Cloud-Based CAD, Part 4

25 Aug, 2010 By: Robert Green

Readers around the globe weigh in with their own experiences — and their predictions for the future of the technology.

I must admit I've been surprised by how much interest there has been in this series of newsletters exploring CAD in the cloud. Clearly there are many CAD managers out there who see cloud computing heading their way, yet there appears to be little agreement on how our CAD lives will be affected. Throughout the series, the only thing I've seen that remains consistent is that most CAD managers hold negative attitudes toward cloud computing — by a margin of roughly 4 to 1.

In this edition of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, I'll share some reader feedback with you that brings up valid points, answer questions, and pose a few conclusions from our discussion about running CAD in the cloud. My hope is that everyone will have a better frame of reference when we're done. Here goes.

Software Speed via the Cloud

In the last installment, I made the argument that document management (DM) or product lifecycle management (PLM) systems for CAD machines are one area where the cloud might be a good option. My logic was that the administration required to keep software and servers up-to-date would be eliminated with a DM/PLM software system deployed via the cloud.

Well, not everyone agreed with my assessment. J.S. from South Africa writes:

"We are running PLM in a cloud-type scenario and it's hell. The cloud is a no-go for many areas, especially PLM/PDM. Under the cloud scenario, your best computer in your organization will be the one with the slowest link (you're only as fast as the slowest person on your team). Some countries like mine operate on kilobits per second across many services like SAP and e-mail and so on. Backboning the Internet because it looks cheaper will cost you more in lost productivity over a period of time."

First conclusion: As J.S. correctly points out, any cloud application is only as good as your connection to the cloud. I can think of one of my clients, which maintains a food-processing facility in the middle of Brazil's sugarcane fields, that would experience exactly the same type of problem. The bottom line will continue to be that cloud applications will only flourish as universally available, fast, cheap Internet connectivity becomes the norm.

Second conclusion: It is interesting to note that users don't differentiate between cloud applications and cloud delivery via slow Internet. From the user's perspective, either the cloud is great, or the cloud stinks, as a whole.

Security, Security, Security

There are basic concerns common to most any cloud computing conversation: Where does the data actually reside? Who owns it? How secure is it? Obviously, when your drawings sit on a server that somebody else owns, it is wise to consider all the data-security implications.

Consider the following scenario from JdL, who works for a CAD services provider in the Netherlands:

"We provide AutoCAD training to a company that administers government buildings in the Netherlands. The drawings and plans of some of these buildings are highly confidential and I don't think they will ever send them into the cloud. I guess people and organizations will need some additional time to get used to the CAD cloud and the idea that their account can someday be hacked, but it also took time to get used to online banking."

Conclusions: Even if a CAD program itself could be run from the cloud, is it possible the drawings or models produced with that program couldn't be stored there due to government regulation? How might this affect those providing services to governmental agencies? I wish I knew the answers to these important questions. Anyone care to comment?

To provoke even more security questions, consider a risk that C.S. from British Columbia brought up:

"I have a personal beef with cloud computing that has not even been mentioned by your three articles. Hearken back to the Patriot Act in the U.S. That bill basically allowed the U.S. government to snoop on anything — anybody, any corporation — they felt they needed to. That includes data stored in the U.S. but owned by a company in another country. I could envision an abuse of this act that would grab out-of-country IP (intellectual property) for the advantage of U.S. corporations and then say 'Go ahead, sue me.' At the time that this act came out, we were looking at investing in a new PLM suite. We chose to go with Agile in-house instead of the Arena Solutions SaaS (software as a service via the cloud) option because the records would have been kept in the U.S. using Arena."

Conclusions: When the cloud spans different countries, there may well be regulatory considerations that multinational companies will have to consider. In fact, recent disagreements between India and Pakistan and Canada's RIM Limited (the makers of Blackberry phones) have brought differing privacy and law enforcement regulations in cellular markets to the forefront. Perhaps cloud-based CAD will suffer through the same regulatory battles.

To again quote C.S., "Whether you're talking about out-of-country or just off-site storage, the point is the same: someone else has a stranglehold on your data, and that is a risk that must be considered."

A Partly Cloudy Forecast

I received a few e-mails agreeing with my "partly cloudy" forecast, where I predicted that most of us will see some sort of cloud usage in our CAD environments, but not full-fledged cloud-based CAD.

One good application of such a partly cloudy environment came from P.M. of England:

"I want to add to your 'partly cloudy' prediction. I have recently discovered using an online server account (Dropbox) for syncing my files between work and home. This has the advantage that I can work on a project and continue when I get home without having to save to a thumb drive or disk or e-mail work back and forth. I also don't have to worry about which copy I last worked on. I could also access these files via the Internet should I need to. I can see this sort of system being of great advantage to our project workflow. We often work with freelancers, and tracking versions of 'work in progress' documents (i.e., before they are published) is always an issue. I like the idea that your information is saved locally, so you don't have network lags or (so many) security issues to worry about. I can see this working hand in hand with cheap iPad-type computers and electronic paper."

Conclusion: Even simple applications like file sharing can have a profound impact on information availability, work staff coordination, and the ability to support remote staff — even those with limited bandwidth.

Another partly cloudy supporter, W.H. of the United States, wrote:

"My main concern looking forward is the impact that the move to 3D is having on the industry right now. We deal with many vendors, and I've noticed a steady increase in native 3D files being supplied to us, which normally means much larger files to deal with. While this is extremely useful to us, it comes at a huge file-size cost, and of course, a higher level of hardware and software combo to utilize it fully. I will say I agree with your last article, where you noted a hybrid type of environment will probably rise up first, where simpler needs can make use of cloud-based CAD. I think going 100% cloud for most is going to be directly tied to technology and how fast it advances in terms of performance and cost."

Conclusion: Dealing with a proliferation of large, data-rich 3D files is making CAD management more difficult and may mean that 3D file processing could be taken care of by cloud software service providers if the cost and performance metrics make sense.

The Cloud Is Global

Did you notice how geographically diverse the responses to my cloud series were? The Netherlands, England, the United States, South Africa, and Canada were cited here; I also received input from Australia, New Zealand, Finland, Germany, and Mexico. And although I often receive feedback from outside my own country, it is rare that I get so much international feedback on any one topic. Thanks to everyone who participated!

The cloud and the Internet affect everyone, and level the CAD playing field for us all. Your competition is no longer the firm down the street, but the firm halfway around the globe! Plan accordingly.

Summing Up

I hope the discussion of CAD applications in the cloud has been thought-provoking and valuable for you. It is clear to me that cloud computing will evolve rapidly and we may, in fact, have a completely different discussion about cloud-based CAD in a couple of years. You have my assurance that I'll continue to keep my eye on how CAD management might be affected.

What are your final thoughts on the CAD cloud? Please e-mail me at, and be sure to check out the next edition of the CAD Manager's Newsletter for a sneak peek at the CAD manager's survey for 2010. Until next time.

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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