Design forecast: CAD in the cloud

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Without the design and engineering community really asking for it, we appear to be on the cusp of a major change in the way we gain access and use computer aided design technology. Martyn Day investigates
This year’s hot topic in the world of design software has been ‘the cloud’. For those not up on the scuttlebutt, most software houses appear to be falling over themselves to develop products and services which can be delivered to your desktop via the Internet. True ‘cloud’ products don’t arrive on a disc in a cardboard box, they are remotely streamed, run through a browser or are partially downloaded; they are on-demand and hosted on huge server farms around the world and require little local processing.

Have no doubts, this will lead to a big change in how we buy, access and use design tools.

When it rains it pours? Backed by many of the major software developers we could soon be flooded by cloud-based CAD applications

While talking with Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk, he explained how he sees the move to cloud-based applications as a possible ‘extinction level event’ in computing. Looking back many large software firms that were big in the days of DOS fell from grace when we moved to Windows and new firms came to the fore. Bass noted that Autodesk was almost one of those, producing R13, a disastrous first true Windows version of AutoCAD.

He is convinced that the increasing prevalence of cloud applications will again be a hurdle for CAD developers to jump and not all are guaranteed to make it. Bass isn’t alone in this thinking, the same mindset has been exposed in conversations with Jeff Ray, CEO of SolidWorks and Bernard Charlès, CEO of Dassault Systèmes. All of which are actively porting their well-known brands into the cloud. There is a belief that the company to get there first, with the right technology, will have commercial advantage.

As an engineer or architect reading all this, I would not blame you for wondering what any of this has to do with benefiting the real world? In fact, it’s worrying as the necessity of having a fat internet connection to do your job sounds completely unappealing and a retrograde step. This is like back to the future, 1970s client-server architectures, but instead of LAN you’ll be relying on public networks

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Cloudy benefits

Given that some pretty fundamental current technology problems can be overcome, there appear to be a number of benefits for customers:
• The processing power available at these server farms means near instant analysis and rendering results.
• Agility, in that all engineering software will be immediately accessible, everywhere.
• Managing and installing CAD software or updates across an enterprise is no longer an issue.
• Design data is hosted remotely, accessible anywhere.
• Software will run on any platform that has a browser.
• Cost savings in reducing the need for expensive hardware purchases.
• Unlimited storage.
• Increased mobility for employees.

However there are intrinsic benefits for the software developers too:
• Piracy is difficult when software is never sent outside the company.
• Subscription becomes mandatory, smoothing revenues.
• The software vendor can identify and deal directly with all active users.
• Dealer and distribution channels move to servicing clients rather than selling and taking a % of sales.
• The need to develop for multiple operating systems reduces.
• There’s extra money to be made selling processing time for quicker results.
• With huge processing resources, developers can offer powerful new analysis tools to the masses.
• An increased potential to take market share.
• Support can be centralised.

So while there are benefits for the software developers, there are some upsides for customers too, though most of these are more easily identified at the enterprise level of business. For a designer the easiest advantage to identify is the speed of analysis but there are still fundamental worries about reliability or service, required bandwidth and the need for the umbilical attachment to the internet to do your job.

Delivery

While you may read PC magazines which state that these cloud applications are some way off, think again. In some industries they are already here and incredibly popular, Salesforce.com, the Customer Relationship Management (CRM) company, springs to mind. CAD applications are a little more tricky than a CRM application, as they need fast 3D graphics. However, this year that problem already looks to be a null point with companies like onlive.com offering high-resolution real-time access to server-hosted games. Onlive compresses the graphics and squirts that down the Internet to a thin client giving frame rates of up to 30 frames per second, all this while taking the mouse and keyboard commands back from the client machine to control the game. If it takes off, who ever needs to buy a console again?

To some extent, the cloud is already here. But CAD isn’t a poor cousin; there are already mature, cloud-based applications available. Since 2005, PTC has offered ‘PLM On Demand’ in conjunction with IBM, which provides Windchill engineering document management via the web. This year Autodesk launched its first cloud-application, Autodesk Homestyler, in the USA, formerly Project Dragonfly, the software allows the creation of pseudo-3D housing floorplans with the ability to add interior decoration.

