CAD on the cloud

11 January 2013

Martyn Day looks at the benefits for cloud-based software for developers as well as for those who’ll be using these tools

It may come as a bit of a shock but most of the design applications that we use today are approaching old age.

Some software developers have managed to maintain monolithic lumps of code by building extra functionality on top of them whilst others have had nips and tucks along the way. For instance, products like SolidWorks and Inventor are between 13 and 17 years old with huge capabilities having been added to them.

We are now on the cusp of a change that is seeing software firms going back to the drawing board to come up with architecture and capabilities which will last for the next 20 years.

That is no easy feat. Firms have to guess the popular operating systems, flexible and sustainable architectures and adapt to new business models that may come along.

There is also the impossible task of creating a new design tool that may or may not maintain backwards compatibility and has capabilities that have taken decades to acquire or develop.

While many of us will just want what we have but better, the software developers are having to go back to square one to bypass brick wall limitations in their code to devise the next big thing.

Both SolidWorks and Autodesk have been hard at work to get ‘to the cloud’ with new modelling tools. For instance, SolidWorks v6, which is due in April 2013, and Autodesk Fusion 360, which was announced in November 2012.

Even PTC said at DEVELOP3D Live, which took place at Warwick Arts Centre in April 2012, that it was investigating Creo in the cloud.

There are also start-ups like ‘Sunglass’ (Sunglass.io) and the original founder of SolidWorks, Jon Hirschtick, who has assembled much of his old team and seems keen to try and reinvent the modelling paradigm again but in the cloud. 

For these new firms, with no legacy to worry about, it’s full steam ahead. For the old guard it’s going to require careful messaging and shepherding to bring their engineering bases with them. Both SolidWorks and Autodesk are creating new products for their next generation, while maintaining their ‘old’ products.

The idea is that customers will use the right tool for the job, whichever makes the most sense. However for a very long time, the old version will be the most capable and deep.

It’s not without some fear that the large developers see this transition as a potential extinction level event if they get this move wrong.

It’s the additional benefits that the cloud offers that the software developers are most enchanted by

Cloud does not necessarily mean that the application will be hosted remotely on a server, it may take various forms depending on what platform it’s being used on — workstation, tablet, browser or even smartphone.

Data could be held remotely or on a private cloud and for many years a dedicated desktop application will still be essential.

It’s the additional benefits that the cloud offers that the software developers are most enchanted by — such as enhanced collaboration, enormous processing power and parallelisation of tasks such as analysis and rendering.

As capability is added to the cloud side of the equation, over time it will make less sense to host it locally. But for this to work properly internet bandwidth is going to be essential and engineering platforms will need to be operating in a connected environment.

The historical model of buying software licenses will also get shaken up in the process. With CAD software becoming a service which can be switched on or off at will, capability will be able to be switched on or off based on project need.

The only question here is: how will engineers remember to utilise the less frequently used on-demand functionality, which may perform complex tasks such as analysis?

In a recent conversation about Fusion 360 with Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk, he was convinced that the cost of ownership in using cloud-based applications would be a dramatic improvement for customers but until anything is delivered this is a hard claim to qualify, given the current subscription models that most of the CAD developers have adopted.

While the software developers are busy reinventing our wheels, there are considerable technology challenges to overcome, not to mention the cultural issues of a shift in adoption.

While there’s very little to show, in terms of ‘cloud CAD’, there is already a dogfight happening above us.

While it is hoped that you will choose your vendor’s vision of CAD on the cloud, they know that this may not be necessarily the case.

New business models mean that access to all CAD systems will be as interchangeable as selecting a browser.

The one thing that I am certain of is that in 2013 it will be important for designers and engineers not to ignore the new generation of tools, despite their limitations.

While adoption may be years off, the mass movement of developers to the new cloud paradigm means the tools you are currently using are officially heading towards life support. A trip to Dignitas may be a decade away but the next generation tools are being born and everything is up for grabs.

Come visit DEVELOP3D Live at Warwick Arts Centre on Tuesday 16 April 2013 to hear more.

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