'Spell CAD A-S-P'

DN Staff

March 12, 2001

9 Min Read
'Spell CAD A-S-P'

One of engineers' favorite sports is complaining about the cost of software seats, maintenance, and training. In 2000, a new paradigm emerged that purported to solve these problems in a single stroke. This magic bullet is called an application service provider (ASP).

An ASP-based company works by hosting a software application on its own servers, letting customers access the program by dialing in over the Internet or on private lines. That way, small companies don't have to buy seats at all; they just rent them by the month. Traveling engineers don't need to lug around large computers; they can just dial-a-processor from their hotel room. And software upgrades don't spell extra work for the engineers' IT department, since the ASP will automatically upgrade its version of the application. Sounds perfect, right?

Well, according to engineers we interviewed, today's ASP technology is not yet as reliable as the software on your desktop. Many engineers have questions about the security of their data, about the availability of on-demand tech support, and about the solvency of Internet companies in today's stormy economy.

Still, ASP's potential is so great that all these engineers said they would use it again. Here is a review of their most common challenges in doing thin-client, Web-based engineering, and how they solved them.

Improving models of power tools. At Black and Decker, engineers make a lot of power tool prototypes in-house, then send them to suppliers for quoting and tooling. The company works with about 130 different vendors, so translating the various CAD model formats is a constant challenge.

"We're always looking for something to help with translation," says Jim Day, data transfer administrator at Black and Decker's Towson, MD offices. "Anything that can keep the history, instead of going back down to a dumb solid."

And there's a lot at stake-a single mistake can delay a project's time-to-market. "We've tried every trick in the book to get stuff out, but we're at the mercy of the supplier," he says. "We get nervous whenever we send data out, because all it takes is a couple of bad transfers and it can almost double our lead time."

Faced with that challenge, they tried PlanetCAD's PrescientQA products for improving CAD model quality. DesignQA corrects incomplete or inconsistent CAD modeling practices, and GeometryQA eliminates geometric problems that hinder data exchange. These products currently run as client/server software behind a company's firewall, but will soon be available as java-based and ASP versions, says PlanetCAD spokesperson Rachael Dalton-Taggart.

PlanetCAD also offers purely web-based tools to automate data interchange through the supply chain: 3Dshare.com is designed to translate and heal 3D CAD models; bits2parts.com is a trading exchange for rapid prototyping RFQs; and quote-a-part.com offers metal machining cost estimates for CAD models.

The Black and Decker engineers got the job done with PrescientQA, although Day had to make some of the changes manually. "But I would try it again," he says. "For example, we're trying a translation from CATIA to Parasolid now, to see if we can do it over the Internet instead of behind our firewall."

Like other designers, Day is willing to venture outside his firewall for the glaring benefits: his company doesn't have enough Pro/ENGINEER or CATIA experts in-house, and there is a high maintenance cost of keeping seats of that software going on an enterprise basis, instead of simply doing it over the Internet for a single job.

The hurdle of firewalls. There are three main reasons for engineers to design projects through an ASP, says Ron Watson, senior director of product management at Centric Software, San Jose, CA. First, "if you're in a collaborative setting and a part has different producers to it, it's usually appropriate to use an ASP."

Other motivations include the cheaper cost than buying a permanent seat of a high-end 3D solid modeler, and the flexibility that an ASP allows when you're trying to work with a distributed team of people. Centric makes web-enabled collaborative innovation applications that can bring together product information from CAD, CAM, CAE, PDM, and more.

"But the problem for a large company is that the ASP can be restricted by firewall access, and also the company's unwillingness to put data on a server outside that firewall," he says. A firewall is used by companies to keep their computer networks secure, often by separating their public Web server from their private network.

ASPs can also be a poor fit for companies that work with so many layers of suppliers that there's no central connection point, he says. For instance: "BMW outsources lots of design, so it's essentially a large project management shop," says Watson. "They define which supplier will do each job, and assign information to each."

Because of these doubts, engineering firms will never let go of all their in-house software, he predicts: "There will always be a need for CAD users to have a simple application they can bring up on their own machines as easily as Microsoft Word."

Rent your software. Some of the most eager adopters of the ASP method are small engineering consulting shops like H32 in Wilmot, NH.

"The reality of it is, for a firm like mine, I would never buy my own FEA program," says company owner and founder Howard Horn.

So with his 56k modem, Horn used e.visualNastran from MSC.Software for his independent product design development. He notes, "You can do all your work in their system-it's just a web page on your system-which is nice because you can be running Pro/E and other high-end software on your own system while you're doing simulation online." Horn typically works on projects like turbines, wind tunnels, electronics packaging, high-end printer heads, and high-voltage power supplies.

"It's a good product if you know its limitations," he says. "For a dynamic analysis, I would not think twice about using it again."

Creating hybrid ASPs. Despite the bumps in the road, there's no question that the engineering market has a crying need for ASP.

"Most of the companies using CAD software are too small to set up their own servers," says Aaron Freedman, VP of business & product development, RealityWave, Cambridge, MA. "But if you want to do collaboration, ASPs are absolutely essential for probably 80% of CAD users, who don't have the ability to run their own servers."

Under this reality, most engineering companies are experimenting with ASPs to do simulation, translation, or collaboration, but not yet pure CAD.

"Companies are beginning to take non-ASP products and build ASP versions out of them because they require access over the Internet. And they're running into problems with model size, complexity, and downloadable data," he says.

Freedman says there may be a hybrid solution, where companies will run their own servers, and use the ASP model to distribute software usage, much like a client-server arrangement: "In fact, many ASPs don't realize that their customers are going to want to run their own servers," he says.

Overcoming your fear of ASPs. Despite the obvious advantages, customer fears have slowed the widespread adoption of ASPs, says Bradford Willard, a solutions manager at Tivoli Systems, a systems management company in Austin, TX.

"The biggest customer concerns are centered on security. Companies are reluctant to store proprietary data in potentially insecure data centers, or to access it over lines that could be compromised," Willard says.

Customers also worry about 24/7 application and tech support availability, he says. This problem can be tough to solve since many ASPs outsource some of their own chores, using Internet hosting companies or data storage centers.

Once they're satisfied an application is secure and available, many customers demand flawless performance, which can be difficult for ASPs to guarantee because some technology problems may be beyond their control, such as heavy Internet traffic, or problems with a customers' router. And finally, many customers need to integrate legacy data, since many have waded into the ASP pool very slowly, contracting for a variety of single applications without a strategy for combining them, Willard says.

Other ASP concerns may include: maintaining customers as the ASP diversifies into new businesses; and detailing a "Doomsday Scenario" for protecting customers' systems and data if the ASP company itself goes out of business.

One solution to these challenges is drafting more specific SLAs (service level agreements) to ensure that customers' expectations are realistic. Even so, customers' concerns are often eased only slowly, through experimental ASP use, analysts' assurances, or merely anecdotal evidence, Willard says.

Still, the potential benefits of using an ASP's services are clear: Companies can focus on their core competencies and outsource the rest; they can get faster software upgrades than their in-house IT departments could provide; and smaller companies can suddenly afford to use expensive applications.

Faced with finding a balance between the pressures of business and the risks of using a new technology, engineers will continue to use ASPs.

Various ASPs and what they provide

Alibre

Alventive

Ariba

ASPire3D

CoCreate

CollabWare

e2open

IDe

iEngineer Informative

Graphics Corp.

MatrixOne

MSC.Software

PlanetCAD

Primavera

PTC

Quickparts.com

searchasp.com

SmarTeam

STEP Tools

TechNet

Theorem Solutions

WebScope

Sign up for the Design News Daily newsletter.

You May Also Like