CAD on the Cloud and Online Data Storage

In a comment to Ralph Grabowski’s blog post titled “The fallacious credit-card-on-the-Web analogy“, Kenneth Wong wrote:

We should also keep in mind that providing cloud-computing solution doesn’t necessarily mean providing online storage. These are two distinctly different types of services. Autodesk Butterfly, for example, is a hosted viewing and markup solution, not a remote data-storage solution. On the other hand, Arena Solutions lets you use its web-based bill of materials management applications as well as its storage space.

True. Cloud computing and online data storage are two different types of services. But when we are talking about CAD on the cloud, they so dependent on each other that you really cannot separate the two.

Project Butterfly is basically an AutoCAD clone Flash application running on the end user’s computer, not on some server in the cloud. Right click in the Project Butterfly window and check out the last two menu items “Settings” and “About Flash Player“. The Settings are actually Flash settings which are the same when you right click on a YouTube video.

When you open a DWG file located on your hard disk in Project Butterfly, it does not immediately open in the Flash application on your computer. It is first uploaded to the Autodesk server where it is processed. Thereafter this processed drawing is downloaded back into the Flash application on your computer. After it is downloaded and loaded into the Flash application you can disconnect from the internet and continue editing your drawing. But when you go to save the drawing you need to connect to the internet so that the file in the cloud can be updated. So Project Butterfly absolutely involves online data storage. In fact, if you start Project Butterfly on your computer and disconnect from the internet the “Open” button is disabled because you cannot open anything unless it is hosted on the server. However, if you already have a drawing open in the application at the time you disconnected from the internet, you can go ahead and edit it because the actual geometry engine is running on your computer in the Flash application not in the cloud.

So technically you cannot call Project Butterfly a cloud application at all and neither do I think Autodesk is calling it one. I say that because the only thing that happens on the cloud is the data storage (basically file upload and download). Everything else happens on the the end user’s computer in the Flash application. So quite contrary to what Kenneth wrote, Project Butterfly is precisely a “remote data storage solution” with a pretty little flash front end locally installed on the user’s computer. Not very different from how we use YouTube. In the case of YouTube, the videos are all stored on YouTube’s servers and are downloaded into the Flash player when you click the Play button. In the case of Project Butterfly, the first time you run it on your computer, you first download Autodesk’s Flash application and then download the file you want to edit into it. In essence you are downloading and installing a stripped down version of AutoCAD on your computer and saving your data in the cloud. This is nowhere close to an application running in the cloud, which is what Project Twitch is all about.

But coming back to the interdependence of a cloud computing and online data storage, a true CAD application running the cloud absolutely needs to have the data very close to it. You really cannot expect the number crunching to happen on a server in a remote location and the data to be located on your computer. For every operation you will need to transfer the data back and forth. Imagine doing that for a large assembly. And if you do the number crunching on your computer and store your data on it as well, then you basically end up with an installed app that merely requires an internet connection to authenticate its license every time it starts up. Doing so throws the cloud’s so called advantage of “pay only for what you need” in the dust bin. We can do that already. Simply let the installed app authenticate itself every time it starts up and retrieve the licenses for the parts of the application that the user has paid for. The other parts of the application will not work. We have been doing that for years. You really do not need to put CAD on the cloud in order to save money by adopting the “pay as you go” approach. For example, if you want to conduct 5 FEA analysis studies on a model you simply go online and “recharge” your account for exactly 5 FEA analysis sessions. The next time your installed application starts it will retrieve a 5 session license from the CAD vendor’s server and let you run precisely 5 FEA analysis sessions.

My point is simply that you cannot separate CAD on the cloud and online data storage. The whole point of the CAD on the cloud is that the number crunching happens in the cloud. And for that to happen the data must be stored in the cloud as well. I really do not see any other way of doing this. If you can please enlighten me.

  • Thanks for picking up my comment for additional discussion!

    When I refer to some web-hosted services as “cloud-computing solutions” and others as “online storage,” I was describing these based on their intended usage.

    I agree that, to process the data in the cloud, the data must be first uploaded to the cloud. But that doesn't mean the service is meant to be used as a data repository where one stores and retrieves large volumes of data for safekeeping.

    In my view, it's important to judge cloud-computing solutions based on how they're meant to be used. A web-hosted DWG viewing and markup product should be evaluated based on its reliability (available round the clock, with little or no system downtime) and performance (process the data just as well as or better than a desktop or laptop, with little or no latency).

    By contrast, web-hosted storage should be evaluated based on its reliability and security (regular backups, restricted access, encription, hacker-proofing, and so on).

    This discussion thread, like many similar ones, sprung from the discovery that SolidWorks might offer some kind of cloud-computing solution. I just think it's better to wait and see what SolidWorks plans to offer before we say “Yay” or “Nay.”

  • Kenneth,

    Yes, you make a good point about evaluating both kinds of services differently. But in reality, when it comes to CAD on the cloud, you will need to evaluate both kinds of services (cloud computing and online data storage) as one, because you simply cannot use one without the other.

  • In the infamous words of Yoda to the ethereal version of Obi-Wan “there is another”

    I think we are going to see a hybrid environment here where the client has their pick of configurations based on levels of access and paranoia. At Aftercad we are offering LiveWeb as a “Sharepoint for CAD” style server product that the client can run themselves as their own cloud cad server to their own users internal and external. Another alternative is to spin up a vm version using Amazon EC2 and when that session is done, the files and 'results' are simpy save back into the clients in house servers or to an acct on Amazon S3 (this is what Autodesk is doing). Everyone knows Carl doesn't want to run his own SaaS offerng over there so there expect Managed Service providers to step in and just like everything else that is going SaaS, they can install and run the CAD Cloud for others.

  • olegshilovitsky

    Deelip, I think Cloud Data Storage will play a significant role in the development of CAD and Engineering apps. Most of the people are working with apps and store data. The real switch from c: to http:// will be an important way to develop future cloud apps. Some of my thoughts thougths are here – http://plmtwine.com/2009/03/24/where-is-the-plm
    Best, Oleg

  • MC

    What if you don’t have access to a reliable Internet connection? Sometimes the Internet connection was lost at my former job and sometimes my home connection is not reliable. Although there are currently more free public Wi-Fi hotspots, many of them are slow and unreliable.

    All cloud storage and computing debates aside, I believe there will need to be more advances in Internet connectivity technology, reliability, and access before cloud computing will be a realistic solution.

  • This whole cloud computing thing is based upon the assumption that you always have an always on, always reliable and always fast internet connection. Otherwise you will be always screwed.

  • Jon

    I agree, there is a big assumption that we all have reliable fat pipes to work freely. Maybe one day, but I wouldn't want to upset my client work flow unless the client was open to disruptions and there was a back up solution.