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Design Tools Make Their Way to the Cloud
August 23, 2010
6 Min Read
The cloud, the ambiguous piece of compute real estate thatis gaining real ground with mainstream IT applications, is seeing some tractionin the design tool world as vendors explore early technology prototypes thathave the potential of transforming the way engineers collaborate and tap intomassive amounts of processing horsepower.
While the definitions can vary, cloud computing typicallyrefers to a computing model where the Web is employed to deliver on-demandaccess to a shared pool of computing resources, be it servers, storage,applications or services. Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) is probably the mostwell understood model, in which software providers host and maintainapplications 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 nowwidely available as cloud offerings, traditional design tools such as CAD andCAE have, for the most part, yet to be delivered in this fashion. The cloud isnot viewed as a proper fit for engineering applications for a variety oftechnical reasons, not the least of which is having access to highly available,high-performance Internet bandwidth. There are also concerns that a cloud modelis not well suited to delivering the performance and interactivity required fordata-intensive, graphically demanding CAD and CAE applications, especially whenit comes to handling complex assemblies and larger models. "CAD is way morecomplicated than pulling records out of an indexed table in a database andspitting them out to a browser," says Deelip Menezes, founder and CEO of SYCODE, an India-based CAD softwaredevelopment company and a blogger on theCAD software industry. "There is a lot of data and computing involved, whichlargely depends on the capabilities of the hardware being used."
Design Tools Make Their Way to the Cloud_A
The other part of the equation is engineers' on-goingconcerns around the security of the cloud and their hesitancy to give up controlover data and designs to a third party. "In general, our industry is slow toadopt new technology," says Fielder Hiss, vice president, product management atSolidWorks. "Our users are oftenconservative in a lot of ways and have strong concerns about intellectualproperty. Therefore, it can be a slow transition to begin to adopt apotentially new platform that can bring a lot of reach to our products."
Collaboration in the Cloud
Nevertheless, while engineers are hardly clamoring for CADor CAE in the cloud, vendors like SolidWorks see a real opportunity to delivernew functionality and establish novel ways of working a euro " even if those changesare still several years out. Initially, SolidWorks sees the cloud having hugepotential to facilitate collaboration, particularly for geographicallydispersed development teams, Hiss says. Cloud offerings can provide an easilyaccessible, central repository for design data that doesn't require a hugeinvestment in enterprise software and deployment services like traditional PLM,for example, and such a platform could open up design collaboration tonon-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 earlycloud development efforts this February at the SolidWorks World 2010 userconference, including SolidWorks Connect, which will be the company's firstonline, cloud-based collaboration tool. The offering, based on the ENOVIA online infrastructure fromDassault SystA"mes, will roll out to alpha customers this fall and be releasedto mainstream customers by early next year. CAD rival Autodesk also has acloud-based collaboration project underway. ProjectButterfly, an AutodeskTechnology Preview, is a Web-based service that will let users edit andcollaborate on DWG files using a Web browser. In a somewhat different vein, Mental Images GMGH, a subsidiary ofNVIDIA, offers the NVIDA RealityServer, a GPU-based cloud computing solutionthat streams interactive, photorealistic 3-D applications, including those thatcould facilitate joint design reviews, to any Web-connected PC, laptop, netbookor smart phone.
Unlike full CAD authoring and CAE applications, there is aprecedent for Web-based design collaboration tools. Leading PLM vendors like PTC and Oracle have for years offeredon-demand versions of their platforms which they host and support, and Arena Solutions has built up a wholebusiness around selling a bill of materials (BOM) management and changemanagement tool that's sold under the SaaS model. Red Byer, co-founder and vicepresident of operations at MobiusPhotonics, a manufacturer of fiber-based laser sources and a user of theArena software, says support for the cloud had no bearing on his decision to gowith the software. "It was simply the best solution for our needs forconstructing complex BOMs and communicating file and part information among oneanother regardless of whether it was hosted or run in-house," he says.
Byer, who has no concerns about security in the cloud, doeshave some skepticism about employing the delivery approach for mainstream CADand CAE tools. "Mechanical tool files are too big," he says. "I don't see howyou can download several gigabytes every day." Even so, Byer is open to thewheels of progress and thinks it would be "fantastic" to see design tools likeSolidWorks and others offered in that fashion.
Changing the Game
Byer may have some valid concerns when it comes totranslating traditional CAD and CAE offerings to the cloud, but the biggerpicture is to leverage the benefits and potential of the new delivery platformto transform existing applications and change the way engineers work and getproductivity from design tools. "Most are focusing on the cloud to do the oldmethod better, cheaper, faster," says Brian Mathews, vice president of Autodesk Labs, "but thereal implication is to do what couldn't have been done before with thetraditional model."
Mathews says Autodesk is increasing its investment in cloudcomputing development and has nearly 16 projects in play, including ProjectButterfly, Project Cumulus, which leverages the cloud to bring morecomputational power to MoldFlow plastics simulation customers, and ProjectCentaur, which lets mechanical design engineers offload optimization tasksto the cloud, while they still retain the use of Inventor on the desktop. Thereis also Project Twitch,a test bed for remote delivery of trial versions of Autodesk applications overthe Internet without having to install or download any software. "Think aboutsimulation on big models taking hours and hours, if not days, to run on adesktop, 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, secondsor hours and you don't have to buy a supercomputer. Not only do you get answersmuch more quickly, but you end up asking more questions ... so the machine cangive you the optimal answer to your optimization, rather than an acceptableanswer. 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 isPTC, which already offers its Windchill PLM platform as a hosted version in thecloud, but has only 100 customers using it that way, according to TomShoemaker, PTC's vice president solutions marketing.
In the end, it won't boil down to an either/or decision, butrather, a combination of both approaches will win out. "No one has anyintentions 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 solveproblems 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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