The Cost of CAD on the Cloud

To say that CAD vendors are far more excited about CAD on the cloud than their users would be an understatement. In fact, the more excitement the vendors show, the more skeptical their users get. Frankly, I am not surprised. The image of large corporations finding new ways to squeeze more from customers is quite easy to imagine in the capitalist world that we live in.

The many technical and logistical challenges to putting CAD on the cloud are known far too well. But probably the main challenge for CAD vendors would be to get users to adopt it. And for that the CAD vendors would need to give their users a very good reason to move to the cloud. I believe the most critical reason is cost.

During my interview with SolidWorks CEO Jeff Ray at SolidWorks world 2010, he said, “Why should you need to buy a power plant to power your house when you can simply plug your appliances into a socket which is connected to a power plant located elsewhere. You should only pay for what you use.” I found this statement quite interesting because Jeff is implying that his customers are currently paying for a whole lot of stuff that they do not use or need. This is precisely what a lot of his customers have been complaining about for a long time now.

In fact, I totally agree with his Jeff’s line of thinking. That’s why at SYCODE we have split our products down to a very low level. We could have easily had a single SolidWorks Data Exchange add-in product that imports and exports all the file formats that we support. Instead we have split our data exchange technolgies into 28 SolidWorks add-ins, each one of which imports or exports a single file format. We believe that a customer should pay for and get only that part of a technology that he needs. Of course, if a customer wants more than one technology, then we offer him a package where he ends up paying way lesser than the cost of the individual products put together. So if CAD on the cloud is actually going to achieve this, it will indeed be a very good thing.

Another important factor is the cost of hardware. And this is really a matter of implementation. At SolidWorks World 2010 we were shown SolidWorks V6 running on a netbook. In my discussion with Autodesk CEO Carl Bass he suggested making use of the computational power of the device to offer a better user experience or even to make CAD on the cloud feasible. I find this interesting as well because this means that a part of the application will be installed locally and the other part will be in the server. So I imagine for a better user experience, the user would need to use a more powerful device. The same thing goes for increased usability. For example you will obviously not be able to do the same things running Inventor on an iPhone as opposed to running it on a workstation notebook. So if CAD on the cloud is implemented in such a way that user still finds the need of spending a great deal of money on more powerful hardware, then the benefit of cloud computing as far as hardware cost is concerned will go down the drain.

Right now the information being put out by CAD vendors getting all excited about the cloud is extremely sketchy. Nobody is giving any specific information about the real cost savings for the user. I think this is because they have not yet reached a stage where they can figure it out themselves. Of course, the CAD vendors may have “guestimated” a few numbers before embarking on something as large as cloud computing. But the fact that they are not going public with their numbers goes to show that they are not confident enough on their accuracy. Frankly, I am not surprised because everything seems to be up in the clouds right now (pun intended).

This is just the beginning. The technical and logistical problems will be sorted out over time. No doubt about that. But I believe that the fundamental reason why users will or will not adopt CAD on the cloud will continue to be the same – money. The direct and indirect cost of CAD on the cloud is going to decide whether this concept works or fails. Or rather, whether it is adopted or not. All other factors like ease of use, ease of data sharing, increased storage, greater automation, better mobility and all the other advantages that we keep hearing about cloud computing will amount to nothing if CAD vendors are not able to deliver significant cost savings to their users.

Let me emphasize this. The cost savings has to be significant, not marginal. Users do not even use the latest version of a product until a few service packs have been released. That is how skeptical or resistant to change they are. Most of my customers are using a version of their CAD system two or three years old. As the wise man says, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it“.