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Design Tools Make Their Way to the Cloud

Design Tools Make Their Way to the Cloud

The cloud, the ambiguous piece of compute real estate that is gaining real ground with mainstream IT applications, is seeing some traction in the design tool world as vendors explore early technology prototypes that have the potential of transforming the way engineers collaborate and tap into massive amounts of processing horsepower.

While the definitions can vary, cloud computing typically refers to a computing model where the Web is employed to deliver on-demand access to a shared pool of computing resources, be it servers, storage, applications or services. Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) is probably the most well understood model, in which software providers host and maintain applications in their own data centers and use the Web as a low-cost, low-maintenance mechanism to deliver software to users.

While enterprise applications such as ERP and CRM are now widely available as cloud offerings, traditional design tools such as CAD and CAE have, for the most part, yet to be delivered in this fashion. The cloud is not viewed as a proper fit for engineering applications for a variety of technical reasons, not the least of which is having access to highly available, high-performance Internet bandwidth. There are also concerns that a cloud model is not well suited to delivering the performance and interactivity required for data-intensive, graphically demanding CAD and CAE applications, especially when it comes to handling complex assemblies and larger models. "CAD is way more complicated than pulling records out of an indexed table in a database and spitting them out to a browser," says Deelip Menezes, founder and CEO of SYCODE, an India-based CAD software development company and a blogger on the CAD software industry. "There is a lot of data and computing involved, which largely depends on the capabilities of the hardware being used."

Design Tools Make Their Way to the Cloud

The other part of the equation is engineers' on-going concerns around the security of the cloud and their hesitancy to give up control over data and designs to a third party. "In general, our industry is slow to adopt new technology," says Fielder Hiss, vice president, product management at SolidWorks. "Our users are often conservative in a lot of ways and have strong concerns about intellectual property. Therefore, it can be a slow transition to begin to adopt a potentially new platform that can bring a lot of reach to our products."

Collaboration in the Cloud

Nevertheless, while engineers are hardly clamoring for CAD or CAE in the cloud, vendors like SolidWorks see a real opportunity to deliver new functionality and establish novel ways of working a euro " even if those changes are still several years out. Initially, SolidWorks sees the cloud having huge potential to facilitate collaboration, particularly for geographically dispersed development teams, Hiss says. Cloud offerings can provide an easily accessible, central repository for design data that doesn't require a huge investment in enterprise software and deployment services like traditional PLM, for example, and such a platform could open up design collaboration to non-traditional CAD users who simply need a way to do lightweight editing, participate in design views and provide feedback, he explains.

SolidWorks provided a peek at its early cloud development efforts this February at the SolidWorks World 2010 user conference, including SolidWorks Connect, which will be the company's first online, cloud-based collaboration tool. The offering, based on the ENOVIA online infrastructure from Dassault SystA"mes, will roll out to alpha customers this fall and be released to mainstream customers by early next year. CAD rival Autodesk also has a cloud-based collaboration project underway. Project Butterfly, an Autodesk Technology Preview, is a Web-based service that will let users edit and collaborate on DWG files using a Web browser. In a somewhat different vein, Mental Images GMGH, a subsidiary of NVIDIA, offers the NVIDA RealityServer, a GPU-based cloud computing solution that streams interactive, photorealistic 3-D applications, including those that could facilitate joint design reviews, to any Web-connected PC, laptop, netbook or smart phone.

Unlike full CAD authoring and CAE applications, there is a precedent for Web-based design collaboration tools. Leading PLM vendors like PTC and Oracle have for years offered on-demand versions of their platforms which they host and support, and Arena Solutions has built up a whole business around selling a bill of materials (BOM) management and change management tool that's sold under the SaaS model. Red Byer, co-founder and vice president of operations at Mobius Photonics, a manufacturer of fiber-based laser sources and a user of the Arena software, says support for the cloud had no bearing on his decision to go with the software. "It was simply the best solution for our needs for constructing complex BOMs and communicating file and part information among one another regardless of whether it was hosted or run in-house," he says.

Byer, who has no concerns about security in the cloud, does have some skepticism about employing the delivery approach for mainstream CAD and CAE tools. "Mechanical tool files are too big," he says. "I don't see how you can download several gigabytes every day." Even so, Byer is open to the wheels of progress and thinks it would be "fantastic" to see design tools like SolidWorks and others offered in that fashion.

Changing the Game

Byer may have some valid concerns when it comes to translating traditional CAD and CAE offerings to the cloud, but the bigger picture is to leverage the benefits and potential of the new delivery platform to transform existing applications and change the way engineers work and get productivity from design tools. "Most are focusing on the cloud to do the old method better, cheaper, faster," says Brian Mathews, vice president of Autodesk Labs, "but the real implication is to do what couldn't have been done before with the traditional model."

Mathews says Autodesk is increasing its investment in cloud computing development and has nearly 16 projects in play, including Project Butterfly, Project Cumulus, which leverages the cloud to bring more computational power to MoldFlow plastics simulation customers, and Project Centaur, which lets mechanical design engineers offload optimization tasks to the cloud, while they still retain the use of Inventor on the desktop. There is also Project Twitch, a test bed for remote delivery of trial versions of Autodesk applications over the Internet without having to install or download any software. "Think about simulation on big models taking hours and hours, if not days, to run on a desktop, depending on what you're doing," Mathews explains. "With the cloud, you can ask for 10, 100, even a 1,000 CPUs and rent them for minutes, seconds or hours and you don't have to buy a supercomputer. Not only do you get answers much more quickly, but you end up asking more questions ... so the machine can give you the optimal answer to your optimization, rather than an acceptable answer. This is a disruptive change."

Of course, not all CAD, CAE and PLM vendors see it that way. Siemens PLM Software, following the lead of its customers, is taking a "wait and see" approach, according to Richard Bush, the company's director of marketing for CAE. So is PTC, which already offers its Windchill PLM platform as a hosted version in the cloud, but has only 100 customers using it that way, according to Tom Shoemaker, PTC's vice president solutions marketing.

In the end, it won't boil down to an either/or decision, but rather, a combination of both approaches will win out. "No one has any intentions of putting all their data and applications in the cloud a euro " rather, it's about finding ways to take online cloud computing as a tool and solve problems we're not solving with the desktop today," says SolidWorks' Hiss. "It's just another delivery mechanism or platform we can leverage for our customers."

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