Mobile CAD, the Cloud, and Management Mayhem25 Apr, 2012 By: Robert Green
Will the big changes in store wreak havoc with your workflows? They don't have to, if you keep a few basic principles in mind.
In issues 277 and 278 of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, I explored some of the trends associated with using CAD files on mobile devices (such as tablets and smartphones). The topic has proved to be a popular one; I've received a lot of comments, questions, and opinions on the subject.
In this issue, we'll explore the managerial uncertainty that mobile CAD and cloud implementations will bring us by responding to some reader feedback on the issues. Here goes.
A Cloud Is Integral
One e-mail I received asked this question:
"Does mobile CAD mean that all my CAD information must be on the cloud?"
While this question is open to interpretation, I'll say that for mobile CAD to work, at least some of our companies' CAD information must be available via an easily accessible Internet location. This statement prompts two related questions:
- Does this mean that all project models, drawings, and calculations need to be available online?
- Does this mean that the company must provide its mobile employees with the capability to view models, drawings, and pertinent design information via mobile devices?
The answers are No and Yes, respectively.
The unstated assumption in using mobile CAD devices is that the user will easily be able to find the CAD files (or other supporting files) that they need. This almost certainly means that the mobile device will pull required information from a server-based information repository — most probably a cloud server. (Let's not be too specific yet about where the cloud server is located; we'll tackle that in the "Public Cloud or Private Cloud" section.)
Remote tasks, however, such as marking up construction drawings, don't require putting an entire building information modeling (BIM) model online, but rather just the construction documents that need to be marked up. The point is that mobile CAD doesn’t necessarily mean that all files are made available to all mobile workers.
File Management Mayhem
Another reader voiced this concern:
"I don't want to think about the management hassle that mobile CAD is going to be!"
Pondering what cloud-based mobile CAD could mean in terms of file management is enough to cause insomnia, but this approach may cause you fewer headaches than you expect. Consider the following scenario:
A mobile worker downloads project files onto a tablet and proceeds to mark them up and/or edit the files in some way. The worker never tells the project team at the central office, so nobody knows what changes have been made.
The natural result of this scenario is that parallel revisioning (two groups of workers making changes to two increasingly divergent sets of master CAD files) begins, and loss of project control quickly takes root. Conversely, if the mobile worker had created markups and changes in a cloud-style work environment, there would be only one master CAD file, and everyone would know what changes had been made.
So in this case, we can make the argument that a cloud-style work topology actually prevents mayhem.
Does Security Kill Mobile CAD?
I've received a number of e-mails from readers saying, essentially:
"All this mobile CAD/cloud stuff will never happen in our office, because we only store files on our own servers."
The users who responded in this manner are employed by hospitals, government agencies, military bases, and a variety of private companies as well. Clearly, the perception is that releasing files to a cloud-style environment is the equivalent of not having secure file control.
But is that perception accurate? It depends on what you think the cloud is.
Public Cloud or Private Cloud
There have been some well-documented cases of security problems with cloud file storage providers; last summer's DropBox security breach is one recent example. Given these sorts of security lapses, I can fully understand how companies become anxious about using an external provider to host their sensitive CAD information, or reject the idea altogether.
But who says a cloud has to be controlled by a storage provider? Why not create your own private cloud for file storage?
Most companies have a way for remote workers to log in to the corporate network with secure credentials by using virtual private networking (VPN). In these cases, your mobile workers could access the VPN from their iPad at a job site just as they would from a laptop in a hotel lobby. The private-cloud approach negates security concerns, or at least renders them equal to any other type of remote access.
So will private clouds will become the norm? It's too soon to tell, but for sensitive data the outlook is positive.
The more I think about what mobile computing means for CAD managers, the more I've come to believe the following:
We're in for some big changes. The challenge of having our CAD information more widely available — available to more users, in more places, on more types of devices — is going to change everything. We'll have to put more thought and effort into work processes, security, and file management.
We're becoming IT people. To contend with delivering CAD information to phones and tablets (and their users, who may have no clue about using a CAD program), we'll have to learn new operating systems and apps, and provide technical support for them. We also have to think about remote data security, much as our IT brethren think about internal data security today.
Training will expand. Users with no CAD experience operating on mobile devices will provide a totally new training requirement for CAD managers. As an additional challenge, these users are mobile by definition, so we'll never get them all in one place for training.
We don't know the answers. The reason we don't know the answers is simply that mobile CAD is still in its infancy. And as with any brand-new software/hardware environment, we can expect to see various mobile CAD apps and cloud topologies come and go.
If it seems like understanding how to manage mobile CAD is vexingly complex, that's because it is! But with uncertainty comes the chance to learn new skills, implement new technologies, and solve problems in creative new ways. The best we can do at this time is to explore new apps, keep our eyes on the cloud, and remember that if we don't manage the transition, nobody will.
As new mobile CAD innovations appear, you can be sure I'll keep you updated in future editions of the CAD Manager's Newsletter. Until next time.