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CAD in the cloud: when is it right for you?

CAD in the cloud: when is it right for you?

Why A Hybrid Approach Is The Best Way Start

This article was originally published by CADALYST Magazine

Trusty desktop-based CAD software has been the staple of designers for decades. In the last few years however, there’s been growing interest in the potential of delivering CAD via the cloud – with plenty of claims and counterclaims about its strengths and weaknesses

Despite all the hype, the cloud isn’t a silver bullet to all business problems – it’s just one new way of using your CAD software. For some designers, the cloud will be ideal, for others, not so much.

So, when is the cloud right for you, and how should you decide?

There are lots of different ‘shades’ of cloud

To-date, an overwhelming majority of designers run CAD purely on-premises (i.e. on computers at their company’s office). As a CAD user, you have to be on-premise to use your favourite 3D application.

The cloud on the other hand allows you to access that software and your files from anywhere – meaning you can work from home, in a hotel room or while contracting at your client’s offices.

If you’re thinking of using the cloud to host your CAD software and designs, it’s important to understand that this isn’t an ‘either/or’ choice. You don’t have to immediately ditch your on-premises technology if you don’t want to, but can mix and match to find the right approach for you.

Here are the feasible scenarios for most of us when it comes to running CAD in the cloud:

SaaS (Software-as-a-Service)

This is the pure-cloud approach. You do all your design work and store all your files in a third-party server. Let’s call this CAD-in-the-cloud.

PaaS (Platform-as-a-Service

In this situation, you buy and own your CAD licenses, then a cloud provider like designairspace ‘virtualises’ your desktop computer so you can access and edit files from anywhere. Think of this as “CAD-on-the-Cloud”.

Hybrid

In this scenario, you have both cloud (CAD-on-the-cloud) and on-premises – just as you have two engines in a hybrid car. You might want to make CAD available on-premises available to your ‘heavy users’, but also allow some PAAS scenarios for your flex workers.

How should you choose between these scenarios?

CAD and cloud – 8 factors to consider

CAD in the cloud is ultimately about giving you more choice. The following graphic can be used as a reference point to assess your priorities and decide which scenario might be best for you.

 1. Security

One of the big issues that critics of CAD in the cloud raise is the subject of security. They point to examples of data breaches – such as Marriot Hotels’ 2018 mega-breach where a weak password in the cloud may have been partially responsible.

The fact of the matter is that no IT is ever going to be completely safe. But the cloud is like travelling by plane: just because there have been crashes before, that doesn’t mean everyone should stop using the technology.

The fact of the matter is that the cloud will, in most cases, be far more secure than any hard drives in workstations and servers in your company’s offices. Due to their specialization and scale, providers of cloud services protect themselves with:

  • Highly secure, fenced premises with biometric access-control
  • SSL-encryption
  • Computers in locked cages
  • Separation of networks
  • Regular penetration-testing to uncover security vulnerabilities
  • And much more

As the graphic above shows, SaaS and PaaS approaches give you the utmost security and all these protections – and in a hybrid model the data held on your cloud instances will also achieve this level of security.

Until all your design team’s computers are held behind lock and key, there’s always going to be a risk of break-ins, social engineering hacks and rogue employees stealing physical computers. Running CAD in the cloud, by comparison, is simply much safer.

 2. Regulatory compliance

This one area where cloud computing is simply not going to be a practical option for certain sectors. Rules such as ITAR (Defence), HIPAA and GDPR (Medical Devices) make it risky from a compliance perspective to store data about designs in the cloud, as do various national laws on critical infrastructure projects.

Companies that provide CAD in the cloud may store their customers’ data outside your jurisdiction. What’s more, you may not know who runs and maintains your systems either. That is clearly problematic if you’re designing something like a secret weapon or a nuclear powerplant!

As the graphic above shows, this is the one area where CAD on-premises is the only feasible option. That said, the vast majority of CAD designers aren’t working on such sensitive projects – so the cloud is still an option.  

3. Intercompany CAD collaboration

CAD started as a team tool (with everyone working off a shared directory) and then grew into an (internal) enterprise collaboration tool with PLM and BIM.

