Digital Partnering for Digital Twinning

A key takeaway of the Year in Infrastructure 2020 Conference is the expanding partnership between Microsoft and Bentley Systems, a harbinger of things to come for AEC industries.

By Gavin Schrock
By Gavin Schrock

Consulting Editor | AEC

Bentley Systems’ annual conference and awards event, the Year in Infrastructure, held October 20-21, 2020 was (no surprise) completely virtually. This is the year of virtualization by necessity. Necessity in so many aspects of our industries (and daily lives) has led to an acceleration in trends that were already well under way. In AEC, continued partnering by large geospatial/AEC vendors was highlighted in the Year in Infrastructure 2020 keynote. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella joined Bentley Systems CEO Greg Bentley in a conversational segment of the kickoff keynote.

Bentley and Nadella share a digital stage

Coming off a recent, very successful IPO (of limited stock), Greg Bentley’s trademark upbeat keynote emphasized on one particular development – “The news of the day is indeed our new top-level strategic alliance with Microsoft. It involves a number of initiatives, both for technical cooperation and going to market cooperatively.”

Virtual keynote for the Year in Infrastructure 2020 with Bentley CEO Greg Bentley and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella

The partnership between Bentley and Microsoft has been growing for many years, as has partnerships between these tech giants and other AEC vendors. But there are aspects of this particular partnership that are focused directly on AEC industry specifics the likes of which we are only beginning to see. Microsoft, and its Azure sub-brand are no longer simply a platform to host your files and software. Developments like Azure IoT, Azure Maps, and Azure Digital Twins bring more to the AEC table than just huge server farms.

The unrelenting global demands for infrastructure development and upgrades will not be possible to meet without further digitalization of workflows and remote collaboration. A geospatial/AEC vendor could choose to try to develop the IT end on their own, and IT vendors, like Microsoft could try to get into the weeds of AEC, but thankfully they have not chosen to do so. We see other partnerships in AEC where there is a mutual recognition of respective strengths and weaknesses. This is driven by the realization that no single geospatial/AEC vendor could ever hope to offer a complete solution for planning, design, construction, and operations. And in reality, you will seldom find a large infrastructure project done completely within one vendor’s ecosystem. Strategic partnerships like Esri and Autodesk bridging GIS-BIM, Bentley and Topcon Positioning Systems in constuctioneering are filling in gaps in the digitalization puzzle. For Bentley and Microsoft the mutual prize presently is digital twinning.

“Wherever computing is getting embedded in the physical world, requiring digital twinning capability, or the openness of the data ecosystem around it, we can then create the insights,” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella during the Year in Infrastructure 2020 keynote. “So, that is why I think this is super exciting for us to really partner deeply with you [Bentley] to bring the full modern technology stack from us. So that you can then build on it all the domain depth that you have across all of these areas.”

Lessons of 2020

Nadella also noted that the events of 2020 brought such matters to bear much more rapidly. “2020, the year we all went remote,” said Nadella. “It’s the most at-scale experiment we’ve ever run, in being able to do remote work—or remote everything.”

This acceleration in digitalization has meant an immediacy in learning new skills. “Another element is learning; very important for us to make sure that learning is built into the workflow itself,” said Nadella. ‘It’s not something that is exogenous, but while you’re working, the modules that will help you actually upskill and reskill are right there.”

The digital twinning prize

Just what will this newly announced expanded alliance bring? Greg Bentley reflected on past successes in collaboration, and provided an example from the current realm of Digital Twins: “One of our initiatives together has to do with city-scale Digital Twins, and of course, Bentley systems was your [Microsoft’s] CityNext Partner of the Year in 2018, 2019, and 2020,” he pointed out. “We kicked off something interesting in Dublin [Ireland]. There, they don’t want to wait on improving their infrastructure, [and they are seeking more efficient ways] to get their citizens together for the [public] engagement that they like to have, in concurring on their improvement plans. So, between [Microsoft] Teams and our OpenCities Planner, we have an interesting start to how that can be more collaborative and more effective in connecting digital input to the physical plans.”

I think, this entire idea of having a Digital Twin at city-scale, the planning capability, and the simulation capabilities is fantastic
Satya Nadella
CEO, Microsoft

“I think, this entire idea of having a Digital Twin at city-scale, the planning capability, and the simulation capabilities is fantastic,” said Nadella. “And I think that it just speaks to the power of what you [Bentley] do, coming together with all of our platform capabilities to have a very transformative impact.”  He again touched on lessons that the eventful year of 2020 has taught, “What this pandemic has taught us is that digital infrastructure, digital investments that organizations such as cities or corporations have made, have been key to their ability to continue operations.”

Bentley addressed directly one of the key strategic goals for this partnership with Microsoft. “In our partnership, we don’t want to have Bentley systems do anything that we can rely on Microsoft as our partner to provide us. It’s just ingrained in us that whatever we can employ that Microsoft makes available through various technologies, and now your Digital Twin services,  along with everything else — with Teams especially — we absolutely want to partner shoulder to shoulder.”

Drilling deeper into the partnership

To seek more insights on what this expanded alliance might bring, we spoke with Tony Shakib, Microsoft General Manager/Partner Microsoft Azure IoT, and Jerry King, Bentley Systems Vice President, Strategic Channel.

“Bentley has been a Microsoft partner, since the day that Bentley started. All the way back to the founding of the company, we’ve been developing on the Microsoft platform. It just evolved from DOS to Windows, to Windows Server, and now to Azure,” says King. “This strategic alliance sets up a framework for us to mutually identify a set of initiatives that we want to work on together that are important to both companies.”

