The Future Risks of Fileless Cloud CAD

10 Mar, 2021 By: Robert Green

CAD Manager Column: You read the news, share photos, stories, and opinions online. Now your design files and work may be in the cloud. Should you be concerned?

Let’s ponder a day in the future world of Fileless Cloud CAD: You log into your cloud-based software, start making edits to your design files and saving your work to the cloud as you go. As you work, you never think about what format your design data is in or even where it resides because your software provider has thoughtfully taken care of all that for you. I mean, why worry about little details like this in your CAD systems — you never worry about it with your online banking or other cloud applications, right? This is the future that CAD vendors are increasingly touting — no more CAD files or questions of formats to be concerned about.

The Future Risks of Fileless Cloud CAD

Image source: Tierney/

Do you see a problem with this future CAD scenario? I sure do. In this edition of the CAD Manager’s Newsletter, we’ll start a discussion about how this future world of cloud-based fileless systems could negatively impact your company and what you should be thinking about to mitigate the risk. Here goes.

Whose Property is Your Design, Really?

Let’s start the discussion by asking some fundamental questions about how your design data is formatted and stored and how that might change in a future world of fileless cloud CAD. Take a bit of time to really think about these questions in the context of today and the possible future because understanding who owns your design data is a huge security concern for your company:

  • Who will control access to your design tools? Will your design software run from your own machine using locally installed software or will it reside on the software vendor’s server as a service?
  • Where will your design files reside? On your computer/network or at a cloud location owned by your software vendor?
  • Who will control the information format? Will you have a choice in how your data is formatted/saved or will it all be maintained in a proprietary software vendor format?
  • Can work be done offline? Will you be able to work on and save local files in case of an Internet outage or must you log into the software vendor’s site to do all work?

Jot down your answers to these questions and let’s draw some initial conclusions.

Who’s Really in Control

The more you found yourself answering “software vendor” to the above questions, the more at risk your company is. Why? Consider the following scenarios:

Company A runs their CAD tools from locally installed software on their own high-power workstations saving all their design information to local area network servers inside their own trusted IT center. Their software supports a variety of industry-standard output formats such as DWG, DGN, IFC, and DXF, so they can collaborate with a variety of subcontractors, manufacturers, and architects as they wish.

Company B is in Fileless Cloud CAD Land — having switched to a purely cloud-based software tool that maintains the data in a proprietary format with limited or no export functionality so collaborating with outside agents becomes difficult unless those outside agents use the same system.

If you’ve been in CAD/BIM for more than a few years you almost certainly had your formative CAD experiences in a Company A scenario and many of you still work in this mode today. While maintaining local software on workstations and tracking files on networks is a big part of a CAD manager’s job, it is the only way to truly be in control of the company’s CAD design assets. So, why is it then that the CAD software industry is trying so hard to rid us of our local software and files to push us into the Company B scenario?

Fileless Cloud CAD = Control, and Control = Money

Call me a cynic if you will. but I believe that we’re all being pushed to a world of cloud-based applications, storage, and proprietary formats because the software companies will then have control of our data and be able to hold us hostage. Don’t agree? Let’s ask the following questions and consider the answers in the context of Company A and Company B from above:

  • What happens if the software vendor’s cloud site is down?
  • What happens if the software vendor abruptly changes data formats and requires a version upgrade?
  • What happens if the software vendor raises prices dramatically?
  • How can a company that wants to switch software vendors get their data out of their current software vendor’s system?

Go ahead and ponder the answers to these questions for yourself for a few moments and think about how your company would handle these disruptive events. Here’s how Company A and Company B would be affected:

Company A doesn’t really care if the software vendor’s cloud site is down because they work using their own locally installed software and networks. Since they can save their information in a variety of common industry standard formats, they will be able to continue working with their current software version and bypass the upgrade process entirely. Since their information is stored in industry standard formats, they can always elect to go to another software platform that supports those formats if the price of the software becomes too high. They have the option of leaving.

Company B is dead in the water if the software vendor’s cloud site is down because everything they need to work simply isn’t available. Due to the proprietary format of the design information used in the vendor’s software and cloud data storage, this customer has become trapped by their CAD vendor and must endure price hikes and policy changes or have to start over with another software vendor.

Note: Don’t think a big vendor cloud outage can happen? Consider the Wells Fargo three-day banking outage in 2019, the week-long Garmin GPS outage in 2020 to name just a few recent examples. You don’t think data can be withheld or used against your will? Try to collect all your data and files from your Facebook account simply and in a usable format.

Do You Have an Exit Plan?

A wise IT consultant I worked with in the document management and PLM field said something to me years ago that has stuck with me: Never put your data into a piece of software unless you know how to get it back out.

This advice is more prescient now than ever before and it begs the following questions:

  • Do you have full control of where/how your data is stored?
  • Can you download all your design data in a format that will be portable to another system?
  • Would you be able to leave your existing software vendor or will you simply have to endure price hikes and format changes?
  • Are you being pushed to a Fileless Cloud CAD future?

Your management may not be asking these questions yet, but you should be! If you sense that your company has no exit plan or is drifting towards total dependency on a software vendor in the cloud, it’s time to consider what that might mean in terms of budgets and exit strategies in coming years.

Summing Up

While cloud-based CAD tools do make sense in some cases and applications, we should all analyze how the move will affect our data formats and ability to work independent of specific software vendor’s tools. In the next edition of the CAD Manager’s Newsletter, I’ll provide some methods and checklists for CAD managers to secure their CAD assets and avoid being trapped in Fileless Cloud CAD Land in the future.

What are your thoughts on this? I welcome your e-mail at or you can drop a comment at the CAD Manager’s Unite Facebook group here. Until next time.

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green