Published 28 July 2010
Posted by Martyn Day
As a magazine that primarily deals with software developers, the last year has seen pretty much all the main protagonists come out with some statement or demonstration of how their products could work on the cloud. Companies, such as Autodesk, are actively trialling CAD solutions which run over the web from a central server, as well as rendering, simulation and document view and mark-up applications. Dassault Systems, SolidWorks (a DS company) and Siemens PLM (now renamed Siemens Industry Software) are all due to launch commercial cloud applications later this year. So, in design, the Cloud hype is soon to become a reality.
However, perhaps all is not well in the world of cloud-based computing, with some suggesting that customers are not ready for this and the technology is not proven for reliability. Having watched the ‘Tweets’ coming from SolidWorks World attendees, one could watch an arc of euphoria as future cloud technology was demonstrated, followed by a generic feeling of hangover as customers appeared to question if they really wanted to work over a web connection. These customers, it seems, are joined with the developer of Pro/Engineer, PTC. I recently was contacted by Brian Shepherd, Executive Vice President, Product Development who wanted to go on record as to how PTC saw all this talk of cloudy futures for CAD.
PTC already has a cloud application, its Windchill PLM solution is and has been available as an online service through partners such as IBM for a number of years. However, the firm is concerned at the level of hype around running CAD on the cloud.
Shepherd explained, “We are agnostic around the cloud. We don’t feel the need to, or think we should be championing CAD on the cloud to our customers. With our conversations with customers, they have not identified a problem that cloud delivery of CAD would address. To be clear, we are not anti-cloud. Areas such as grid computing around CAE is interesting, and can make some sense but there just hasn’t been the demand for CAD on the cloud.”
“Today we don’t sense that kind of overwhelming desire or drive for this. We are not listening to analysts, or to cloud providers and trying not to get distracted by hype. We are just trying to address the real problems. Customers are not saying they have problems with deployment or scaleable infrastructure. Our focus for the future of CAD is around ‘Project Lightning’ which addresses usability, interoperability and assembly management.” (Project Lightning is PTC’s vision and strategy to define the next 20 years of CAD and can be read about here )
So, while PTC can see PLM as a cloud service and potentially for CAE analysis, when it comes to modelling over the cloud, Shepherd appeared at a loss as to what the benefit would be.
He continued, “Will CAD be faster on the cloud than it is on the desktop? Maybe for CAE that could be true but for CAD that might not be true, which is a surely a step backwards In fact, cloud computing in CAD sounds like a solution in search of a problem today.”
“We are not trying to get distracted by all this hype. It seems to me that our competitors aren’t exactly sure what the cloud is actually good for but they sure are worried about it. The value proposition of the benefit of CAD in the cloud has not been articulated well by them or anyone today, and that’s the definition of hype.”
While this may well be true, the advantages to having all the software on the vendor’s servers surely puts the CAD developer in the driving seat? I asked Shepherd if he thought this was more for the CAD developer’s advantage than the customer’s.
“I suppose it depends on how the cloud is deployed,” replied Shepherd. “Having a cloud-based system would enable very close tracking of usage and help stop piracy but a lot of customers would want their own systems provider, such as IBM and Google. I don’t think CAD companies are best placed to provide that level of service and infrastructure. PTC certainly has no plans to get into that infrastructure business.”
“Maybe our competition have different customers to us but this conversation simply does not happen when we talk to our customers. We are not in the hype business we are in the business of solving real customer problems. And when the cloud solves real business problems for customers then we will happily embrace it. It’s not a technology issue but we will not pursue cloud for cloud sake and we are not going to jump on a hype bandwagon because everyone else is - it’s not in our DNA.”
It’s at this point that I could not help raise PTC’s previous critical error of not recognising the importance of the move of 3D modelling to the Windows platform, with the damage that the highly competitive SolidWorks did to the company’s Pro/Engineer installed base. At the time, PTC just didn’t see the popularity of Windows as an issue. A decision which the company took many years to recover from. Doesn’t the move to the cloud mirror the dangers of the move to Windows?
Shepherd responded, “I think it’s a fair question. At the root of these technology evolutions is the question, what problem does this solve? You could argue that the move from UNIX to Windows was about user-interface and helped to address a usability issue around familiarity, which is important. CAD systems in the 90s were too hard to use and needed to be more familiar and more office like in their appearance and use. That was a point in time where a technology evolution was linked to an express customer business problem.
“What are the issues that moving CAD on the cloud addresses? What’s the impact of performance in offering CAD on the cloud? Is it faster? What about information security? Customers are very wary about putting their company jewels, their designs, on the public Internet. That might be an emotional concern than a technical or practical concern but it’s a concern none the less. You misplace one set of drawings or models for a new product and that could mean hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.”
PTC obviously doesn’t see a move to cloud-based CAD as an extinction level event, as both Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk and Jeff Ray, CEO of SolidWorks have told us they believe it could be.
However, PTC has managed to move its PLM product, Windchill into the cloud. While from the outside its success in terms of popularity appears mixed, Shepherd explained that with over 100 customers opting to use it, it does appeal to small to mid-sized companies that don’t already have large IT infrastructures.
“Where we have been talking with customers around the cloud, are issues around PLM deployment. At least here, we can articulate some of the benefits of PLM on the cloud; the high degree of scalability and quick time of deployment and installation are certainly interesting to some customers. However, we don’t see it as a different product, it’s just a different deployment of Windchill and we don’t really market deployment options, we market Windchill and then we talk about deployment after the decision is made. We are pro customer choice. If customers want to deploy it locally on a server, on a private cloud or a public cloud, we can do that.”
One would have to think that PTC, having been badly hurt by being slow to move to Windows, would be acutely aware of any up and coming threat. As Shepherd explained, in CAE and PLM the cloud has its place and is promising but running CAD over the cloud to them makes little sense and their customers are not asking for it.
Shepherd summed up the state of play by saying, “Towards the end of this year it will be fun times in the mechanical CAD industry again as we will have some fairly disparate points of view, after what seems to have been a decade of following essentially the ground that Pro/Engineer filled, the parametric modelling approach. The market will decide. “