In terms of professional graphics-intensive cloud applications, you don’t have to look far to see what’s coming. Autodesk has multiple cloud applications under test on its Labs website and at this year’s SolidWorks World we were shown SolidWorks running on an Apple Macintosh via the cloud. The company’s CEO, Jeff Ray, has also stated that it will be launching a cloud-based application later this year (I am expecting this any month now). Similarly Siemens PLM Software recently gave a demonstration of its high-end NX application running on an Apple iPad! Expect to see more cloud applications and services start to be included in the main mix of offerings from the key CAD vendors from this month onwards.

Doubt

With the software developers running to compete with one another to launch themselves into the cloud, the interesting role we have had is watching the bemusement of many engineers by all this activity. A case in point was the ‘Twitter’ reaction to SolidWorks’ demonstration of its cloud technology at SolidWorks World. After the initial elation at seeing some very cool technology, delegates then started to wonder if they really needed this and what the implications would be for their jobs. It really did appear to be more of a hangover than euphoria, which I assume was not the intended response.

The current downsides are very obvious. Internet connections go down or degrade to snails pace. What happens then? Do you really want your data stored on a public server? What happens if everything becomes a micro-payment- pay as you go CAD? What happens if you stop subscribing, how can you see your data? And I get the feeling that nobody really wants to give up control.

PTC

From talking with all the key software vendors on this issue, there is only one voice of caution and that’s Boston-based PTC, developer of Pro/Engineer and Windchill, amongst many others. Brian Shepherd, executive vice president, product development, wanted to go on record as to how PTC saw all this talk of the cloud and CAD as hype. He 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.”

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.”

“Maybe our competition have different customers to us but this conversation simply does not happen when we talk to our customers.”
While PTC’s stance certainly seems to make sense, my main fear is that the company, like Autodesk, almost dropped the ball when the engineering market moved to Windows. PTC ignored SolidWorks and Windows and it almost got eaten alive. PLM On-demand was certainly released ahead of the curve and perhaps the low take up of that product has clouded the company’s view of the potential demand. Certainly, I could not find a similar opinion at any of the other vendors I talked to.

Siemens PLM Software

This summer Siemens PLM issued press releases showing its first moves into the cloud. The company is porting its Tecnomatix DPV Quality software onto Windows Azure Platform to deliver quality management via the cloud which will offer a ‘closed loop’ management and analysis process with its Teamcenter database. It has also demonstrated NX on the Apple iPad and has announced plans to deliver cloud-enabled viewing tools of its popular JT 3D format with Microsoft.

To find out more, I talked ‘cloud’ with Eric Sterling, senior vice president of global marketing. He said, “We see the cloud as an emerging place to do business and while there are social and process questions that everyone is asking about, we are looking for business processes where using the cloud to deliver value makes sense. For every instance we are evaluating the business and process benefit. For the Tecnomatix DPV announcement, there is a great customer benefit, getting information from plant floors and bringing that to a central location. It’s efficient, fast and enhances the process.”

When it comes to the broader question of CAD applications, like NX and Solid Edge, Sterling was more open minded, stating that the benefits still remain to be seen but he could see ‘internal clouds’- private networks inside companies as being of value, especially for users of Teamcenter. On the issue of NX and Solid Edge, a lot of the work appears to have been done, the iPad demonstration a case in point. However, Sterling told me Siemens PLM Software recognises that customers are still questioning the benefits and have similarly yet to hear a clamour for cloud-based design tools. I asked what if Autodesk and Dassault Systèmes were to hit the market running with their forthcoming cloud-applications? Sterling replied, “We are prepared.”