Other collaboration will continue, as it always has. But this framework gives the ability to home in on a few things that both firms wish to accelerate, specifically around the integration of AI, IoT, and Digital Twins with Microsoft Azure services. And another initiative around Bentley’s ProjectWise 365 Cloud-based collaboration application. Bentley, which does very well globally in the large-firm AEC market, hopes to further leverage the Microsoft commercial marketplace in order to extend their reach to smaller, and mid-sized organizations for that offering.

“Microsoft is a big company. We have a lot of different technologies and assets,” says Shakib. “Bentley is a fantastic partner that we’ve been working together with for a long time. The new things that we really are announcing have a lot to do with the rich set of new Cloud services that we’ve been developing — we’re bringing an integrated offer together with them. This is to make it easier for customers, large and small, to use.  Whether it is ProjectWise 365, an application, or a digital city that is running on Azure Cloud services.”

Now, applications can be made available anywhere around the globe, for any infrastructure project that wants to, or that's required to, go digital
Tony Shakib
Microsoft General Manager/Partner Microsoft Azure IoT

“Now, applications can be made available anywhere around the globe, for any infrastructure project that wants to, or that’s required to, go digital,” says Shakib. “For the smaller to medium types of customers with a lot of enabled AI applications, Cloud platforms and services makes it so much more widely available, more accessible, more cost effective. “

“We’re really excited to jointly build a market, because at the end of the day, we have the underlying technology, and Bentley has the applications,” said Shakib. “Together — that is right together — they get the best of both without having to build everything from ground up. Not spending months or years to put all the pieces together. Now it is pre integrated, and when you go to market you don’t even know which element comes from where.  Whether you use HoloLens 2, whether you are using this or that end application, we just make it all work and make it simple.”

Applications and platforms

One way to view this partnership would be to couch it as “one has the application, the other has the platform.” But the Microsoft platform is now offering more than just a Cloud space. For instance, there is Azure Maps. How does that differ from Bing Maps? It is more about the value-added features, on top of the images. King explains from the Bentley point of view: “We’ve been providing access to Bing Maps for many years [in our applications]. Because engineers, infrastructure planners, city planners, they like to think about their projects in the context of where it is going to be built on the face of the earth,” says King. “Most of our customers are using aerial imagery as part of their project planning process.

Jerry King, Bentley Systems Vice President, Strategic Channel

“Azure Maps is a new set of Cloud services from Microsoft that is really targeted at developers like Bentley; you could say Bing Maps is more of a consumer service,” says Shakib. “Azure Maps initially did just some of the same things we’ve been doing for many years. However, Azure maps brings in additional services that we didn’t have access to before that we can envision leveraging as part of, for instance, applications for city planners, where now your maps now can bring in transit data, bring in weather data, bring in things that developers didn’t have ready access to before.”

King says, “I don’t want to say it is a replacement for Bing Maps. I think every application at Bentley that uses Bing Maps today will simply have another option to use Azure Maps. One of the things that we’re really excited about in Azure Maps is the private maps, because many of the large infrastructure players, want to be able to have a very sophisticated mapping capability, wherever they are around the globe, but when it gets into their private facilities, they want to keep that data private and for themselves.”

“We have all these powerful partnerships that also bring satellite data, weather information, transit information, and more,” adds Shakib. “And we bring this blended all together in a very comprehensive way and keep the public piece public and the private piece private. So, it is really a win-win situation. It is a unique capability, that together with Bentley, we can now offer to our customers.”

When it comes to the Bentley integrations, this speaks directly to Digital Twins, like for a utility, having sensor data, like SCADA, as real-time feedback for the twin. But what does Microsoft’s IoT and IoT Edge provide beyond pushing raw observation data into the Bentley product?

“IoT, at the end of the day is all about global connectivity, and management of potentially thousands of devices in a very secure fashion, and ingesting the data from them,” says Shakib. “What Bentley has done with IoT Hub and IoT Edge is effectively an elastic hybrid architecture, to be able to connect to all these things in the Cloud. We make it very easy for them, where all the sophisticated workloads, or AI algorithms, or scoring algorithms can be developed in the Cloud — with unlimited compute and storage.”

“The second layer is really this whole concept of Azure Digital Twins, which is very sophisticated,” says King. “The Azure Digital Twins knowledge graph, allows us to not only manage all these entities, but every one of these edge devices, from which we can create this relational graph.” Shakib adds. “That has the relationship between devices, people and the environment, and the things they are changing, in real time. This makes it a lot easier for upper layer applications, such as Bentley, to be able to do real time simulations and algorithmic work. These layers, we have pre-integrated together as part of the end-product that the customer gets. It is very flexible. We can run on this distributed, virtual architecture, and on the edge, whether it’s a 5G edge, whether it’s a thin edge or thick edge, or anything that you want to do in the Cloud.”

For Bentley and Microsoft, this expanded partnership aims to accelerate digital twinning, 4D construction IoT, and AI for infrastructure

The integration with Azure Digital Twins is still in preview but should be general availability later this year; Bentley has been following it closely, working together with Microsoft. When Bentley’s iTwins surfaced, several years ago, it did not yet leverage Azure Digital Twins the way it can now.

While this announcement, of expanded collaboration is a beginning of joint development, and the initiatives to come have not been fully outlined, it is the beginning of this framework under which Microsoft and Bentley can jointly identify what they want to mutually develop. This partnership implies no kind of exclusivity in Microsoft’s development partnerships, but in the AEC space, this collaboration with Bentley starts with a deep mutual pool of applications and services, on both sides, ripe for joint development. King and Shakib say they have several projects already identified, and that is going to keep them busy. But you can expect much more to come under the auspices of this strategic alliance in the future.

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