However, it’s still near impossible to enable CAD collaboration across company boundaries. Before the emergence of cloud, intercompany collaboration would require suppliers to either travel between sites or establish a private data-connection between locations. Neither option is quick or cost-effective.  

As the chart above shows, a hybrid cloud approach is the best here. External employees can work in the cloud from their offices, while internal teams can use on-premises workstations. This makes joint-ventures, consortia and OEM-supplier collaboration dramatically easier and far less complicated.

4. Flexworking

CAD in the cloud can boost employee morale while solving staffing issues. It lets people work flexibly (so they avoid the commute every single day) and improves work-life balance. At the same time, CAD in the cloud allows for other kinds of staff resourcing options. You can use remote freelancers more easily - and save on expensive bills for consultants.

5.CAD functionality

Another major criticism of CAD-as-a-Service is that it simply isn’t as functional as on-premises CAD. It’s fine for ‘lightweight’ work, but not so good at heavier projects.

Granted, there is some truth in this criticism. But, the technology is improving, and fast. OnShape and Autodesk Fusion now offer decent quality CAD in the cloud and Siemens’ Connected NX is essentially NX on a PaaS platform with equivalent functionality to the on-premises version.

There will still be some improvements to be made before CAD-as-a-Sevice (CAD in the cloud) offers the same functionality as that of existing CAD vendors. Nonetheless, other ‘heavy’ programmes are now increasingly available on the cloud (think video games), so there’s no reason to assume the cloud won’t catch up.

6. Total Cost of Ownership

When it comes to Total Cost of Ownership, a SaaS offering in the cloud beats on-premises CAD hands down. A license for CAD in the cloud can start for as little as $1500 per user per month. Just buying a license for a single piece of CAD software on-premises will set you back thousands of dollars for each individual. What’s more, you’ll need to upgrade in just a couple of years. By contrast, once you use CAD-as-a-Service in the cloud, you’ll never have to upgrade again.

All this means is that costs are under control and you never have huge increases in outgoings. As the chart above shows, the most cost-effective option here is the SaaS model – the others all have a relatively similar price tags.  

7. Broadband availability

CAD in the cloud is fine…until you have problems connecting to the internet!

This is a very real concern, and if your company’s broadband connection goes down, you do risk a big drop-off in productivity until it is fixed. What’s more, latency is also an issue – you want to be sure that the software will be responsive to your instructions. If the servers are thousands of miles away, the experience won’t be so smooth.

For CAD in the cloud to work, you will need an internet connection of 10-15 Mbit, with low latency <50 milliseconds. It is smart to test your current internet speed using tools like SpeedTest and see if the cloud would work for you. It’s also worth contacting the CAD provider to talk about your situation and request a free trial to see how it works.

Remember that cloud connections are constantly improving. Microsoft recently announced a big drive for cloud-based gaming and the expected roll-out of 5G in the next few years is only going to make the cloud faster.

8. The ‘Hotel California Effect’

One of the big concerns you may have about the cloud is the ‘Hotel California Effect’. Just like The Eagles’ Hotel California song, the cloud can be a difficult place to leave once you have all your data stored with one provider. Many firms have concerns about storing all their data in cloud environments because they fear that it will be near impossible to export if they want to return on-premises, or find a better provider.

This is a real and legitimate concern for SaaS offerings. It’s a smart idea to question how your design data can be exported from a vendor’s cloud to use them somewhere else – and get guarantees you’ll be allowed to move it when you want.

The hybrid evolution?

Perhaps the most appealing thing about the cloud for CAD designers is its flexibility. You can really use it in the way that suits your business best. In some cases the all-out SaaS model will be right, in other cases you may just want to ‘dip your toes in the water’ and use it for inter-company collaboration and not much else.

With this flexibility, it seems likely that CAD design teams will increasingly use a hybrid model with the cloud, fitting it to their needs as and when they want. This means we’re likely to see an evolution rather than a dramatic revolution.

So, is it time you started thinking how the cloud could fit around your CAD designs?