CAD Manager's Newsletter (#327)13 Aug, 2014 By: Robert Green
Messages from the ground: What your fellow CAD managers think of the cloud.
In the previous edition of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, we embarked upon a review of how CAD on the cloud has panned out for users and CAD managers alike. If you haven't read it already, you may want to start there in order to have proper context for the conclusions we'll draw in this edition.
In addition to the experiences I've had with clients and vendors, I also invited feedback from all of you via my CAD Managers Unite! Facebook group. In this edition, we'll strive to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a cloud approach to CAD, using those reader comments as a springboard. Here goes.
What Is the Cloud?
Since "the cloud" is not usually defined in concrete terms, it is always instructive to think about what the cloud really is: Is it a new idea, or merely the latest incarnation of an old one? As with most new technologies, drawing historical parallels is a useful way to illustrate how things work. To this end, I loved what Facebook group member Shawn Foster had to say on the subject:
The pendulum swings. It always has, and now we've come back to a version of what we had 25–40 years ago: centralized computing. We spent a whole bunch of the 90s and early 2000s trying to justify the desktop costs, so the processes worked on how fast the desktop could be, how can we get our data to the desktop quickly, how can we write it back faster, how can we cache data ... now the pendulum swings back the other way. That's all the cloud is to me ... a big ol' VAX [a mainframe computer line manufactured by Digital Equipment that was popular in the 70s and 80s] in a centralized location. The difference now is instead of connecting and doing the work in the central location, the central location is 'publishing' a file back to the user's desktop for work in an application.
Even if you have never worked in an old data center environment populated with VAX computers via remote terminals, I can assure you that Shawn is correct in saying we've been here before. The cloud is not a new idea, it is just more universally available now (because of widespread Internet access), and it is faster because our connection speeds are much better than the 1,200-baud dial-up modems we used in the old days.
Conclusion: Whether our move to a centralized cloud will spawn another wave of personal computing devices (think next-generation tablets/smartphones with beefier processors and operating systems) or not is debatable, but history does tend to repeat itself.
Note: Anyone who's interested in learning more about how computing used to work (or who wants to relive the past) should read through this Wikipedia entry explaining VAX computing.
Cloud-Based CAD (SAAS)
Cloud-based software companies have strongly advocated the adoption of software as a service (SAAS) — essentially meaning you rent your software. This idea is not new, but it hasn't gained much traction for the following reasons:
- You don't control your own software.
- Cloud/Internet outages stop work.
- You have no control over the vendor's actions.
Senior management groups I talk with keep telling me they don't want to be dependent on a vendor maintaining all their data — not when they don't own that server, and the vendor might go away at any time. I agree with their concerns wholeheartedly, as do many of you who commented.
Facebook group member Tony Annechino asked a perfectly valid question that is starting to get some attention:
Why does software rental require that the data be stored with the software? Why can't working files be transferred to the renter's servers, with an absolute promise of deletion by the vendor? Vendors could be made to be free of responsibility for backups once the file(s) is/are successfully returned back to the renter.
The software companies are starting to respond to this line of thought by installing applications on the user's local machine, with a licensing agent pinging the cloud server to validate the license. Data can then reside on the user's local network rather than a cloud server.
Conclusion: Given the valid objections to cloud-based software, it is more likely that cloud software vendors will give up and allow their customers to install a local software tool (similar to apps on smartphones) than continue to fight an unwinnable battle.
Cloud Storage and the Security Conundrum
Any data stored on the cloud must be secured against theft or hacking — that much goes without saying. Comments I received on the topic varied in interesting ways that merit exploration.
First, on the topic of data security and access, Facebook group member Osama Sayed Elewa explained how his multibranch global office has approached the problem:
Your baby must be in your own hands! Do not put your data on the public cloud, but if it's a private cloud it's OK. We have been using cloud applications and VPN for Revit Server for almost three years to let other branches open and follow up on our models progressions. We have found render farm clouds (upload specific data then download results with promises of deleting from the vendor) very useful.
So in this case, Mr. Elewa's firm avoids cloud security issues by not using the cloud except for very specific short-term processing tasks where their data is only in the cloud for short periods of time.
Note: This is a consensus opinion, based on the e-mails I received from readers.
A Software Shortcoming Related to Security
Another glaring problem with cloud-based security is the architecture of the cloud software itself. Put another way, does it matter if your network is secure if the software isn't? To this end, long-time Facebook group members Brian Benton and Sona Greenberg spoke of the need to have company control over their Autodesk 360 cloud-based accounts rather than allowing each user to do as they see fit. Here are Mr. Benton's comments:
We have decided to disable Autodesk 360 until there is an enterprise solution for it where the company manages the accounts, not each individual user. The company (us) loses all control of our data in Autodesk 360's current state.
Ms. Greenberg agrees:
"We've also disabled Autodesk 360, for reasons very similar to Brian's. We need a little more control."
There are many features in Autodesk 360 that facilitate file sharing, remote workstation configuration, and even online peer review that are fantastic tools. However, as a CAD manager I simply cannot have 40 users storing different versions of files on all manner of remote machines as they see fit.
Conclusion: Cloud-based CAD software tool adoption will continue to be postponed as long as there is no real mechanism for centralized administration of multiple users. The potential cost of losing control of company data is simply too high to think otherwise.
