Paul Grayson on the Cloud

I managed to get Paul Grayson, Founder and CEO of Alibre, to go public on his views on CAD on the cloud. With his permission I am reproducing an email he sent to me a short while ago:

Hi Deelip,

I have been following all of the coverage that cloud computing has gotten lately on the blogs. I have especially enjoyed yours, Ralph’s, and Matt Lombard’s coverage. The comments have been very interesting as well.

As you know, I have a long history with “Cloud Computing” beginning with the founding of Alibre in 1997. My co-founder, Steve Emmons, and I filed for a US Patent in 1999 for an Internet / distributed computing based “System and Method for Solid Modeling”. We were granted US Patent #6,748,419 on June 8, 2004. The abstract of this patent follows:

“Modeling three-dimensional objects on a computer system via a high bandwidth distributed network, facilitating the computing of intensive computer-aided design (CAD) tasks to take place on a series of servers. A multi-tiered distributed processing architecture, which separates client user interface, multiple application servers and database servers is employed, resulting in the separation of server computing and data storage from the client control device. Computing for CAD tasks is directed to the client device or to an application server, as is appropriate for the complexity of tasks being performed.”

We began shipping Alibre Design in 2000 in which our invention was embodied and consisted of three components: a design application, a design server and a data server. The multi-tiered architecture separated the CAD application’s user interface from its core modeling engine, or design server, and data storage, facilitating the computing of intensive 3D CAD tasks on a series of servers.

Alibre Design contained a broad set of online functionality that relied on this and other Internet-centric technology including:

  1. Contact management
  2. Instant Messaging
  3. Private email
  4. Integrated online and local data sharing and management with check-in, check-out and version control
  5. Real-time collaboration including mark-up, arrow pointers, and the ability to pass control of the session to different team members
  6. Real-time team modeling, enabling design engineers, regardless of their locations, to work on the same model together

We successfully upgraded and sold Alibre Design with this technology for 8 years, but decided to begin phasing it out in 2008. Alibre Design V10 was the last version to ship with this technology. We decided to remove it because similar functionality had become pervasively available in mass market operating systems and applications. At the time only about 5% of our customer base used the online capabilities. Most customers were already using mass market chat, email, and collaboration software such as NetMeeting and GoToMeeting (both of which allow screen sharing and passing of control in applications). We decided that our customers would benefit more from a tighter focus on core features and improvements than from a continued investment in what we considered to be generic operating systems and mass-market applications technology.

SolidWorks’ recent demonstration seems to further validate this decision and confirm that even complex distributed computing capabilities will be provided via technology that applies equally to all vendors. According to Ralph Grabowski, it was OTOY technology that powered the SolidWorks-in-the-cloud demo. OTOY, along with their partner AMD, have publicly stated their desire to make this technology equally applicable to all robust graphical applications.

Dassault must have been pretty taken back by the visceral reaction that their demonstration of SolidWorks running via OTOY generated. So much has already been written that it is doubtful that I add much to it, except perhaps my observation that it was a serious strategic and tactical mistake for them to have done so. They took credit for a “Cloud Computing” breakthrough when in fact a similar demo could be given by any other CAD vendor using OTOY technology. In doing so they have frightened customers and put them on notice that Dassault is now fully in charge and what Dassault wants customers to buy is what customers will have to buy. I believe that the SolidWorks World 2010 Cloud demonstration, along with Dassault’s heavy handed control of the event, marks the end of an era of independence for SolidWorks USA and the beginning of dominance and dictation by Dassault France. This was further confirmed with your photographs showing the demonstration software to be SolidWorks V6, an apparent merger of SolidWorks and CATIA V6 code. Given Dassault’s history of releasing incompatible versions of CATIA, V5 to V6 for example, it is truly frightening to think what customers are likely to go through in attempting to migrate to a V6 based SolidWorks that also abandons the Parasolid kernel.

Based on our experience, I can tell you that mechanical design engineers are:

  1. Very conservative
  2. Late adapters of new technology
  3. Do not like change
  4. Insist on owning and controlling their software
  5. Insist on owning and controlling their data
  6. Do not trust CAD vendors, especially those that promise dramatic new technology

If in fact, the entire software business migrates to the Cloud, mechanical CAD customers will be the last ones to do so. By the time it happens, all of the technology infrastructure will be in place, and it will be easy for any software company to offer their products on the Cloud.