SolidWorks gave the
5,000 attendees of its SolidWorks World 2010 user event a peek into where the
future of the 3-D CAD program lies, showcasing an experimental version of the
tool primed for cloud computing.
At the opening day general session, SolidWorks CEO Jeff Ray
showed off a demo of a new version of SolidWorks running as a native
application on the Mac OS — a platform that many of its customer base have long
wanted the company to support. The company also trotted out a virtualized
version of the new SolidWorks release running on a Netbook computer, as well as
a multi-touch platform under Windows7. The intent of the demo was twofold,
according to Austin O'Malley, SolidWorks' executive vice president of research
and development. The first was to demonstrate SolidWorks' commitment to device
choice and the second was to embrace the cloud computing model as way to give
users automatic transparent data access.
"A lot of people are using things like Netbooks and mobile
devices and these users want flexibility," O'Malley explains. "The way we look
at it, users should have the choice to work with any device they want — whatever
provides a better user experience."
By introducing SolidWorks to the cloud, the company is embarking
on a paradigm shift around collaboration, according to O'Malley. Engineers will
be able to work on a design locally at their desktop, save it to the cloud, go
home and access that very same design from their device of choice. That same
flexibility extends to collaboration with extended design teams. Today, people
collaborate mostly asynchronously via email or sending out drawings in a tube,
or they employ tools for real-time collaboration. Yet once those sessions end,
the project is no longer immediately accessible. "What we're trying to provide
is more akin to how people work in the real world," O'Malley explains. "What
the cloud does is provide a paradigm where the model is always alive and you
can access it at any time. It's like a massive multiplayer game — it doesn't
shut down like collaboration tools do today." There will also be a range of
social networking functions delivered in the cloud version of SolidWorks to
promote design collaboration and foster community.
Cloud computing, or software-as-a-service as it's referred
to in some circles, is a gaining traction in enterprise computing as a flexible
and low-cost alternative for deploying software. Instead of running
applications on each individual computer, the cloud model offloads the main processing
to a hosted server, which can be located anywhere, and the application is
delivered as a service to the desktop via the Internet and a browser. Companies
are attracted to the cloud model because of its scalability and
ease-of-administration benefits, not to mention the cost efficiencies of shared
computing resources and only paying for what you need.
CAD and other kinds of engineering software have not been
linked to the emerging cloud computing phenomenon for a number of reasons.
Security remains a concern as companies — and individual engineers — are
hesitant about putting their intellectual property in the uncharted territory
of the cloud, which is outside of their control. Perhaps the biggest concern is
performance-related. Due to the highly graphical and mathematical nature of
CAD, simulation and other kinds of engineering software, many have been
skeptical about doing compute- and time-intensive operations such as rebuilds
and meshes over the Web while still achieving optimal performance.
Rob Rodriguez, an active member of the SolidWorks community
and owner of Axis CAD Solutions LLC,
a provider of visualization services, says the performance concerns lie more
with the cloud infrastructure in terms of bandwidth rather than with any
SolidWorks technology. Nevertheless, he says he's intrigued by the promise of a
cloud model and the benefits it can provide CAD users. "The primary benefits as
I see them are access to real-time data anywhere in the world, access to
real-time data on almost any device and the ability for non-CAD owners or users
to view, review and comment on the data," he explains. As far as the cloud
model goes, "the implied promise of better performance, more stability, lower
overhead, operating system independence and better data sharing and reuse are
all big deals for engineers," he adds.
O'Malley says the cloud computing model, along with new
multicore processor capabilities on the desktop, address the performance issues
not as they relate to speeding up a single operation, but rather, being able to
perform certain processing tasks simultaneously. In this vein, SolidWorks is
talking about things like predictive engineering, or the idea of the software
doing things ahead of time in anticipation of a user's next move. So, for
example, the software could alert the engineer if their design didn't meet
specified tolerance levels as they were in the process of designing. The new
capabilities could also come into play with analysis, making that function
available to the engineer during the product design workflow as opposed to
being a post-processing step as it exists today.
As part of its push into the cloud, SolidWorks also showed
off some work-in-progress with its parent company Dassault
Systèmes. The companies previewed a next-generation ENOVIA, akin to Salesforce.com, which would serve as a
cloud computing platform upon which application services could be built and
delivered. SolidWorks previewed one such service: Product Data Sharing, which
would provide social networking capabilities along with data management, data
versioning and visualization capabilities for collaborating with design
The new SolidWorks cloud computing functionality, which has
been in development for nearly three years, has not yet been slated for any
specific product offerings. However, O'Malley says SolidWorks is aiming to
release some type of cloud-based offering by the end of the year.
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