Management

Software, Hardware and OS Turmoil

14 Feb, 2007 By: Robert Green

Navigating the big changes in technology and their effect on your CAD department.


Over the past couple of months several high-profile items appeared in the news that CAD managers should be very interested in. Let me list these items and then take a closer look at each of them.

  • Release of Microsoft's Vista operating system
  • Introduction of Intel's quad-core processors
  • Autodesk and Solidworks industry/user events.

What I find interesting about all these events happening in such a short time span is that they all foretell greater design capabilities, greater hardware speed and a new operating system that will permeate the market as new computers are sold. In a perfect world it would be great to have higher power software with better hardware and a more robust operating system to run it all on, right? But, as with all things new, the process of making these changes isn't going to go smoothly. And as CAD manager your superiors are probably asking you what your course of action should be.

In this edition of CAD Manager's Newsletter, I'll provide a combination of analysis, conclusions and recommendations that I think can help you navigate the inevitable change that this perfect storm of technology events will bring for the first half of this year. Here goes.

New Software

I always try to keep an eye on the big software companies (like Autodesk and Dassault), not just to see what they're trying to sell but to see what their core message is. I've been looking at both of these companies over the past few months and a few things are clear to me.

More capability. Both companies are touting software that does more, works with bigger models, analyzes more, visualizes better and does all this at the same time. Even the latest versions of AutoCAD have become visually rich, pseudo-rendering engines for design conceptualization, thus requiring more computational support.

More power required. More capability requires more computing power to run, and the message sent out by the software companies is that hardware is cheap, so buy new hardware! You won't hear anyone from any CAD software company recommending running that 2GHz Pentium 4 machine for another year; they'll tell you to go quad-core with 4GB RAM.

No more 2D. Although 2D CAD (principally AutoCAD and MicroStation) is still widely used, you don't hear any main-stage presentations touting it. The focus is entirely on 3D tools that can interact with the 2D world. And while 2D won't go away just because companies don't talk about it, it is worth noting that development resources are largely going toward 3D tools while legacy 2D tools undergo relatively modest improvements.

What does this all foretell? Bigger, faster, beefier hardware, that's what! I continue to believe that 2007 is going to be the year of massive new hardware adoption focused on dual-core and quad-core platforms. So budget for the new hardware or be prepared to see sluggish performance on old machines as the new software hits.

Hardware

So if the software is getting bigger and requiring more resources, you need to think about what sort of new hardware you should you be looking at. This question must be answered in terms of CPU and graphics cards, particularly with some of the driver issues relating to the new Vista operating system (more on that in the next section). Generally speaking, dual-core machines are now very affordable and widely available from all the familiar computer companies. Quad-core machines are still relatively new but are making their entrance into the market quickly in workstation-class machines. I think we'll certainly start seeing mass-market quad-core machines in a few months.

In my opinion, a new machine for CAD should be at minimum a dual-core based machine with 2GB RAM and a RAID 0 two disk drive subsystem. This level of machine gives analytical software -- like MCAD modeling with a rendering or analysis process running in the background -- the processing, RAM and disk bandwidth needed to really shine. If you combine this level of hardware with a speedy graphics card that has a high-quality, Vista-compliant driver, you'll have a machine that should be able to run CAD efficiently for several years with either Vista or Windows XP operating systems.

The Vista Situation

Microsoft's introduction of its new Vista operating system, and all the inevitable driver hassles, hardware conflicts and other such irritants are now being vetted in the press and CAD blogosphere. Even Apple is taking shots at Vista in their latest television commercials! 

The real issue in the CAD world isn't Vista itself but rather how Vista supports advanced graphics. In the past, and still in the Mac world, advanced graphics have been supported through a protocol called OpenGL. OpenGL essentially is a driver specification that software developers use to make sure they can display complex rendered graphics, shadings and 3D motions to the graphics card in the computer. With Vista, OpenGL is going by the wayside in favor of Direct 3D graphics specification, which is already enjoying support in the gaming industry. Right now CAD software that has run fine under OpenGL can run very poorly if the graphics card in your machine has a slow or emulated Direct 3D driver. In fact, if you really delve into the criticisms of Vista in the CAD world, they are almost exclusively some facet of the Direct 3D versus OpenGL debate.

One other issue regarding Vista that doesn't get talked about much is that Vista will be the operating system that ushers in 64-bit computing for the masses. Love them or hate them, you have to admit that Microsoft is pretty persuasive when it comes to making software and hardware vendors conform. And when Microsoft gets the driver issues resolved to make 64-bit computing platforms available to anybody who buys a machine from, say, Dell, there's no way that Autodesk, Solidworks or anyone else is going to be able to ignore the platform.

Personally I think we'll see upgrades to Vista begin en masse once the next round of our CAD applications are updated and when enough new hardware hits the market. I remember everyone saying the world would end with Windows 95, and the same thing with Windows NT and Windows 2000. In all cases those operating systems became the dominant CAD OS. I would simply advocate being proactive about the switch and doing as much testing and exploration as you can in getting ready for the inevitable.

Hang On for the Ride

You have to go a long way back in the CAD industry to recall a time when this much change in software, hardware and operating systems occurred at the same time. And since many current CAD managers haven't been around the industry that long, it is easy for them to feel frustrated by the situation. However, new technology and operating systems always bring an initial upheaval followed by stabilization and adoption. The good news is that a lot more power and function are on the way to our desktops. The bad news is we have to go through some growing pains to get there.

Be sure to check out the next issue of CAD Manager’s Newsletter for a CAD manager’s guide to this week's new Autodesk product announcements!


About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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