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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 »

2018: The Year of MCAD Cloud Computing?

 
January 4th, 2018 by Jeff Rowe

For as long as I can remember, cloud storage and computing have offered two things – endless (unrealistic) promises and perpetual (unrealistic) growth. For some time that was true, but several things have occurred in the past couple of years that temper those claims and portend what may happen in the future for technology providers that become increasingly reliant on the cloud – reliability, accessibility, and security.

Cloud computing, or internet-based computing provide shared processing resources and data to computers and other devices on demand. From the beginning, it was intended as a model for enabling ubiquitous, convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources (e.g., networks, servers, storage, applications and services) that can be rapidly provisioned and released with minimal management effort.

Proponents have always claimed that cloud computing allows companies to avoid upfront infrastructure costs, and focus on projects that differentiate their businesses instead of on infrastructure. Proponents have also claimed that cloud computing allows enterprises to get their applications up and running faster, with improved manageability and less maintenance, and enables IT to more rapidly adjust resources to meet fluctuating and unpredictable business demand. Cloud providers typically use a “pay as you go” model. This can lead to unexpectedly high charges if administrators do not adapt to the cloud pricing model. Even so, the potential for premium MCAD with minimal computing hardware cost make the prospect attractive and compelling.

To a large extent most of these claims have proven true, and I have been a proponent for many aspects of cloud computing, but there is also a downside – generally, you just don’t need as many people to run and maintain a cloud-based organization.

The downside is that you have limited customization options. Cloud computing is cheaper because of economics of scale, and like any outsourced task, you tend to get what you get. A restaurant with a limited menu is cheaper than a personal chef who can cook anything you want. Fewer options at a much cheaper price: it’s a feature, not a bug and the cloud provider might not meet your security or legal needs. As a business, you need to weigh the benefits against the risks.

Cloud computing is still as much a work in progress as it is a market offering. The major cloud technology developers continue to invest billions a year in cloud R&D. For example, a few years ago Microsoft committed 90% of its R&D budget to its cloud endeavors. I have seen studies predicting that SaaS revenue will have grown from $13.5B in 2011 to $42.8B in 2018. This expansion shows that more industries are turning to cloud technology as an efficient way to improve quality services due to its capabilities to reduce overhead costs, downtime, and automate infrastructure deployment.

As much as I have tried to resist the temptation to be overly optimistic, 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 years ago I blogged about a relative newcomer on the block, Onshape entitled Onshape: The Day After a New Dawn For 3D CAD.

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 really an “apples to apples” comparison.

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.

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.

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).

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.

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.

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 in the future. Will everyone get on the cloud bandwagon? No, but then not everyone immediately embraced computers, CAD, 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 frequently 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 jeff@ibsystems.com. In the near future I will evaluate Onshape, Fusion 360, and Shapr3D, both individually, as well as contrast and compare them.

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