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Clearing Up Cloud Computing — Before It’s too Late

Shedding some light on cloud computing

Shedding some light on cloud computing

Let’s nip it in the bud!

Let’s get clear on cloud computing before we embrace it, denounce it, or do something unspeakable to it. As coverage on the topic piles up, I fear the loosely defined phrase will suffer the same fate as PLM (product lifecycle management). It’s interpreted, reinterpreted, and misinterpreted (sometimes deliberately) till it becomes a fuzzy buzzword.

We’ve all been using cloud computing for quite some time now; we just don’t refer to it as such. Facebook and Twitter are perhaps the best examples. We don’t install a program folder in a directory in our local machine to run Facebook or Twitter. We launch them from our browser; we use them in our browser; we shut them down by closing our browser.

Let’s start with a definition. I like the simple, straightforward description used by CNET’s Stephen Shankland, who summarized the concept as “shared computing services accessible over the Internet that can expand or contract on demand” (“Gartner: Brace Yourself for Cloud Computing,” October 20, 2009, Deep Tech, CNET).

Products and services delivered using this model are sometimes referred to as SaaS (software as a service) or on-demand solutions. Most of them share certain characteristics:

  • The main program files and folders reside in a remote server, accessible 24/7 via some kind of networking protocols (the most commonly used kind being Internet protocols).
  • You don’t need to install the program in your local machine (some may require you to install a thin client to communicate with the remote program, but most use a standard browser to handle the communication).
  • You don’t purchase a license to use the program; instead, you buy a subscription to get access to the hosted software’s functions.
  • Typically, they cost less than shrink-wrapped software or desktop licenses.

Working Examples
A few browser-based solutions that fit the criteria above are available right now. Some have been in business for nearly a decade. Arena Solutions, for example, offers on-demand BOM (bill of materials) and ECO (engineering change order) management modules for roughly $100 per user per month. Aligni lets you manage your parts and components using its online software for service plans beginning from $15 per month. ProtectedPDF lets you embed and manage read/write/print privileges on your PDF documents in service plans beginning at $100 per month. RenderJam (formerly AfterCAD Online) lets you upload, annotate, visualize, and share 3D files from a browser.

Add to that list a few browser-based applications that are currently in development: Autodesk Project Twitch, Autodesk Project Butterfly, Autodesk Project Dragonfly, and Autodesk Project Showroom. We may soon see similar technologies from Autodesk’s rival SolidWorks, according to what we’ve heard during SolidWorks World 2010.

Where It’s Best Used
Cloud computing, in my view, is most suitable for tasks for which your local machine’s computing power is either too much or too little. Using a 2.3GHz workstation to scribble a few notes on a DWG file is overkill. By the same token, rendering a complex animation sequence on a 1.8GHz notebook will inevitably test your patience.

For the first, a better approach is to use a lightweight DWG viewer/editor hosted on a server, accessible to you and your collaborators via a browser. For the second, a better approach is to tap into the collective resources of a remote render farm made available on demand. This way, you don’t have to shoulder the cost of purchasing and maintaining the hardware you use only occasionally.

Broadcasting a Facebook status (“I’m suffering from writer’s block–help!”) is instantaneous, because the volume of data involved is minimal. Rotating a CAD model, however, requires transmitting significantly more data back and forth between the client machine and the host machine. So the biggest challenge for browser-based CAD will be latency. Providers who can offer an online modeling experience that rivals (or closely matches) the desktop experience we’re accustomed to are the ones that will most likely succeed.

Security and Reliability
No storage system is 100% temper-proof. There’s no such thing as a secure system; but some are more secure than others. The question is not whether browser-based computing is secure, but whether it’s more — or less — secure than desktop computing. In my view, this is a moot point, because our desktops and laptops are connected to the cloud nearly 100% of the time. If they’re on, they’re probably connected to the web. So how secure is your desktop? It’s only as secure as the last web site you visited.

Reliability, however, is a legitimate concern in cloud computing. Because you need to rely on the remote program to do your work, you should rightfully be concerned with the system up time of the said provider. Established SaaS vendor Arena Solutions goes so far as to guarantee a 99.5% scheduled system up time in its service level agreement. Historically, it has a proven track record averaging 99.9% up time. I can think of many small and mid-size firms with under-staffed, under-equipped IT departments that cannot deliver the same assurance.

Browser-based solutions do not rely on your local machine’s operating system to launch or run, so whether you’re accessing them from a Windows, Mac, or a Linux environment won’t matter. So long as you’re logging in from a vendor-supported browser, it will run.

If browser-based CAD becomes the norm (at the moment, that’s more speculation than prediction), neutral file formats may enjoy a renaissance. Users may — and should — insist that these applications allow them to save works in neutral formats without data loss; that’s the only way to preserve access to their intellectual property in case the original vendor goes out of business, or they choose to work with a different vendor.

In my view, browser-based CAD would encourage users to rely more on geometry, and less on history. Because each software uses its own method to record and preserve history, transferring works between different solutions with their parametric histories in tact would be nearly impossible. As a result, we could be forced to invent new work flows — which depend on geometry more and less on history — to effectively collaborate with suppliers and subcontractors.

