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Autodesk University 2011, Part 2: The Promise of the Cloud

8 Dec, 2011 By: Cyrena Respini-Irwin

In one of several Innovation Forums, speakers, panelists, and attendees discuss practical applications of the trendy technology.

The Innovation Forums, a new element in the educational lineup at Autodesk University 2011 in Las Vegas, Nevada, last week, comprised a half-dozen sessions that featured speakers, panel discussions, and other formats to explore technology trends including sustainable design and building information modeling. "The Promise of the Cloud — The Implications of Virtually Infinite Computing for Your Industry," even employed audience polling devices to create on-the-spot graphs illustrating participants' understanding of, and attitudes toward, cloud-based technology.

James Staten, principal analyst at Forrester Research, started with the basics: What is a cloud, exactly? What differentiates it from other web services? Staten defined a cloud as a standardized technology capability delivered in a pay-per-use, self-service manner. It's the same for all users; you have to take it or leave it. In addition, you never own it, you only rent it; you can consume it with your current skill set, without additional training; and you can get started in 15 minutes or less (otherwise, it's probably not standardized, and therefore not a cloud service).

Staten went on to dispel a few myths about the cloud:

  • The cloud is just another name for outsourcing. To the contrary, Staten maintained that enterprises can and do use clouds for entirely internal purposes. The U.S. Army, for example, relies on an extremely compute-intensive application that determines optimal troop positions in the field. Instead of estimating the size of the data center needed to house the thousands of servers this program requires, the Army can test it in the cloud to determine the exact size of data center to build.
  • The cloud is the future of everything. Much more likely, said Staten, is a model that combines traditional and cloud approaches.
  • The cloud always saves you money. The cloud is only cheaper when you use it right, just as there are some situations where it's smarter to rent a car, and others where it's better to buy one. The keys to benefiting, Staten explained, are elasticity and transiency. That means the cloud is more appropriate for discrete tasks (such as rendering and simulation) than ongoing operations.
  • The cloud is not secure. According to Staten, cloud providers are heavily invested in security, for reasons including public exposure (everyone notices if there's a problem), user demands for audits and certifications, and multitenancy — that is, if you're handling data from two potential competitors side by side, encryption is essential. Staten added that users also have a responsibility to control access and use the cloud securely.

Staten advised those companies on the cusp of cloud adoption to start by building a team of their most innovative thinkers to determine how to best serve customers while activating cloud economics. Then they should start small, validating business use and verifying security before proceeding further.

Autodesk has its own views on the subject, having rolled out Autodesk Cloud in September. Andrew Anagnost, Autodesk vice-president of suites and web services, dismissed security concerns, saying, "Not only is your data safe, but the infrastructure you rely on is getting more and more reliable."

Anagnost highlighted several areas where he believes the cloud can make a significant difference right now:

  • Collaboration. The cloud can make large datasets mobile and sharable. "It's hard to share big data, especially if that data is changing constantly," he observed.
  • Compute-intensive tasks such as simulation. Anagnost urged the audience to perform more simulations, for example, and "let the cloud tell you which [option] is the best one."
  • High-value content. The cloud is a means to provide users with the latest and greatest content: "When you combine the crowd and the cloud, you can curate and validate content," he said.

Andrew Anagnost, Autodesk vice-president of suites and web services, told Innovation Forum attendees that the cloud can give users access to the "latest and greatest" content, regardless of where it resides. Image courtesy of Autodesk.

A panel of users rounded out the session by sharing their experiences and opinions. "Once people get used to computing as a service ... it's just going to explode," said Sony Engineering Manager Roger Corn. "Having all that raw computing power available lets you think outside the box and solve problems in new ways."

Greyson Lum, a principal facility designer for Disney, explained that his company made its first forays into the cloud with AutoCAD WS and small-scale projects. He values the ability to have globally dispersed employees collaborate on drawings in real time: "It allows everybody to participate, regardless of location."

Lum advised the audience to start small and expand their reliance on the cloud exponentially — if they determine it's appropriate. "Eventually, everyone is going to be using it, but maybe it's not right for you at this time."

Ken Young, senior vice-president and CIO of global architectural firm HOK, advised, "Look for a problem that's causing some pain and give [the cloud] a good test — but have an exit strategy."

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