Management

No More Cloudy Days

5 Jun, 2012 By: Robert Green

Slice through the hype and determine how cloud technology can work for you.


You can't turn on the TV these days without seeing a Microsoft advertisement for "the cloud," and we all know that the CAD industry is replete with cloud hype as well. Despite all this buzz, many CAD users and senior management teams have no clue about what the cloud really is. All CAD managers, however, should understand this technology trend and be ready to explain what cloud CAD could mean for our companies.

In this installment of "CAD Manager," I'll slice through the hype, dispel cloud myths, discuss cloud tools and how they can support CAD teams, and give you some practical ways to determine whether CAD on the cloud makes sense for your company. Here goes.

Debunking the Cloud

So, what is the cloud? I define it as a collection of servers, workstations, software, and users that are connected by a low-bandwidth network such as the Internet. Two differences exist between a cloud environment and a classic corporate network: On the cloud, servers, workstations, software, and users can all be in different places, and you can tap into any number of software solutions hosted online, as opposed to relying on centrally controlled software owned by your company.

What jumps out of this definition is that the cloud isn't a new concept, but simply a new buzzword. After all, we've been putting together complex computing environments with Internet connections for years.

So what kinds of environments fit into a cloud? Consider these options:

  • Centralized server and data with remote users. Often called virtual private networks (VPNs), these types of clouds are already in wide use to support traveling employees. What's cloudy about VPNs is that they rely on the Internet to glue everything together.
  • Application software installed at one branch office, shared by workers at another branch office. Think of a small branch office running a complex building energy–analysis job on the main office's machine via remote control, and you've got the picture. The cloudy part here is software shared via an Internet connection.
  • Remote teams working on CAD data stored on a leased server. Here, a third-party provider supplies server equipment so the company's IT department doesn't have to. A further benefit is that your company's Internet connection isn't affected by the remote team's data traffic, because the team is using the remote server's Internet "pipes." This is cloudy because it's using network connectivity and storage that doesn't belong to your company.
  • Renting specialized software on a per-user basis. Here the server and software — for example, a rendering or simulation application — belong to someone else, and you simply use them as needed without having to buy anything. This model is frequently referred to as SaaS (software as a service). In this scenario, almost everything is cloudy; the only thing the user needs is a low-power, Internet-connected computer.

Is My Company a Cloud Candidate?

Now that we have a plain-language way to talk about cloud environments, we can explore whether your company really needs to implement cloud-based technologies. To begin, ask yourself whether you have any circumstances that would benefit from remotely locating your CAD applications, servers, or data. Diagnose how cloudy your company is by taking this quiz. Every "yes" earns one (1) point, and every "no" gets a zero (0).

  • Do we need to connect branch offices?
  • Do we have more than three branch offices to integrate?
  • Do we employ home-based workers?
  • Do our mobile staffers need CAD on the road?
  • Are our CAD files too large to load quickly from a remote server to a local desktop?
  • Do we need to share expensive software among many remote users?
  • Do we need to share expensive workstations among many remote users?

Next, check your total score to see how your company 
fares.

  • 0 points: No need for a cloud approach. Everything is 
under one roof and users don't need to share software, 
so cloud-style tools are not necessary.
  • 1–2 points: Possible need for a cloud. Companies that 
need to share hardware and software only could use remote desktop access to share machines and software inside the building or use SaaS. Companies with a single branch office could consider cloud-based storage. These are only a couple of the possible options.
  • 3–5 points: Strong need for a cloud. This company profile typically has multiple remote offices and/or a traveling workforce that needs reliable, fast access to data. In these cases, the money you're wasting by losing track of files could probably pay for cloud solutions.
  • 6–7 points: You should already have a cloud strategy. This company is far-flung, has traveling workers, and needs to share data, hardware, and software tools. This is the type of company that really needs cloud workflows but, paradoxically, often has a centralized IT infrastructure that prevents implementation. 


The Right Job for the Tool

Some additional ways that you can quantify your company's cloud readiness is to see if the problems in the following scenarios sound familiar. Like the diagnostic quiz above, the more you find yourself nodding in agreement, the more likely that your company should use cloud technology. 

  • The remote data problem. The greater the number of users working in branch offices or on the road, the more trouble you'll have keeping all your data synchronized. Classic coping mechanisms, such as synchronizing server directories overnight or controlling projects via e-mail attachments, are inefficient and prone to error. Have you ever lost track of who has the latest CAD files for 
a given project?
  • Data speed problems. When users are located far from your central servers, it takes them longer to open files. Waiting 15 seconds for an e-mail to load is one thing; waiting 15 minutes for a base xref or building model to load is quite another. In addition to wasting time, this scenario also increases the chances for data corruption that can result when you try to open a large file over a slow network connection. Have you heard complaints from remote workers about slow server performance and damaged files?
  • Software and hardware problems. You'd love to undertake high-end tasks such as stress, thermal, and energy analysis or rendering and animation, but you can't convince management to approve the hardware and software you need because it simply isn't affordable to equip users who need these tools only occasionally. A cloud approach, on the other hand, lets you share these resources among many users. Do you sometimes wish you could just share your most expensive hardware and software among users?

What Will You Need?

Based on my experience so far, creating a cloud environment most often includes the following components:

  • Remote desktop access. Provided with Windows 7, remote desktop access lets remote users connect to and share high-end workstations at remote sites. I like to call this type of environment a "private cloud" because all the computers and software belong to you, but the Internet connects the components.
  • Offsite storage. Whether you use small, Internet-based file-sharing applications or entire servers leased from a service provider, clouded file storage lets you unburden your existing networks and empower external work teams for very low cost.
  • Rental software. As more software providers find ways to rent you software that you might use occasionally but wouldn't purchase, this will become a realistic option. Rental terms could be per file, per month, per year, or whatever terms the rental company offers. Rental software has been available for a long time, but is just now starting to gain traction in CAD environments.
  • Rental cores. For tasks such as rendering where you
 may need results quickly, some companies now offer an option to rent extra CPU cores to speed the task along. If you could create a rendering in a few hours by renting 40 CPU cores instead of waiting overnight for your
 dual quad-core machine to produce the same 
output, it might be worth the money on certain projects. Watch for great progress in this area in the next few years.

Summing Up

Will your company need a cloud strategy? If so, which technologies and tools might you use? Figuring out the answers requires a little homework, but it isn't nearly as baffling as we've come to believe.

Now is the time to get ahead of your users and senior management so you can answer their cloud questions with confidence when the time comes. Believe me, the faster you figure out what the CAD cloud will mean for you, the faster you can explain it, control it, and get it approved. All the best. 


About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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