Cloud-Based CAD, Part 2

27 Jul, 2010 By: Robert Green

CAD managers have no shortage of opinions about cloud computing — but what are the reasons for their skepticism?

I have to confess I was surprised by the amount of feedback and questions I received in response to the previous CAD Manager's Newsletter, which discussed CAD cloud computing. It turns out that a lot of CAD managers are trying to decide how (or if) their companies will deal with cloud computing.

In this edition of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, we'll continue analyzing how cloud computing might affect CAD users, and answer readers' questions as we go along. I'll also include some user feedback so you can see what other CAD managers think about cloud computing. Here goes.

Managers' Perspectives: The Thunderheads Roll In

To give you an idea of the breadth of comments I've received on this subject, let me share two very different reader viewpoints.

On the pessimist's side of the cloud, J. says:

"I think the idea of cloud computing sucks, big time! Of course some firms will be able to manage a decent ROI and some firms would benefit from having access to a quality render farm, but the benefit will be temporary, lasting only as long as the providers are certain that everyone is securely 'on the hook' and then prices go up, quality suffers, upgrades become self-serving, and service drops to a level that is the minimum that will keep things up and running — most of the time. I think centralization is a risky business in our current social environment and is prone to corruption and mediocrity. We are in a creative profession and we need freedom to create the next thing. Central computing services that may look good at first blush will eventually want to dictate and strangle our creativity for their own [ends]."

On the optimist's side, T.J. says:

"We recently moved our e-mail to the 'cloud' and couldn't be happier. Backups, upgrades, maintenance all taken care of by the host — all we pay is a monthly per subscriber fee that turned out to be orders of magnitude less than maintaining our own Exchange server and includes lots of 'extras' like hosted LiveMeeting and SharePoint that make the cost/benefit look even better. If I could pay for AutoCAD based on actual usage time (i.e., minutes or hours), there would be a huge potential for savings. We are currently oversubscribed in terms of number of users (due to recent downsizing) and the fact that most of my stand-alone licenses have a utilization rate less than 50% (and at 20 licenses we're not big enough to warrant network licensing)."

What is very interesting to note is that for every comment like T.J.'s that cites utilization rates, ROI, and cost metrics as the justifications for cloud computing, there are five comments along the lines of J.'s that are suspicious of the entire cloud delivery model for CAD software. The percentage of negative comments I've received tells me that CAD software companies have a long way to go before cloud computing is widely viewed as reliable and trustworthy!

Even if opinion is skewed to the negative side, are there some bright spots where cloud computing would make sense for CAD purposes?

Remote Access: Partly Cloudy

One of the recurring themes in the reader feedback was the idea of logging into remote machines from a laptop or remote office. I like to refer to remote access as a "partly cloudy" solution because users only utilize the cloud to connect their machines using vendor-provided remote access services, but keep their own machines and software.

The concept of accessing computer resources remotely is becoming more and more common. K.P. summed it up best by asking:

"With Citrix (and the like) networks, would it be possible for all of our software and data to be on our local servers [and] we would then link into [it] remotely from wherever we happen to be working at that moment of the day? Working at my desk, the conference room, the big room, my house, my customer's office, my jobsite trailer, my coffee shop, my airport, the Internet café in Rome, or [Autodesk University] 2010 all now become the same. Push keystrokes and screen shots back and forth. Not sure how that would look dragging a 3D model in Revit or Inventor around on your screen … but what if?"

I personally use an application called LogMeIn for logging into workstations remotely, and I have clients who use similar Internet-based applications such as GoToMyPC. These applications work well for my purposes, even when I'm working on a laptop in an airport lounge. They make it easy for me to compile code and even maintain machines with four different operating systems. However, running a CAD editing session on these types of applications is far from productive due to the split-second response lag that every remote application has. The other real problem with remote applications is screen resolution and color depth. What works fine for 1024x768 laptop screens doesn't work well for 1080p HD applications, in my experience.

To address performance concerns, workstation manufacturers have begun stepping in to create their own remote access applications. The best example of this technology I've worked with is Hewlett Packard's Remote Graphics Software (RGS), which provides an "almost like being there" level of performance when run over high-bandwidth corporate network or Internet connections. Of course RGS isn't free (it requires a license at the server machine), and thus becomes one more piece of software that must be managed as opposed to purely Internet-based tools (like LogMeIn) that require no local machine integration.

So it appears that a partly cloudy solution — using the cloud to connect all your machines and platforms — is at least feasible and affordable. Now let's move into where the cloud gets stormy.

Reliability: Storm Clouds Ahead

I received a number of comments very similar to this one from J.L.:

"Mine is a simple but possibly a costly point. If cloud-based CAD was to be used, what sort of attentiveness would a company receive from the hosted internet provider when their service goes down (power loss, viruses, software malfunctions, etc.)? This means a lot of technical staff sitting around waiting to log on and get back to efficient production."

The validity of J.L.'s concern can't be overstated, because you know your senior management team is going to ask this question too. To really analyze the reliability aspects of cloud computing you have to consider not just the cloud-based CAD provider, but also the Internet or telecom provider your company uses to reach that CAD provider. Ask yourself the following questions:

  •  How fast is our Internet connection? Will it allow remote machine sharing at speeds fast enough to work with CAD applications in a productive manner?
  • How often do we experience Internet connection problems?
  • How much more Internet bandwidth would we need to put all our CAD users on our Internet connection all day, every day? (And what would that cost?)
  • What would happen in the event of an all-day Internet outage that disabled all our CAD tools?

Let's use my own case to provide example answers to these questions.

  • We average about 5 mbit/second via Charter digital at my home-based office, which is routed via a 100 mbit/second switch to four total workstations and one laptop. Remote machine sharing works great on the local area network, but remote sharing at client sites is frustratingly slow due to an accumulated 0.5 to 1 second lag from mouse movement to visual feedback received. For short debugging sessions it is an acceptable way to work with clients, but there's no way I'd spend all day working like that.
  •  We experience periodic resets or dropped connections (usually less than a minute) a few times a week, but haven't had a major outage in several months. The last major outage lasted 48 hours, and I'd estimate we have no Internet about five days per year.
  •  An office our size won't need extra bandwidth, so no additional cost is foreseen. But if I did have to upgrade my Internet bandwidth to the next level of service it would cost me an additional $1,200/year, which is not trivial for a small company.
  •  During the last Internet outage we experienced I had to load up outgoing files as attachments to e-mails and copy FTP transmittal information to my laptop, then head to the local Starbucks to do all my Internet-based work. At least I was able to do my CAD work on local workstations and e-mail/FTP as needed, but in a true CAD cloud environment I would have been dead!

I think it becomes clear that because of my Internet situation, I can't justify turning my CAD applications over to a cloud-based provider. It doesn't matter how good a job a cloud-based provider can do if I can't reach them reliably. I think every CAD manager should think through these questions carefully and figure out how ready their company is for a cloud-based solution, based on the Internet infrastructure that's already in place.

The Forecast

Everything I see at client sites points to "partly cloudy" solutions (such as remote desktop sharing through fast corporate networks) becoming more viable, and completely cloud-based solutions as being unacceptably slow and risky because of their dependence on the public-domain Internet.

Summing Up

In the next installment of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, I'll delve into distributed processing applications like render farms that may well revolutionize the way analysis and rendering software services are delivered via the cloud.

What are your thoughts on the CAD cloud? Please e-mail me at, and look for your feedback in the next installment.

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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