The Future Risks of Fileless Cloud CAD, Finale24 Mar, 2021 By: Robert Green
CAD Manager Column: Where do you think your design data belongs? In the vendor’s cloud? Your own network? Find out why you should keep control of your data.
In the last edition of The CAD Manager’s Newsletter, we pondered an idyllic future world where everything about your CAD experience was fileless and based in the cloud. No more software to worry about, no files to track, just the pure bliss of logging into the software company web site and letting them take care of everything. I posited that such a world would be fraught with danger and would likely only achieve only one actual result — making customers dependent on a single vendor that holds your data.
I asked for reader comments and boy did I get them. I wondered if I’d be accused of being a Luddite or paranoid, but it turns out I’m not the only CAD manager who thinks the future of fileless cloud CAD is scary. In fact, I found the fear and loathing of CAD vendors from readers remarkably consistent. In this edition, I’ll share some reader feedback and provide conclusions to serve as a checklist for CAD managers to consider when pondering any moves to a fileless cloud-based system. Here goes.
Image source: BullRun/stock.adobe.com
Whose Property is Your Design and Who’s in Control
In the last installment I asked you to consider the following questions about fileless cloud CAD in the context of inherent risk:
- Who will control access to your design tools?
- Where will your design files reside?
- Who will control the information format?
These questions provoked several reader responses:
RC: “When the software company holds your tools in their cloud, they have control over your productivity. When your data is in their cloud, they have control over your business. All it takes is one time to have a disagreement over your account, and you can have your entire business held hostage.”
JO: I agree with your commentary. How do you control an agency submission that cannot change if you cannot control product updates on the cloud software? Algorithms can change and alter calculations; feature updates can alter appearance of plans. This is a giant, “Hell, no!” for me. Now, if it was optional, I could care less but we all know how “options” work in this world.
GB: As long as I have a say, the data files that I oversee will not go to someone else's cloud. It is bad enough that I now have to rent licenses.
Conclusions: When you hold your own data on your own servers, nobody can bill you to look at your own data. Can you say the same about cloud-based CAD tools? From a standpoint of data and financial security, fileless cloud CAD presents a wide range of risks that do not outweigh any perceived benefit for most CAD managers — certainly not the CAD managers quoted above.
Legacy File Support
One reader brought up an issue I’d not thought about regarding legacy files and projects:
JK: Our firm uses CAD files 25, 30, or more years old for new work, be they for new tenant improvements, additions, or remodels. With Cloud software and storage, what guarantee would there be that one could use these files? What if a Cloud vendor decided to not support, say files older than three prior upgrades? With Cloud subscriptions, one cannot even access a file created yesterday should the subscription lapse. Actually, owning the software installed on local machines can guarantee access to older files even if one switches to a different design software. Autodesk’s abandonment of permanent licenses just illustrates the point.
Conclusions: JK is right to emphasize that data storage and control is a problem that can span decades. The ability to go back to legacy data and continue to work with it is of paramount concern. Therefore, any data must be stored in formats durable enough to work in the future or the old software must be archived to run later. Will the cloud vendor even be in business in 10 or 20 years, and will those files be supported? Will the old software authorize and run? These are mission critical questions.
The Online Banking Argument
As I mentioned in the last installment, one of the arguments I hear from cloud vendors all the time is, “You do all your banking online and that’s an example of using a cloud service, so why not CAD?”
A few readers picked up on this thread and commented:
SL: Good analogy on the banking software, but the big difference is it's MY MONEY I'm accessing, and I can take MY MONEY back at any time.
RC: The only other situation that puts you at as much risk, is banking, but there are enough regulations and laws in place to provide some protection. Banks don't "own" the money, so they can't legally decide you can't have it. Yet a EULA (End User License Agreement) can allow all sorts of crazy behavior.
Conclusion: The clear differentiator between banking software and CAD software is that if I get mad enough at my bank, I can take my money and go elsewhere at any time. It’s not like my money is encrypted or that I must pay an annual subscription fee to gain access to my money. CAD customers do not enjoy such protections — as RC points out — so putting all your data in an online CAD account is simply an act of trust on your part. And, only you can decide how much you trust your CAD vendor.
But the Cloud is Inevitable, Right?
I received several responses which conveyed a sense of inevitability or defeat. Here are a couple examples:
MP: I understand the concerns, but if cloud-based is not the answer, how do you deal with super large datasets (5–10GB) when users are working from home?
A different MP: As much as I agree with you, I wonder how much control over the final outcome we really have? As much as most of us hate Big Brother ideology, how many of us only have land lines? Or only use fax machines? Never use the GPS in our cars? Technology in society is moving at a certain speed or trajectory. We either stay relatively close to that trajectory or we be become no longer relevant. I know that sounds pessimistic but show me an example where that has not been the case.
Conclusion: Both MP’s make valid points, but I would argue that it is cloud-based collaboration that is inevitable, not fileless cloud CAD. I can certainly use cloud-based collaboration tools from Dropbox all the way up to Panzura to enable work from home or remote site synchronization, but that doesn’t mean I don’t own the files or manage the CAD software locally. Similarly, I can use virtual machines to run my software, but that software is still mine to control and configure as I see fit. So, yes, we’ll all see the evolution of cloud collaboration tools, but I’ll still have my design files locally backed up behind my own firewall and my software tools will be fully under my control.
The Way Out is the Way In — Your Exit Plan
I mentioned that I used to work with another consultant in the document management and PLM field who told me: “Never put your data into a piece of software unless you know how to get it back out.” It turns out that several readers had similar thoughts about workflow and data security:
MW: I’m definitely not a fan of locking our company information into a proprietary format that forces us to recreate the wheel if we ever switch providers. I think back to one of the first things my principal told me: “We don’t sell calcs, we sell drawings.” I’m not going to just hand over control of our most valuable intellectual property to a software vendor (especially not one that has proven to be untrustworthy).
JK: I would hate to be the one to have to report to a client that we won’t meet deadline XYZ because our cloud software vendor’s site is down and by the way, they’ve been hacked and ransomware is demanding millions of dollars to, maybe, get files back."
MP: Store everything that your company creates in house on your own backed-up storage running off your own in-house network. Collaborate with others using cloud-based systems and don't put anything on cloud-based systems without the express permission of your clients. Some of our clients completely prohibit the use of any cloud-based systems for document transfer.
Note: JK’s fears were perfectly illustrated last year when Garmin was held hostage by a ransomware attack. Pilots and shipping firms couldn’t file GPS flight/sailing plans for several days while consumer products such as watches and cell phone apps that contained biometric/workout data were offline for over a week.
Conclusions: As these comments all indicate, you can only control your exit plan when you own your data. Keep your data locally backed up at minimum and if you are using cloud-based CAD tools, be sure you can export your data into some sort of neutral file format in case you need to leave.
Danger: It’s highly suspect if there is no way to export in a vendor neutral format from a cloud software application.
I must admit that even I am a little surprised at how much fear and distrust of CAD vendors I sensed from reader responses. It seems as if CAD managers view a future of fileless cloud-based CAD tools as dystopian rather than idyllic. Another permeating theme is that the CAD vendors would gain the advantage or as one reader put it, “The party that really benefits from a fileless cloud system is the cloud owner — never the customer.”
As you move forward in your budgeting and planning for the future, be sure to monitor how changes to cloud-based resources might affect you and then consider your data security and exit plans accordingly. Trust me when I say your management will be asking you about these issues as soon as the price increases affect their bottom line.