Skepticism and Legalities
A good number of responses I received alluded to being "pushed into the cloud" by vendors. Steven LaKose stated:
"In my humble opinion, too much is being driven to the cloud, regardless if we want to go there. Some of my clients are prevented by law from hosting drawings on the cloud."
Mr. LaKose's point is right on the mark as many fields, including military contracting and health care, prohibit data sharing outside predefined secure firewalls. If you've ever tried to get on Wi-Fi inside a military contractor facility, you know what I mean.
In addition to the legal issues that Mr. LaKose raises, several readers voiced skepticism, opining that "the cloud" is simply a way for software companies to make more money. A particularly well-worded comment was sent by Wallace Prince, who writes:
The entire cloud model is based upon yet another entity inserting itself into your data chain and extracting the ever-increasing nominal fee, of course. This is just another commercial industry trying to charge you more money for access to your data, as if the high-speed Internet rates you currently pay aren't already enough. Oh, and now you can expect to pay even more if you don't want your high-speed connection 'throttled' by downstream carriers such as Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, etc., thanks to the concerted assault on Net Neutrality.
Mr. Prince makes a valid point about the cloud not being free, as more fees are charged by providers and more Internet access will almost certainly mean more fees for getting to the cloud.
Note: In fairness, the cloud may save money for small enterprises that no longer need servers or onsite IT support.
Speed and Bandwidth
What hasn't changed about the cloud is that to get there, you go through the Internet, in one way or another. Therefore your whole cloud experience is only as good as your Internet connection. This sentiment was perfectly summed up by T.N. from Alabama, who stated:
We're a small fabricating company in Alabama and I can tell you speedy Internet access is a foreign concept here. I wish these software companies would quit looking at the landscape with glazed-over eyes and realize some of us still have to wait 5 minutes or more for a 50-MB file to download. But, that's our problem, I guess.
Add to the bandwidth issues the fact that file sizes keep getting bigger, and the cloud is actually getting slower for many users with slow Internet speeds! I echo T.N.'s comments that the engineers and designers who build today's cloud tools need to leave the high-bandwidth environments of San Francisco, Boston, and Austin to come experience working on the cloud in a small machine shop limping along on DSL, or in a construction trailer with sporadic 4G service.
Note to software companies: The whole world is not equipped with a fast Internet pipe!
Renting CPU Cores
One mode of cloud usage I do see increasing is core rental, where you simply rent a rack-mounted computer at a cloud vendor's site and use it for heavy processing tasks for some short period of time. I received several responses from readers who have been exploring core rental as a valid way to handle heavy CPU load scenarios.
One contradictory opinion came from longtime CAD manager Todd Schuler, who pointed out the following:
You mention renting software and CPU cores but there is one more aspect to renting vs. owning worth mentioning — impact to the budget. I can predict how much I will spend on CAD next year with ownership of software and hardware, not so much when I rent. It is the cell phone use scenario, the more it is used, the more the cost varies. Companies don't like unpredictable budgets.
Mr. Schuler's points are valid. If we become totally dependent on renting hardware (or software) who's to say what will happen to billing plans and rates? How will we know how to budget for next year? Will it all be as confusing as a cell phone bill?
Conclusion: I believe rental of CPU cores will be seen as a valid way to avoid purchasing machines for short-term bursts of work, but I doubt we'll see rental of cloud-based CPUs become the norm anytime soon, for the very reasons Mr. Schuler cited.
Five years after the cloud crept into the CAD lexicon, the term remains ill defined, the technology is not uniformly adopted, and the concept is viewed with skepticism by users and managers alike. I must confess I'm surprised that we're not further along in cloud implementation of CAD, but given the many concerns over security, stability, and control of intellectual property, I guess I shouldn't be.
Perhaps in another five years, all these concerns will be moot and we'll all be on the cloud. Using history as a guide, I remember a conversation I had with an application engineer at GE CALMA who told me that we'd all be working in 3D CAD 100 percent of the time within five years — and that conversation was in 1986. Until next time.
CAD Manager's Toolbox: Handy mouse utility works across multiple machines.
I was at a client site a couple weeks ago when reader Casey King showed me a handy utility called Mouse without Borders — a free download from the Microsoft Garage (an unofficial collection of utilities and tools created by Microsoft employees to test new ideas).
The concept is simple: One mouse can be used across any number of computers, all with multiple screens running virtually any version of Windows, XP or newer. Tasks such as dragging a file from one machine to another no longer require saving to a server or using a USB drive. If you test software on multiple machines or platforms, you'll see the value of this tool right away.
To try this tool for yourself, start by downloading it from the Microsoft Garage and installing it on every machine you want to control.
Note: The same version of Mouse without Borders must be installed on each machine.
After all the installations are complete, connect the machines together using the Machine Setup dialog.
Note: You need to know your network computer names so they can be associated together to track the mouse movement across machines.
Mouse without Borders is a clever application that solves a pesky problem for me. If you work with multiple machines, my guess is that you'll like it as well.
Do you have a question or tip for the CAD Manager's Newsletter? Send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If I use your tip in the newsletter you'll receive a cool Cadalyst prize!
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