The Promise and Reality of CAD on the Cloud, Part 2

12 Aug, 2014 By: Robert Green

Messages from the ground: What your fellow CAD managers think of the cloud.

In the previous edition of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, we embarked upon a review of how CAD on the cloud has panned out for users and CAD managers alike. If you haven't read it already, you may want to start there in order to have proper context for the conclusions we'll draw in this edition.

In addition to the experiences I've had with clients and vendors, I also invited feedback from all of you via my CAD Managers Unite! Facebook group. In this edition, we'll strive to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a cloud approach to CAD, using those reader comments as a springboard. Here goes.

What Is the Cloud?

Since "the cloud" is not usually defined in concrete terms, it is always instructive to think about what the cloud really is: Is it a new idea, or merely the latest incarnation of an old one? As with most new technologies, drawing historical parallels is a useful way to illustrate how things work. To this end, I loved what Facebook group member Shawn Foster had to say on the subject:

The pendulum swings. It always has, and now we've come back to a version of what we had 25–40 years ago: centralized computing. We spent a whole bunch of the 90s and early 2000s trying to justify the desktop costs, so the processes worked on how fast the desktop could be, how can we get our data to the desktop quickly, how can we write it back faster, how can we cache data ... now the pendulum swings back the other way. That's all the cloud is to me ... a big ol' VAX [a mainframe computer line manufactured by Digital Equipment that was popular in the 70s and 80s] in a centralized location. The difference now is instead of connecting and doing the work in the central location, the central location is 'publishing' a file back to the user's desktop for work in an application.

Even if you have never worked in an old data center environment populated with VAX computers via remote terminals, I can assure you that Shawn is correct in saying we've been here before. The cloud is not a new idea, it is just more universally available now (because of widespread Internet access), and it is faster because our connection speeds are much better than the 1,200-baud dial-up modems we used in the old days.

Conclusion: Whether our move to a centralized cloud will spawn another wave of personal computing devices (think next-generation tablets/smartphones with beefier processors and operating systems) or not is debatable, but history does tend to repeat itself.

Note: Anyone who's interested in learning more about how computing used to work (or who wants to relive the past) should read through this Wikipedia entry explaining VAX computing.

Cloud-Based CAD (SAAS)

Cloud-based software companies have strongly advocated the adoption of software as a service (SAAS) — essentially meaning you rent your software. This idea is not new, but it hasn't gained much traction for the following reasons:

  • You don't control your own software.
  • Cloud/Internet outages stop work.
  • You have no control over the vendor's actions.

Senior management groups I talk with keep telling me they don't want to be dependent on a vendor maintaining all their data — not when they don't own that server, and the vendor might go away at any time. I agree with their concerns wholeheartedly, as do many of you who commented.

Facebook group member Tony Annechino asked a perfectly valid question that is starting to get some attention:

Why does software rental require that the data be stored with the software? Why can't working files be transferred to the renter's servers, with an absolute promise of deletion by the vendor? Vendors could be made to be free of responsibility for backups once the file(s) is/are successfully returned back to the renter.

The software companies are starting to respond to this line of thought by installing applications on the user's local machine, with a licensing agent pinging the cloud server to validate the license. Data can then reside on the user's local network rather than a cloud server.

Conclusion: Given the valid objections to cloud-based software, it is more likely that cloud software vendors will give up and allow their customers to install a local software tool (similar to apps on smartphones) than continue to fight an unwinnable battle.

Cloud Storage and the Security Conundrum

Any data stored on the cloud must be secured against theft or hacking — that much goes without saying. Comments I received on the topic varied in interesting ways that merit exploration.

First, on the topic of data security and access, Facebook group member Osama Sayed Elewa explained how his multibranch global office has approached the problem:

Your baby must be in your own hands! Do not put your data on the public cloud, but if it's a private cloud it's OK. We have been using cloud applications and VPN for Revit Server for almost three years to let other branches open and follow up on our models progressions. We have found render farm clouds (upload specific data then download results with promises of deleting from the vendor) very useful.

So in this case, Mr. Elewa's firm avoids cloud security issues by not using the cloud except for very specific short-term processing tasks where their data is only in the cloud for short periods of time.

Note: This is a consensus opinion, based on the e-mails I received from readers.

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About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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