Cloud-Based CAD, Part 311 Aug, 2010 By: Robert Green
CAD can find a home in the cloud — under certain circumstances. What scenarios favor this technology over conventional software?
I'm receiving a lot of feedback regarding this cloud computing series, and it continues to be overwhelmingly anti-cloud. I can now understand why CAD and other software providers are having such a hard time selling their products in the cloud.
In this edition of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, I'll delve into some applications where cloud-based solutions could be a great alternative to conventional software, and justify my conclusions while doing so. Here goes.
Where Could the Cloud Work?
Is there any situation where it would be preferable to have the cloud deliver CAD? I can see real use for the following cloud-based applications:
Software I run only occasionally. What if I need to do an injection mold analysis just four times a year, or an extremely high-resolution rendering once a month? Could using this type of software via the cloud offer a cost-effective way to use the latest software technology without having to buy it, configure it, and maintain it?
Software that needs more power than I have at the office. What if I need to run an Inventor analysis or model the hydrology for a huge floodplain computation, but I require a dual quad-core machine with 192GB of RAM to complete the analysis in a timely fashion? Is it likely that hardware-leasing companies will place super-workstations in the cloud, so I can run my own software on one for the duration of a demanding project?
Document management or PLM software. If you've ever had to maintain a document management (DM) or product lifecycle management (PLM) system for CAD machines, you know how hard it is to keep all the software synchronized and the data servers properly configured, not to mention how much server bandwidth it all takes. Could a DM/PLM software company deliver all the required software from a cloud-style repository that would relieve me of keeping track of their software — and provide integrated data backup while they do so?
Training. Software training is becoming increasingly computer-based, which means that supporting materials don't have to be books. So if the training aids are electronic, why not have my entire training program delivered via the cloud? That way, I won't have to keep track of files or update corporate sites as new training material is made available.
Now I'd like to share the conclusions I've come to from pondering the above questions, and pass along my opinions about how cloud-based CAD may actually come to fruition.
Part-time is cloud time. If I use a piece of software all day, everyday, I'm not likely to take the risk of running it via the cloud; Internet outages, server problems, and other snafus could significantly hamper my productivity. But for software that I only use once in a while, cloud computing offers me the convenience of not having to support that software. The only thing that remains to be seen is whether occasional use will be economical or not.
Opinion: Those CAD companies that can offer visualization and analysis software services (along with great technical assistance) will be the first to call the cloud home.
There's power in the cloud. It seems like no matter how often I update my computers, there's always something faster out there, and with a better graphics card to boot. In the cases where the latest, greatest machine could mean the difference between getting a project done or suffering a series of lock-ups, renting high-powered gear via the cloud could make a lot of sense.
Opinion: Companies that offer multiple high-speed computers for rendering or animation tasks (sometimes called render farms) are positioned to start charging for cloud-based processing right now. Of course, rendering software platforms can and will change, but the capability to upload a model and unleash 20, 40, or 100 processor cores on your big building project will be a game-changer. Enabling even small firms to do movie-quality work is just too compelling for the market to ignore.
The cloud is low-maintenance. In the case of the DM/PLM or training scenarios I outlined above, the common thread for the cloud is that it allows me to maintain software function inside my company without having to be the software administrator. In addition to not administering the software, I also won't have to own the server that hosts it, and I may even be able to use the cloud vendor for redundant offsite backup purposes.
Opinion: Companies that can eliminate administration- and server-based expenses will be interested in cloud-based applications for cost reasons. Of course, the cloud providers will have to prove their services reliable, but once they do so the administration savings alone will sell cloud tools to many small firms.
My Amended Forecast
In the previous installment of this series, I forecast a "partly cloudy" future for CAD applications being delivered via the cloud, especially in the near future. However, I now predict a promisingly cloudy horizon for hardware firepower used to run complex CAD software — particularly those applications that are used infrequently.
Will everyone be running AutoCAD or SolidWorks via the cloud in the next few years? No. However, it's quite possible that many firms may be rendering complex BIM models or performing mechanical analysis via the cloud.
In the next edition of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, I'll finish this series by tying up loose ends, answering questions, and sharing reader feedback with you. I'll be kicking off the 2010 CAD Manager's Survey as well.
What are your thoughts on cloud-based CAD? Please e-mail me at email@example.com, and look for your feedback in the next installment.
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