First I would like to explain why I feel competent enough to write this article. I'm a hardware engineer and I work as an EDA (Electronic Design Automation) consultant, this means I often change projects and customers and I'm using UNIX-based environments to get my job done. All the developments, which I describe in following, are affecting me, so probably either they are similar for other engineers not necessarily from the EDA industry, or they will affect them in the near future.
The tool is the same, but the task is changing
Let's step back for a moment and remember how it was just a few years ago. Every engineer had his own UNIX-workstation in his office. All the project data was stored on a file server, so for changing the data, first thing to do was to fetch them over LAN. If the data were coming directly from customer, they were stored on tape, so they had to be loaded on local disk, after that the engineer could start working on them. The workstation was powerful enough to handle the amount of data. If data had to be shared, the engineer stored the data back on the file server, so his colleague could access them. The communication was handled over email or over phone. All electronic correspondence inside the company was using the same data format. The team, who was working on data was present in the same office.
There are at least two developments, which changed this peaceful picture: globalization and flexibility.
Nowadays several engineering teams from all over the world must have access to the project data. That means that the file server can be located anywhere and must be accessible over comparably slow WAN connection. Since several people might work simultaneously on the same data, versioning systems must be used. The amounts of data are increasing rapidly. It takes too much time to fetch them and store on the local disk and write them back after processing. Additional problem is that providing necessary power to process this data to every single engineer is just too expensive. The resources must be shared. These factors lead to conclusion that it might be easier to let the data on server, or just copy them over a fast connection from the file server to the grid of computing servers, which cost less than the certain number of workstation and can be used more efficient. So the only data connection, which is required is a remote display, which let the engineer start the jobs and see the results. X11 has network transparency build in, but the protocol is not very efficient for WAN connections, so better optimized solutions would be Citrix ICA connection. A free solution is e.g. VNC. Another important point is that Citrix clients are available for Windows, MacOSX, Solaris and Linux, so the OS on engineer's desktop is completely independent from the OS being used on the server. Additionally it is possible to share a connection, that means it is possible to see what another Citrix user is doing, that is very nice for solving problems or providing online training. One solution is to provide an inexpensive terminal with slim Linux distribution, which can run Citrix client and possibly RDP protocol to connect to a Windows server, so the user can use software from both worlds. All the production data is stored on UNIX server, all other data on Windows.
Flexibility means for the engineer two things. Being flexible means not only to work on the technical side on the project, but also contribute more, than just processing the data. Today the engineer must write the documentation, meet the international customers and held presentation about the project status, provide training, fill-out various web-based forms, like timecards or expense reports, attend webinars, telephone and video conferences, communicate with other project teams on various channels. He receives several dozens mails a day from colleagues, mailing lists and customers, works on different projects at the same time, and must always learn new things. He is responsible not only for the project itself, but also for the pre- and post-sales support. Another aspect of flexibility means, that the engineer is not longer bound to his office. Lot of companies do offer possibility to work from home, either because they want to be seen as family-friendly, or just want to avoid expensive offices. Some companies do not have enough space for all the employes, so they come to the office only twice a week. During critical project stages the engineer must have possibility to look at the data without making long way to the office. During customer visits he must have lot of data available to be prepared for every question the customer may ask. To fulfill all these demands the engineer must use a notebook with a OS which helps him organize all the data, which are project related, but which are not production data.
So the combination of these two trends shows that the ideal platform for a nowadays engineer is a notebook with a modern desktop OS, installed VPN and Citrix or VNC client. He can connect it to a broadband connection and have access to the server for working on project data or use the applications of the notebook OS for all the communication and office related work.
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