Why I Personally Like Browser-Based Programs
Each week, I try out at least one new software. Installing and uninstalling them is a chore, to put it mildly. In some cases, they leave behind small chunks of code, sprinkled all over my hard drive, which are not always visible to me. I long for the day I can simply test a product from a browser — without having to violate the sanctity of my own hard drive.

As I type these final sentences into WordPress’s composition window, I’m on cloud (so to speak). Chances are, most of the blog posts extolling the danger and risk of cloud computing were also composed in the cloud in the same fashion.

Note: For other perspectives on cloud, please read:

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About Kenneth

Kenneth Wong has been a regular contributor to the CAD industry press since 2000, first an an editor, later as a columnist and freelance writer for various publications. During his nine-year tenure, he has closely followed the migration from 2D to 3D, the growth of PLM (product lifecycle management), and the impact of globalization on manufacturing. His writings have appeared in Cadalyst, Computer Graphics World, and Manufacturing Business Technology, among others.


  1. Kenneth,

    Great post!

    With all the recent speculation surrounding cloud computing for CAD/CAE apps, your assessment seems to sum up facts better than other blogs I’ve read.

    I use a cloud based CRM/Accounting application every day. Perfomance and availability has been excellent.

    As you mentioned, unless users don’t access the web from their PC’s, they are always vulnerable to spyware, viruses, etc. To think we are more secure in a non-cloud environment is not realistic.

    While the potential for major disruption is higher with cloud computing, the resources to combat such situations are also much greater.

    Only time will tell if a majority of users will be willing to adopt CAD based cloud computing, but I suspect it will be highly successful.

  2. Thanks, John!

    I don’t discount the security concerns about using web-based applications, but I just feel it’s been way overblown.

    My guess is, in a browser-based CAD system, the data passing through the cloud would be pretty harmless if compromised–because they’ll just be packets representing display data, not geometry. Besides, these solutions would most likely give users the option to work online but save works to an offline drive, so if a user doesn’t trust the vendor’s security system, he/she doesn’t have to use it for storage.

    In one famous incident, an offshore employee of SolidWorks walked away with the source code and tried to sell it in the black market in India. That wasn’t a breach in the cloud; the code was stolen from a local machine.

  3. Have you tried using VMWare to do your software testing to avoid compromising your native hard drive?

  4. Ken,
    Cloud computing is great for those who really need super computing power. But unfortunately, life runs on politics and if I have some
    unfortunate relation or circumstance with the owner/ friend of the cloud my livliehood and career is toast. I believe individual ownership and computer access to internet resources needs more security but no centralization. As I see it, having a central cloud is a vulnerability and there would be no competition. not good. Cloud computing should be by subscription for those super computer jobs needed by industry and science.

    TC John

  5. Peeto: I haven’t tried using VMWare for software review, because I’m worried it might not give me an accurate idea of the software’s performance as an installed application. But maybe I should check it out.

    John: Can you explain why you feel central cloud [by that, I think you mean a centralized database hosted on a remote server] would have no competition? I’m not sure I follow.

  6. Here, here! Nice article, Kenneth. I am hearing many concerns (some bordering on complaints) from the CAD community ever since SolidWorks and Autodesk started talking about “CAD-on-the-cloud”. I think we all need to learn more about cloud computing before we render judgment on this technology. My more complete thoughts on this subject, the basics of private and community clouds, and how PLM will benefit from cloud computing can be found at http://www.razorleaf.com/2010/04/cloud-y-with-a-chance-of-plm/

  7. Hi, i must say fantastic website you include, i stumbled across it in Bing. Does you get much traffic?

  8. My company makes cloud-based civil engineering software for conceptual site design. It’s called SITEOPS. You cannot use it for final design, but for preliminary site layout and grading plans, it is INCREDIBLY powerful. It’s compatible with LandDesktop and Civil 3D as well as other DWG-based civil engineering apps.

    The cloud-based model enables our applications to use sophisticated algorithms to run through thousands of complex design alternatives for your site – essentially, it’s modeling thousands of combinations of conceptual layout, grading, and piping plans for a site, and helping you identify the ones that meet all of your design specs with lower cost. This just would not be possible with even the fastest computers in your office. The design work is done by you on your local machine, on a locally running piece of the software – only the “heavy lifting” processing such as optimization and storage is done in the cloud.

    Also, since the project data is stored in the cloud, you can have team members collaborating on a project. Create logins and permissions, and they can view or work on a project.

    It’s really amazing stuff. If you do any work that involves moving dirt or laying out buildings, parking, etc. you should certainly check out SITEOPS. And if you’re using Autodesk products, it’ll fit right into your existing workflow.

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  10. Denny Pignatelli

    Cloud computing is the use of computing resources (hardware and software) that are delivered as a service over a network (typically the Internet). For example, email. The name comes from the common use of a cloud-shaped symbol as an abstraction for the complex infrastructure it contains in system diagrams. Cloud computing entrusts remote services with a user’s data, software and computation.*

    Hottest piece of content on our very own blog site

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