Can AfterCAD InSite Democratize CAD?

15 May, 2006

New collaboration platform lets users view, mark up AutoCAD files via an Internet browser

"Let's face it," says Chris Boothroyd, CEO of AfterCAD, in a recent issue of his company's newsletter, "even the most dumbed down, free CAD viewers are still too technical for most folks." So later this month, his company will be launching AfterCAD InSite. Using this product, a standard Web browser is all you need to view and annotate a DWG-format CAD file.

Customers can preorder InSite ($1,995 regular price, available for Windows .NET or Linux Server) for 25% off until the end of the month by e-mailing Beginning June 1, InSite will be available at regular price from resellers and from the AfterCAD online store.

AJAX Brings CAD to Your Browser
In the same AfterCAD newsletter, Kenney Wong, the company's director of engineering (and not related to this author), explains AJAX, the foundation of AfterCAD InSite: "Asynchronous JavaScript and XML, or AJAX, is a Web development technique for creating interactive Web applications. The intent is to make Web pages feel more responsive by exchanging small amounts of data with the server behind-the-scenes, so that the entire Web page does not have to be reloaded each time the user makes a change. ... AJAX is not a technology in itself, but a term that refers to the use of a group of technologies together."

AfterCAD is a member of the Open Design Alliance, a nonprofit consortium of software developers and users promoting open, industry-standard formats for exchanging CAD data. Evan Yares, who runs the consortium, points out that the group's DWGdirect library embedded in AfterCAD InSite's server-side operations functions like a CAD program for reading and writing DWG files. Therefore, the browser-side client needs to process only a lightweight representation of the CAD drawing.

Other Views on AJAX
Bill Gould, marketing director of Informative Graphics, observes, "We deliver the requested data to the client [in an ActiveX-based viewing and markup tool like Brava!] and process on [the user's] CPU to eliminate as much of the network and server overhead as possible. There have been a number of promising technologies that have come and gone over the years. While AJAX has much going for it, we have yet to fully explore its limitations in technologies and applications."

David Prawel, founder and president of Longview Advisors, a manufacturing consulting firm, observes, "For those users who are able to use the Web as a collaborating vehicle in a digital 3D design and manufacturing environment, or who are able to use the Web for e-commerce, AJAX can potentially be a very nice deployment platform. But the problem [with collaboration] isn't usually in the deployment platform or the technology, but in the usage paradigm," he says -- how RFQs are bundled with other docs and submitted, whether an organization's business processes are mature enough and so on.

Eavesdropping on Server Chatter
Boothroyd says, "The tile server [which uses the open source Tiles framework for Web layout] can run as multiple instances in memory, so, as long as you have a Web server set up to handle a lot of concurrent users, I see no reason why it can't handle the daily traffic of a typical site. ... Once images are prepared by InSite, all we are serving out at that point are images and JAVA scripts, which, for a user's bandwidth concerns, wouldn't be any different than what a normal site would serve up -- images, JAVA scripts, HTML, etc."

If the browser client drops off, as tends to happen with typical browsers, the client session ends; so does the resource use. In this case, the client would have to initiate another session but, Boothroyd points out, "All the served files are cached on the client side, so a user wouldn't have to request them again."

CAD for the CAD-Illiterate
Conveying CAD data in a digestible fashion to those outside the sanctum sanctorum of engineering has always been a challenge -- and one that has never been properly addressed, for a variety of reasons. According to Yares, "You can't have everyone in an organization buy a CAD program, because it's costly. Even if the program is free, it's still another IT burden."

Longview Advisors' Prawel observes, "One of the biggest inhibitors to automation and productivity is the lack of data reuse. People who could use digital assets don't have access to them." He cautions that the delivery platform -- browsers, third-party viewers or PDF -- is only part of the solution, and not even the most important part. Efficient collaboration, he says, requires "the right data available to the right people in a form they can use. Consumers of the data may not be allowed to use the Web in their business processes."

So the next time Mary from Legal needs to consult a floor plan, maybe she'll face the AutoCAD gorgon head-on from Mozilla Firefox or Microsoft Internet Explorer, with AfterCAD InSite on her side.

What It Can and Cannot Do
But what if Bob from Sales and Marketing needs a high-resolution rendering for a new brochure? In this case, AfterCAD InSite might not be the answer.

Full-resolution printing is not possible with the initial release of AfterCAD InSite, but it will be in an enterprise version, currently still in development, according to AfterCAD. The enterprise version, billed as "a custom-designed Content Management System for CAD," will allow printing, downloading and saving displayed views as SVG, DWG, DWF and PDF files.

AfterCAD InSite displays 3D files as static isometric views from different angles, not as a 3D model that can be spun or rotated. AfterCAD's Boothroyd points out, "This application is serving out content intended for the broadest audience" -- those who may want to view or annotate, but typically do not need to perform sophisticated modeling tasks. AfterCAD also offers advanced CAD solutions tailored to more select audiences.

Markups from the Coffee Shop
Yares of the Open Design Alliance remarks, "The upcoming Windows Vista uses XAML, a standard similar to SVG, so it'll probably allow developers to create the kinds of applications where you can have a CAD engine in the back end, somewhere over the Internet, so users can just interact with a very lightweight vector file. It's going to change this whole CAD game into software as service." If AfterCAD InSite's approach catches on, examining CAD files remotely through a browser using a consumer PC or PDA may become part of the normal workflow. Yares says, "That means you can work wherever you want. You can be sitting in your local Starbucks."

Yares, a 24-year CAD veteran who has reluctantly embraced the label "old timer," maintains a blog at