Autodesk

I’ve saved the two most aggressive cloud-envisioned companies till last. Autodesk has no pretensions as to where it thinks technology is heading, on a recent visit to Autodesk Labs I counted no less than nine cloud-based applications on trial:

• 2D/3D Share Now – for sharing files on the web via the Freewheel DWF server.
• Project Bluestreak – a web-based collaboration environment.
• Project Butterfly – a web-based review and mark-up tool.
• Project Freewheel – a DWF server.
• Project Neon – cloud-based rendering.
• Project Photofly – turns 2D photographs into a 3D model.
• Project Showroom- view and edit photorealistic scenes in real time.
• Inventor Optimization- a cloud-based design optimisation program.

The final demonstration was Project Twitch, which uses onlive’s video compression technology (Autodesk is an investor) to deliver live sessions of AutoCAD, Maya, 3ds Max, Revit Architecture and Inventor over the Internet. If this works and it goes live, then Autodesk is ready to deliver its key applications via the cloud anytime it sees fit.
Behind the scenes and outside of labs, Autodesk is undertaking a massive rewriting of all its code to be less reliant on Windows and more cloud-deployable. There is already a Mac version of AutoCAD in the works and other key applications may follow.

In a recent conversation with Brian Mathews, vice president of Autodesk Labs, he explained how the key benefit of cloud-computing is being missed. In the current pricing, it costs the same to ‘hire’ 10,000 processors for an hour, as it does to hire one for 10,000 hours. So for the same price, you get an instant solution to your analysis problem. It’s a no-brainer, as they say.

Because of this, CEO Carl Bass believes that the move to the cloud is inevitable, both for mainstream applications and high-end CAD, behind and in front of a firewall. Bass also sees private clouds are becoming a reality as everyone’s data is being moved to datastores, the success of Salesforce.com and Google shows that mindsets about data and applications have changed.

Bass made an important analogy as to where the cloud is today and where he believes it will go, “I think most of the (negative) noise about cloud apps is misplaced – it’s like looking at a (Intel) 286 and saying it will never replace SGI and Sun workstations. We all know what happened there.”

Dassault Systèmes

I first realised Dassault Systèmes was looking to deliver its flagship Catia modelling tool on the web when I interviewed the company CEO, Bernard Charlès in 2008. Then Charlès said, “The web isn’t only the future, it’s the present – we live in a connected world. It’s an enabling technology for so many things and a foundation for many fundamental business processes, like PLM 2.0…. There’s a big move to software as a service and we believe it will be important to offer our tools on demand too. We are doing a lot of research as to how we can make this possible.”

At this year’s recent SWYM conference in Paris, it was obvious that Dassault Systèmes is on the cusp of delivering some serious web-based applications and as owner of SolidWorks, this now appears to be a company-wide strategy, with the previously mentioned SolidWorks demonstration.

From reading between the lines, it seems that Enovia – the company’s collaborative PLM database – has been built-into the core of its applications and through a cloud-based service can connect multiple users to a single model. Here, a lightweight user-interface of Catia (and even SolidWorks) could be downloaded with the CAD data kept on the web. Access to the multitude of powerful engineering analysis applications could also be hosted and delivered on-demand.

Dassault Systèmes has been keen on this vision for years. Back in 2008, Charlès said, “The next big thing for AEC [Architecture Engineering Construction] will be a new type of on-line application for 3D design in architecture. The 3D processes in that industry are far behind and I believe it will change and it will happen online.” The benefit of a web-based AEC application for Dassault is that it doesn’t have an AEC sales channel, going online will bypass this problem and for this to work, Catia needs to be a cloud-based application. I don’t think we have long to wait to see more detail on this.

Dassault Systèmes is gunning for Autodesk, not only in MCAD but soon also in AEC. For Dassault, the cloud levels the playing field and gives potential access to its competitor’s customers via a web browser.

Conclusion

Despite current limitations, the overwhelming feedback is that you will see commercial design-applications arrive via the cloud this year, increasing dramatically over the next five. Analysis and rendering is the sweet spot at the start, to make use of all those server-farm processors but core cloud-based design-applications are coming fairly soon, as we move to a more on-demand model of computer usage.


Martyn Day predicts that design is about to feel the winds of change