Approach Disruptive Technologies with Caution

22 May, 2013 By: Robert Green

Upgrading an operating system or running software from the cloud won't automatically make for better designs — and it might cause trouble.

I love exploring new technology, and you probably do too. If you're like me, you became a CAD manager because learning new software and figuring out how to make it hum was fun and challenging.

But lately, it seems like something's amiss: The new technologies we're being told to adopt are actually making it harder to manage software and users. For that matter, it seems like few of the new tools I have to implement actually help my users create better designs.

Before you call me a Luddite, let me make my case by running through some examples. After each, I will draw a few conclusions from a CAD manager's perspective. Here goes.

Windows 8

After the huge impact of 64-bit Windows 7, which now is almost ubiquitous for modern CAD users, Windows 8 has been a disappointment for me. The touch-sensitive, tile-based interface is snazzy and the new Microsoft Surface and Lenovo ThinkPad tablet computers are easy to travel with and boot in a snap, but at this stage of the game, I see no practical advantage to switchingmainstream CAD users to Windows 8.

The most common reaction I've received when putting Windows 8 in front of a user has been, "Where's my desktop environment?" There's no advantage to have an operating system boot up faster if it appears so foreign that the user can't navigate it effectively. Furthermore, CAD applications currently don't run any better on Windows 8 than they do on Windows 7.

Advice: You may have to support Windows 8 on new devices, but stick with 64-bit Windows 7 on existing workstations.

Cloud File Storage

Cloud file storage isn't a CAD-specific issue, but it is a practice that affects CAD management.

I now walk into offices where I find work files on network servers, Google Drive, Dropbox, iCloud, and even users' phones. It isn't uncommon to find working files in several of these services, as Apple fans tend to use iCloud for phone syncing while Windows users seem to prefer Dropbox.

The obvious questions that come to mind for me (and many IT staff members I work with) are:

  • Should we allow cloud storage of work files?
  • Should we allow users to put phone-specific software on their work machines?
  • How will we sync files to remote sites/users if we don't use these tools?
  • What risks of file loss/theft do we take on with cloud file storage?

These are serious concerns, with profound legal and financial implications. I find it alarming that CAD software companies pay so little attention to these issues. I've attended many talks on how awesome cloud file storage is, but none of them has ever been conducted by a CAD manager!

If you don't agree with my concerns, go ask your senior management team how happy they'd be if an entire project directory were lost — or, worse, stolen by a competitor who got ahold of a Dropbox password.

Advice: Do not allow cloud file storage to gain a foothold your office until you've analyzed the risks and earned your management/IT team's support for proper usage policy. Once users start using cloud file storage, it is very hard to put the genie back in the bottle!

Cloud Software Configuration

One helpful tool I've used in the past year is AutoCAD 360 (formerly known as AutoCAD WS). This cloud-based app allows you to store your DWG files and AutoCAD profile settings online and access them from virtually any web-connected device. Although this function allows me to effortlessly sync my desktop and laptop configurations, it does beg the following questions for a CAD manager:

  • Should all CAD users be allowed to use this tool?
  • How will this affect standard software configuration?
  • How can I stop proprietary programming and interface components from being transferred to cloud storage — and possibly copied by unauthorized parties?

As in the cloud file case above, the security and standards issues raised may outweigh the benefits.

Advice: As with cloud file storage, you need get a plan in place before you start using cloud-based software configuration tools.


Software as a Service (SAAS)

For the past 15 years, I've been listening to software companies say all our software will be deployed via the Internet, with no more software on our computers, yet I've seen remarkably little movement in that direction. While some CAD tools could logically run in this manner (infrequently used rendering or analysis software, for example), all users I know want software to:

  • Run as fast as possible;
  • Have customizable desktops (menus, toolbars, etc.); and
  • Work even when the Internet is down.

All these desires are diametrically opposed to a centralized Internet-based tool that will always be subject to Internet speeds, is non-customizable, and will never, ever work when the Internet is down. Adding to all these issues is the fact that software you install on your own machines will continue to run for years, even if you cut off your software subscriptions or the software vendor goes out of business.

Advice: Think very, very carefully before moving toward a SAAS solution, and make sure you understand all the costs and risks of doing so. If you decide that you really need to share software, consider installing it on a shared machine inside your network firewall rather than the public-domain Internet.

What Does It All Mean?

Consider the following hypothetical nightmare scenario:

Starting tomorrow, you'll be expected to switch all users over to Windows 8; transition to an externally hosted, cloud-based version of your CAD software; and allow your workers to use cloud-based file storage in any way they see fit.

Now ask yourself the following questions:

  • How much Windows 8 training will I have to provide?
  • How will I configure all my customization to work with Internet-based CAD?
  • How will our Internet speed impact software performance?
  • With so many cloud directories in use, how will I ever know where the latest versions of my files are?

I bet you don't like the answers. But even more important are the following questions:

  • How does this technology help us design better buildings or products?
  • How does this technology help us standardize or improve our design processes?

My answer is: It may not — and it probably won't! Simply upgrading an operating system or running software from the cloud doesn't make our designs better, and the anarchy that cloud file storage brings can be counterproductive to our processes.

What to Do Now

The first duty of the CAD manager is to make sure work gets done, files are maintained and secured, and productivity is maximized. In a world of new operating systems, filing anarchy, and unmanaged Internet tools, the CAD manager must serve as a voice of caution that puts the brakes on any new technology that disrupts the workflow rather than enhancing it.

The savvy CAD manager will continue to explore new technologies — including the disruptive ones — but must make sound decisions that address the entire company's financial and workflow requirements.

Summing Up

I don't like being in the position of putting the brakes on new technology, but I believe it is critically important to know exactly how these technologies will impact the company before implementing them.

Do you agree? How are you dealing with these disruptive new technologies? Drop me an e-mail and let the discussion begin.

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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