Your Own Private CAD Cloud

26 Oct, 2011 By: Robert Green

Too worried about data security and service stability to take advantage of Internet-based computing? Put those concerns aside by building a low-cost, in-house network.

I've been watching the evolution of cloud-based computing over the past couple of years as the popular subject has moved from geeks-only to mainstream, and I'm fascinated by all the varied perceptions. Comments from management teams and IT professionals are all over the map regarding the definition of the cloud, fears of security breaches, and uncertainties about the real business benefits of the technology.

In this edition of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, I want to clear up some misconceptions and begin to explain how building your own private cloud can make a lot more sense than trying to "buy an Internet cloud" from somebody else. Here goes.

What Exactly Is the Cloud?

We could ask ten computer users what the cloud is and get ten different answers — all of which could be right! My point is that a definition for the cloud is nebulous, contested, and still evolving. The most common answers I hear are along these lines:

  • It's an Internet storage location for our data
  • It's a way to connect our branch offices and traveling employees
  • It's a way to share project data with our sales force
  • It allows us to run software on a server instead of local machines
  • It's a security risk; we have no clue who owns the cloud or who we can trust.

Many people share the perception that the cloud is some kind of mysterious resource out there somewhere on the Internet, operating without a single owner or security provider. No wonder management teams are skeptical. I've seen a growing understanding of what cloud computing might offer as far as benefits go, but overriding worries about the lack of security and stability of cloud vendors keep most companies from making a big move to the cloud.

Don't believe me? Just ask anyone who works for a hospital, the government, a highly competitive manufacturing company, or any other organization that has to keep its data secret. They'll likely respond with serious concerns about the security of cloud-based data.

Reality vs. Perception

True, the cloud can be defined in any number of ways, but I'd like to formalize the definition a bit, then draw a few conclusions. Here's how I define a cloud:

A remote, shared, server-based computing infrastructure that can host data, processing capability, and applications so remote users can work without regard to their physical locations.

This definition pretty much nails any of the current cloud computing–based models I'm aware of, including SaaS (software as a service), document repositories, and even remote processing for big compute jobs such as rendering or analysis.

But the other factor that demands attention in this definition is that the cloud doesn't have to be on the Internet at all! True, your users might access your private cloud via a VPN (virtual private network) login, but all the components of your cloud can be contained within your own secure network. Have you ever considered having a cloud inside your current network? If not, why not?

Enter the Private CAD Cloud

How might a private cloud work? We'll use an example to explore the possibilities. Let's say several users in your company occasionally need to run an analysis process on a mechanical CAD model. Should you:

(a) Buy an expensive analysis software license for everyone who might ever use it?
(b) Buy just a few copies and install them on certain machines, which then have to be shared?
(c) Buy a single copy and install it on a beefy server-class machine that users access using a remote desktop software interface?

More and more, the answer is (c), for the obvious cost and ease-of-use benefits. A single license of the software is certainly cheaper than scenario (a), and by installing the software on a single machine you'll avoid the hassles of license sharing that you would have in scenario (b).

The secret sauce that makes the private cloud viable is the fact that every Windows 7 user now has Remote Desktop Connection. They can simply open a window and run the analysis software just as if they were sitting at the server machine themselves.

Windows 7 users can find Remote Desktop Connection via the Start button's Accessories group.

Congratulations! You've just built your own private CAD computing cloud using existing technology components and are now saving money on software as a result.


The Cloud Branches Out

I know what you're thinking: "What about branch offices? Running big software applications over our wide-area network (WAN) is excruciatingly slow, and my users won't stand for it!" This is a well-founded concern, but one that we can circumvent for some software applications.

First let me say that I would never try to move a 100% CAD user to the cloud under any circumstances. Those who spend entire days using AutoCAD, SolidWorks, or MicroStation need dedicated workstations with their own software licenses to be productive. Period.

However, for occasionally used, shared resources such as an analysis program or rendering engine, the private CAD cloud model makes a lot of sense. Because the program and data files are on the remote server, the analysis will happen quickly and only the screen graphics for the Remote Desktop Connection will travel from the server back to the remote user. This processing model uses just a fraction of the network bandwidth required to work with a 3D model over a traditional WAN.

In the spirit of full disclosure, let's consider the following questions:

Q. Will there be some delay when using Remote Desktop Connection?
A. Yes.

Q. Will the delay be noticeable to the remote user?
A. Yes and no. When working from a remote branch office via the WAN, the user will likely experience some sluggishness when using a mouse. When working inside a local-area network (LAN), the user will often perceive no delay at all.

Q. Is using a remote work methodology better than trying to run the application over our existing WAN?
A. Yes, yes, yes! After concentrating the processing and disk access at the remote server, you can just sit back and watch the screen update on your local machine while the remote server does the crunching. When everything is finished, you retrieve your completed files and you're done!

Users Get It

Like most users, I needed a little time to get used to the idea of using remote connection work methods to do CAD work. But once I got accustomed to Remote Desktop Connection and saw that I could harness the power of several analysis and rendering sessions on other machines while reserving my own workstation for my ordinary workload, I was hooked.

In my work as a CAD management consultant, I typically see high-end CAD users jump all over the private cloud concept when shown how it works and how much power they can access.

It's All Good

The great appeal of the private CAD cloud is that your data is never placed on an external server, no cloud software provider has to be contracted, all software remains fully under your control (no versioning or surprise upgrades to contend with), and you save money on software licenses — all at the same time. The added bonus is that the approach makes good sense for sharing software, whether you have multiple offices or just one.

How many times have you seen technology that gives more people access to better software without costing a lot or slowing them down? The last time I can remember this confluence of events was in the mid-'80s, when the mainframe computer software companies such as Intergraph, Computer Vision, and SDRC gave way to PCs running DOS-based CAD.

Summing Up for Now

Can you see an opportunity to increase savings and enhance user productivity by building your own private cloud? Why not ponder that question a bit and jot down some answers so we can carry on the conversation.

In coming issues of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, we'll examine other ways to utilize your own private cloud and take a look at the CAD Manager's Survey results for 2011. Until next time.

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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Re: Your Own Private CAD Cloud
by: jbmoran
November 21, 2011 - 2:35pm
The one thing I'd like to pursue is having all our support files on the 'cloud' (.lsp, .vba, .net., .slb., etc.). In our experience, the Remote Login is limited to one user are a time. Having support files there might be subjected to 25 users are a time, all for a short infinitum.... Any thoughts on how you would approach this? Thanx in advance, jbm
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