Cloud-Based CAD, Part 113 Jul, 2010 By: Robert Green
What is cloud computing, and does it make sense for CAD users?
Until now, I've been avoiding the whole "CAD on the cloud" discussion; frankly, I think the topic has been a little overdone. However, I've been getting a lot of questions on the topic recently, and I've seen a great deal of misinformation and confusion concerning cloud computing. So since many of us have to chart a course for our companies' CAD/IT strategies, and the cloud may well be a part of that future, discussing the cloud may be of use.
We'll get the topic started in this issue by defining what the cloud is and how it could work for CAD managers — and perhaps, against us. Here goes.
What Is the Cloud?
I've heard and read a lot of debate about how to define "the cloud." The surest, simplest answer is: The cloud is a big network of computers.
Like all networks, the cloud is composed of servers (which can be located anywhere) and client machines (such as your computer), connected to each other via the public domain Internet and/or private networks (like the network in your office). So "the cloud" is simply a nickname for a global network of computers that can talk to each other via the Internet. (It doesn't sound nearly as mysterious when you state it that way, does it?)
SaaS or Cloud-Based CAD
One of the new cloud buzzwords is the acronym SaaS (software as a service). The idea is that you'll no longer actually purchase and install software, but will instead subscribe to a software service, paying a company that maintains the CAD software on the cloud. Of course the SaaS/cloud concept raises all sorts of questions about who owns what data, how updates to the software will be handled, and what would happen to its clients if a software service provider goes out of business.
My opinion is that these types of business and legal concerns will shape the evolution of cloud computing as much as the technical issues will. But before we worry about those problems, let's examine some other factors that might affect running your CAD software on the cloud.
Speed and Bandwidth
Most companies I work with have fast, well-funded networks tying their local computers together. These companies have to decide where their CAD software will be installed: on a server or on local computers. The latter option offers the benefit of greater speed than server-based software. On the other hand, running software from a server only requires maintaining one copy of the CAD software, instead of running many copies of that same software on local computers — and that means lower software maintenance costs.
Doesn't this sound a lot like the cloud argument already? The only difference is that in this case, we're talking about a local area network (LAN) with a theoretical data transfer rate of 100mbit/sec between the local computer and the server; in contrast, the cloud is dependent on the public domain Internet, with data transfer rates of 3 to 8mbit/sec (roughly 5% the speed of a LAN). It's easy to see that cloud speed is going to be a lot lower than your own computer or a LAN.
My observation has been that most companies with the fastest LANs still opt to run CAD software on many local machines, even though it would be cheaper to only support one copy of the software on the server. Why? Speed and bandwidth concerns! Simply put, software loads a lot faster on your local computer than it does across a network, and keeping CAD software traffic off the network results in faster performance for everyone else using the network. The bottom line is: Speed wins.
Cloud Speed Tradeoffs
If you've ever struggled to download a file from a remote server at a glacial pace or experienced problems with Internet providers at your company, you've already experienced a possible downside of cloud-based computing. But what if all your models or drawings were stored on the cloud, as well as the CAD software; would that be faster? Quite possibly, because you wouldn't have to wait for files to move over the Internet.
However, how many CAD managers out there are going to tell their senior management teams that the company's CAD software and models/drawings are stored somewhere else — at the complete mercy of an Internet connection — just to achieve speed similar to what we already have with local machines? It seems to me there's no way the cloud will ever be faster than local computers, and it could very well be slower and riskier.
Lest I come across as totally anti-cloud, I acknowledge that there are a few scenarios where cloud-based CAD could make a lot of sense. For example, let's say you need to run very high-power simulation analyses, renderings, or animations on an occasional basis. In these infrequent-use scenarios, the high-end workstations, graphics cards, software, and integration services required to make it all work would cost a lot, but wouldn't be used often enough to make that investment worthwhile. Wouldn't it be great if you could simply offload these types of tasks to a remote rendering/analysis farm so those machines could do the heavy lifting for you?
I'm sure at least one reader is now asking, "Why is this any different than outsourcing?" The difference would be that you'd still run the software yourself, and would use your own internal standards and processes to do the work.
Somebody else is now asking, "Why is this case any different than running any other CAD tool on the cloud?" The answer is that a cloud-based CAD tool only used periodically would be less likely to cause major work disruption, even if your Internet connection did fail.
The manager in me has come to believe that the bottom line will drive cloud computing more than anything else. If you can manage to run CAD on the cloud, remain just as productive as you are already, and have it cost less than your current approach, then the cloud will make sense for your company.
This focus on finances begs the following questions:
- Does anyone really believe that the major CAD software vendors in the market want your software to cost less?
- How can businesses quantify the costs and benefits of cloud computing to achieve a return on investment (ROI) justification?
- How can a company gauge the risk of doing business with a software firm that doesn't sell a product, but rather a service?
These are the questions we'll need to examine in detail before a strategy for cloud computing can emerge. And believe me when I say that your senior management teams are very concerned about these sorts of questions.
In the next installment of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, we'll delve into some of the cost questions posed in this installment.
So what do you think about the future of the CAD cloud? Please e-mail your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org so I can include your feedback. Until next time.