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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has more than 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the … More »

The CAx Cloud Becoming More Than Vapor

March 26th, 2015 by Jeff Rowe

As much as I have tried to resist the temptation to gush all over myself, I’ve had a tough time restraining my enthusiasm for the myriad cloud-based computing and storage options that have come online in the recent past and their potential. OK, it’s time for a reality check – facts, fallacies, myths, and risks.

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about a newcomer on the block, Onshape entitled Onshape: The Day After a New Dawn For 3D CAD.

Keep in mind, though, that Onshape is online only and always requires a Web connection to be functional. With connectivity so universally ubiquitous, this shouldn’t pose a problem for a majority of prospective users. At this time, the company has no plans for making Onshape available offfline, so if this is an issue or concern, then Onshape may not be a design tool for you. However, that said, I’d encourage you to check out Onshape.

Also, I pointed out that as interesting Onshape is, it is by no means the first or only cloud-based technical/design/engineering software offering. As a matter of fact, it turns out there are quite a few, including:

Admittedly, this is not an exhaustive list, and is not meant to be. I just wanted to provide some of the cloud-based tools currently available. I also realize that the above have different features and capabilities, so it’s not an “apples to apples” comparison.

While the following video is a few years old, and some of the technologies discussed have been superseded or retired, it provides a good overview for novices of what cloud computing is about.

Introduction to Cloud Computing

It wasn’t all that long ago that an executive of a major engineering software said that his company was not at all interested in the cloud as a platform (product, service, or otherwise) because he likened it to nothing more than vapor. Well, times have changed and that same company has devoted a lot of resources to cloud offerings, something it claimed a few years ago it would never do. How times (and attitudes) change.

OK, the cloud is more than vapor. That’s a given, but is it perfect? Of course not, but it is evolving and improving at a very high rate.

Cloud computing (remote computing) and cloud storage (remote storage) are really nothing new – some aspects go back to the 1960s. For example, cloud computing that allowed users in different time zones to benefit from unused computer resources was the main idea behind the ARPANET, eventually paving the way for the Internet. Cloud storage was originally known as off-site backup for emergency recovery purposes. What is new now, though, is the scale and reach of the cloud for computing and storage.

Although it is a bit different, for purposes here and for simplicity’s sake, I am grouping Software as a Service (SaaS) as part of cloud computing.

Today, cloud computing and storage are generally seen as good things, especially from a customer’s financial perspective. Generally, cloud services are cheaper than their dedicated physical counterparts where administration and management are overseen by a central authority. Simplistically, but in effect, you’re renting an application and CPU cores. The biggest advantage for relatively low-cost cloud computing has been as engines for startup and small businesses with little or no in-house IT infrastructure, although a business case can also be made for larger, more established organizations, as well.

Although I do and always have backed up my work and data religiously, many, if not most computer users do not, and won’t until disaster strikes. Cheap, automatic, and behind the scenes backup of data from computers and mobile devices to cloud storage is an easy way for protecting data from atrial or total loss.

This cloud computing and storage concept sounds really good in theory, but still as many inherent risks in practice. First and foremost there is the security concern that has been around since the inception of cloud computing and storage. Yes, it is still an issue, but seems to be getting better with time with more satisfactory encryption and cryptographic solutions. No scheme is perfect, but things continue to get better.

The Three Ways to Cloud Compute. Again, although a few years old, the following cloud computing video explains software as a service (SaaS), platform as a service (PaaS) and infrastructure as a service (IaaS).

Just a few cloud computing risks include unrealistic expectations; system reliability, robustness, and resilience; business models that are incompatible with cloud-based apps; and cloud providers that go out of business. Some cloud storage risks include data integrity and compatibility; non-support of older data formats; and several data backups may be stored on a single vulnerable cloud repository. There are, of course others, but those listed above are many of the major risks.

Despite all the good things we hear about cloud services, they also present new risks that have to be considered. Prospective cloud users need to weigh these risks as decisions are made to select and implement cloud services. Don’t get me wrong, I do want to emphasize that there are significant benefits that can be realized using the cloud. Just don’t overlook the risks that may be hidden in the perceived simplicity of implementing and using the cloud.

Words of wisdom can be found in a paraphrased a quote that is often attributed to Roger Needham, Butler Lampson, or Jim Norris: “If you think cloud computing or cloud storage are the answer to your problems, you do not understand the would-be solutions, and you do not truly understand your problems.” Good food for thought before jumping in with both feet – understand the problem before grasping for a solution, cloud or otherwise.

So, will cloud-based Apps and SaaS eventually/ultimately replace traditional/conventional on-premise, desktop software? Eventually and ultimately, I think so, but that day is still far into the future. However, in just a very few years I envision that practically everything that today requires a box on a desk will be available as a device on the beach. Will everyone get on the cloud bandwagon? No, but then not everyone took immediately to computers or mobile phones either. Just give it time and we’ll probably wonder how we ever got along without the cloud; something that everyday becomes more tangible and less like vapor.

Editor’s Note: The “cloud” is such a hot topic right now, I’ll revisit it periodically as the technologies and our experience evolve. I’d welcome any feedback from you, our readers, on your experiences with the cloud – good, bad, or indifferent. Comment directly via this blog or email me at This promises to be an interesting exchange.

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One Response to “The CAx Cloud Becoming More Than Vapor”

  1. Wolfgang Gentzsch Wolfgang Gentzsch says:

    Great overview article, thanks, Jeff.

    One thing: you are talking about cloud replacing conventional software. In the long run this might happen, yes. But for now and in the next few years what we see is that cloud already today complements the engineer’s computing tools like workstations and tech compute servers. An engineer would not give up easily her workstation and the software license on it. It’s her daily work horse for product design and development. Cloud resources (and software) complement this by offering much more computing power, for higher quality simulations being done much faster and cheaper, on demand. What a huge benefit!

    Second thing: You are talking about risks, and you are right. Until recently we could identify about 12 risks. But with hundreds of cloud providers now in the market and working hard on reducing or removing these risks, they are now disappearing. FYI, I have written a little paper about the actual status of about 12 potential risk, here: and compared them with workstations and servers.

    Thanks again.

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