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Cloud-Based CAD

Whose CAD Is It, Anyway? Part 1

8 Jul, 2020 By: Robert Green

CAD Manager Column: It’s common to think that all things CAD are now on the cloud — but it’s not true. Carefully evaluating the tradeoffs of cloud-based CAD vs. local CAD is still in your best interest.


You sit down at your computer, log into your cloud-based CAD tool at the software vendor’s server, perform some edits, then save your proprietary CAD file to a cloud-based server. So far so good, right? But let’s now ask ourselves the following questions: If the software vendor’s website is down, how could I log in to make edits? If the cloud-based server is offline, could I retrieve my file? And if the software vendor went out of business, how could I ever access the software again? And finally, what if the software vendor made a big change in license terms or prices that made me reconsider doing business with that company —given the proprietary data format, would I have any real option to walk away? In short, whose CAD is this — mine or the vendor’s?

In this edition of the CAD Manager’s Newsletter, we’ll begin an exploration of a variety of topics that seek to clarify these types of questions and provide some strategies for making your CAD your own and mitigating your risk. Here goes.

Cloud Data Concerns

Just to be sure we’re all using the same terms, I’ll quickly define the principal areas of data concerns for cloud architectures:

Cloud license validation. In this case, you have an account with the vendor and you must log into their system to validate your license. Some vendors require a login for each usage, while others may validate a license on a periodic interval (like 30 days), but the point is that if you don’t use their system, sooner or later your software won’t start. Possible data concerns here are tracking of user login location, machine metrics, etc. You’ll need to examine your license agreement very closely to see what information is actually being gathered.

Cloud applications. In this case, the application software itself is located in the cloud, so not only will you log into the vendor’s system, but you’ll be using the software from their system as well. Possible data concerns here are system downtime, no real control of software versioning (since the application software can be updated at any time by the vendor), and of course, what might happen if the company went out of business or discontinued the software.

Cloud storage. When you’re done working you’ve got to save a file, and if that file is stored on the cloud, you’re making the assumption that the cloud resource will be available whenever you need it. Millions of people utilize cloud storage with systems like OneDrive, Dropbox, etc., so we’ve grown accustomed to this concept. Possible data concerns are where the cloud server(s) are located, and what the governing rules are for protection of privacy and data on those servers. If you think the latter is an invalid concern, recall how personal information is being harvested from applications like TikTok — or even Facebook — and consider whether your mission-critical business data is really being protected with the cloud services you’re using today.


vectorfusionart/stock.adobe.com

The Anti-Cloud

Using matter vs. anti-matter as an analogue, let’s think what the anti-cloud might be for a moment. The anti-cloud would have to remove each possible data concern outlined above, including:

  • Cloud license validation
  • Cloud application storage
  • Cloud data storage.

In each case, the anti-cloud seems to be the locally installed application — the option that we’ve all used in the past, if you think about it. Consider the following:

Local license validation. Install your software to your machine and authorize it once, then run it on that machine without any connection to the Internet for as long as your operating system allows it.

Local application storage. All components of the core application installed to the user’s local drive (including the license) so the application can run without any Internet connection and can continue to run even if the software company went out of business.

Local data storage. By storing all your data on your local server, behind your own firewall, your data is protected by your security and intellectual property laws in the country where your server resides.

I can already hear someone thinking, “Well that may have been true in the old days, but everything is cloud-based now, so why is he talking about this?” Let’s explore that thought.

‘The Way It Was’ Is How It Still Is

Yes, locally installed software saving data on local servers was how we did CAD for many, many years. It may be an older way of doing things, but — to borrow a line from Monty Python — it’s not dead yet. Thinking that all things CAD are now on the cloud is actually not accurate.

I’ve heard that CAD would be entirely cloud-based “by next year” for at least five years now. But as I visit facility after facility, I see every designer running CAD tools on their own local machine. Tools like AutoCAD, BricsCAD, Civil 3D, Microstation, Inventor, Revit, SolidWorks, and more are still on local machines, with data files stored mostly on local network servers, even though companies like Autodesk, Bentley Systems, and Dassault Systèmes have tried hard to push cloud-based alternatives for years.

This makes me ask the question:

If we’re all supposedly so thrilled about the cloud, why aren’t all of our CAD tools already there?

Perhaps the answer is:

Because we want the control and security of knowing that all our programs and data are stored on devices we actually own and control.

Conclusions:

While software companies are trying to push everyone toward doing everything in the cloud or on their websites, the reality is that their customers just aren’t flocking to replace their locally installed software tools with cloud equivalents.

The entire notion that “everything will be on the cloud” may simply be wrong.


Hybrid New–Old Approaches

I can hear the objection now: “But we’ve got branch offices and remote workers, so the only way to support those workflows is the cloud!” While it is true that a fabric of network connectivity is required to let a remote worker access files, that doesn’t mean that everything has to be in the cloud.

Consider the following concepts:

Move the workstation to the server room. By using virtual machine appliance technology from vendors like Nutanix, the workstation heavy lifting is done in the server room where the software is loaded, and the data files are stored. The user simply remotes in and works with the machine using a remote graphics access program.

Remotely access desktop machines from a laptop. Using Remote Desktop Connection, the remote worker can use a low-power laptop to drive a high-end machine loaded with RAM, multiple GPUs, and huge solid-state drives. In fact, these resources can be shared to keep per user cost down.

In both these scenarios, “the cloud” may be used to connect a user to a workstation, but that workstation, software, and data storage is owned by you and is located at a central, secure location. All the speed and security advantages of a local machine, local software, and local storage are preserved.

Utilize a cloud workstation/data storage model. Using services like Microsoft’s Azure, you could actually rent workstations in a Microsoft server environment and install your CAD software there. This approach would yield the speed of a local machine using remote desktop access, but rental charges would accrue upon startup, and administration would be solely determined by Microsoft’s management console. Plus, software licensing policies for these types of virtual installations can be somewhat hard to interpret (you can see one example here, on Autodesk's site).

Summing Up

While cloud-based tools will make sense in some applications, I’m not convinced that local workstations, locally installed software, and local servers to support CAD users will be obsolete any time soon. In fact, if observation in the real world is any indication, CAD is still very much a locally installed and supported application. And if control, speed, and security remain driving concerns for CAD usage and storage, I believe CAD will remain local for years to come.

What are your thoughts on this? I welcome your email at RGreen@GreenConsulting.com, or you can drop a comment at the CAD Managers Unite! Facebook group post here. Until next time.

Editor's Note: Click here to read Part 2 of this article.


About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green


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