design community’s initial transition to remote work, widening usage has revealed problems in tech infrastructure. As RECORD previously reported, architects have experienced Internet connectivity issues from residential neighborhoods. Now, Langdon is observing that architects are overtaxing the virtual private networks, or VPNs, that provide secure access. “Suddenly 40 or 50 people are working through the connection and things are starting to break down. Certain VPNs are running so slow that people can hardly work.”

BIM 360, image courtesy Autodesk

The situation has specifically driven users to bypass VPN and similar connections in favor of cloud-based solutions, and Autodesk is supporting that movement by making cloud-collaboration products available through its Extended Access Program through May 31. Autodesk launched this program on March 24, and participants use BIM 360 Docs, BIM 360 Design, and the company’s other cloud-based collaboration platforms programs as if they were signing up for a free trial. “We wanted to respond to our customers’ challenges really quickly,” says Joy Stark, who directs marketing for Autodesk’s architecture and building engineering products. “The fastest thing we could do is offer access through our existing trials.” Normal terms and conditions, which prohibit trial users from using software for for work for which they are compensated, are suspended.

The move has been a particular boon to Revit users, who are migrating their server-based 3D models to BIM 360 Design. On April 8, upon the opening of a new BIM 360 Design data center in Ireland, Autodesk reported that new project creation on that platform had increased 350 percent globally since mid-February. Subscribing to this cloud-sharing version of Revit normally costs $120 per month per desk, which is not included in the price of the AEC Collection software package that houses Revit.

“Even before launch of the Extended Access Program, we saw a lot of our customers adding capacity,” Stark says of this usage spike. “I think this was coming from firms [already] using BIM 360 Design for a handful of projects—they were able to pivot most quickly to remote.” Indeed, through most of March, multiple architects told RECORD that they were purchasing additional subscriptions, in spite of anxieties about the economic repercussions of COVID-19. Now that Autodesk has widened free usage of the platform, the company reports that, in Stark’s words, “the access program is getting firms who maybe hadn’t participated in BIM 360 Design before.” Existing subscribers who had not purchased additional usage prior to March 24 can add more collaborators and projects during the Expanded Access Program timeframe for free.

Not everyone can or wants to take advantage of Autodesk’s largesse. Company spokesperson Brian Farber notes that Revit 2018.3 is the earliest version that works with BIM 360 Design. (Revit 2021 is the latest version of the software.) Pieter Schiettecatte, director of design technology at Architecture Plus Information (A+I), says the New York–based firm currently is demurring to BIM 360 Design, even during the Extended Access Program, because “We heavily customize our visualization experience, which is not yet possible on the cloud. I'm working with our IT team on resolving this, but it's technically challenging and involves putting our local server's data completely on the cloud.” A+I could transition to BIM 360 Design after it sorts out its customization concerns, but purchasing subscriptions post pandemic is up in the air: “It's mostly going to be a financial decision whether we will switch back to working locally on our server—about what makes the most sense for ensuring maximum business continuity during a time of uncertainty.”

Stark says Autodesk has taken pains to remove marketing prompts from the Extended Access Program “so that customers feel no pressure to buy,” and she adds that the company has gone to some expense to make its BIM 360 Design servers and data centers available to non-subscribers during COVID-19. Langdon validates that free BIM 360 Design access is “a pretty generous thing,” but he warns that trial users might not want to move off the cloud and revert to their existing AEC Collection subscriptions after the pandemic. “Much more than any other industry I can think of, architecture is a technology arms race,” Langdon notes. “If you don’t have the best tools, you just can’t compete for the jobs you want. Architects will need to rethink their fee schedules to be able to afford these tools.” Shouldering the extra cost of cloud migration would come at a time when architects are cash-strapped and underbidding one another for new work, a possible scenario to which Autodesk’s Farber responded, “we are monitoring the challenges our customers are facing and are intent on providing support long-term.”

ProjectWise 365, image courtesy Bentley

Autodesk’s peers have followed closely on its heels. A day after the Extended Access Program’s start, Bluebeam offered 90-day access to Revu for any existing user free of charge, and in late March, GRAPHISOFT expanded availability of BIMcloud worldwide and began offering the service to ARCHICAD users for free for 60 days. Bentley Systems announced on April 15 that it would waive subscription fees for its ProjectWise 365 cloud service through September 30, as well. And Procore Technologies and Owner Insite have similarly extended access to the construction-management community. Meanwhile, Stark says that Autodesk is holding continual internal discussions about supporting architects and designers as the COVID-19 crisis persist.

RECORD will update this story to reflect any revisions or enhancements to these and other companies’ efforts.