Dark times, dark sites

This site has gone dark for a day to support the movement against the proposed SOPA and PIPA bills. Rather than black out the whole site for a day like Wikipedia and thousands of other sites, I have decided to keep the blog somewhat usable. SOPA is really, really scary stuff. If you’re an American citizen, I encourage you to visit the American Censorship site and do what you can to protect the Internet from the evils of Big Content.

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Cloud benefits – constant updates

One promoted benefit Software as a Service is that you are always up to date. There are no local applications to install and maintain. You don’t need to go through expensive and disruptive annual updates and/or install service packs or hotfixes; all this is taken care of for you. The latest and greatest software is always automatically available to you, and because everybody is always using the same version, there will be no compatibility issues. You won’t need to worry about your OS being compatible with the latest release, either. Bugs, if not exactly a thing of the past, will be quickly taken care of without you even being aware of them. This is something you all want, right? What could possibly be wrong with this picture?

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Anybody go to the AU Cloud Innovation Forum?

At this year’s Autodesk University, Autodesk is running a series of Innovation Forums. There was one scheduled for Tuesday November 29 at 10:00 (Las Vegas time) called The Promise of the Cloud – The Implications of Virtually Infinite Computing for Your Industry. That’s about 12 hours ago as I type this. I was hoping to attend this event, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. Did any of you attend that Forum? If so, what did you think? How did Autodesk address the concerns and promote the benefits? Did you feel any differently about CAD in the Cloud after attending it? Please add your own comments here, or if you wish to make more expansive observations, please contact me and I may publish a post dedicated to your review.

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Cloud concerns – security again

It’s probably worth pointing out that if you you have no problem emailing your designs around the place without some form of protection or encryption, there’s little point in getting all worked up about Cloud security. Email isn’t remotely secure. FTP isn’t exactly watertight, either. If you’re still interested in Cloud security issues, this post includes some relevant links you might like to peruse. First, here’s what Autodesk’s Scott Sheppard had to say about Project Photofly (now 123D Catch Beta) security last month: Project Photofly FAQ: What about the security of my data? This covers some of the same kind of stuff I’ve already discussed, but from an Autodesk point of view (albeit a pretty transparent and honest one, as you might expect from Scott). Here are some selected quotes: In essence, we don’t want to accept liability when we don’t take money… We intend to have a reasonably secure service, better than email, but less secure than a bank account. We store your files on Amazon’s S3 service, and they maintain their own physical and data security policy that is considered robust. Next, here are the 123D Terms of service, which raise many of the same alarm bells I mentioned before. Selected quotes: We reserve the right to change all or any part of these Terms, or to change the Site, including by eliminating or discontinuing the Site (or any feature thereof) or any product, service, Content or other materials, and to charge and/or change any fees, prices, costs or charges on or for using the Site (or any feature thereof). By uploading, posting, publishing, transmitting, displaying, distributing or otherwise making available Shared Content to us and/or any Users of or through the Site you automatically grant to us and our sub-licensees…the worldwide, perpetual, royalty-free, fully paid-up, irrevocable, non-exclusive,…

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Autodesk Cloud-based structural engineering software review

As I’ve already discussed, one of the areas where CAD on the Cloud shows potential is in handling specific tasks that require performing intensive calculations that are suitable for sharing among many processors. That sounds great in theory, and a lot of Cloud marketing (e.g. Virtually Infinite Computing) emphasises that point. OK, that sounds promising, but how does it pan out in real life? One problem dissuading me from finding out is that Autodesk is being very restrictive with access to many of its Autodesk Cloud products (I’d probably throw a few sample render jobs into the Cloud and compare the performance, but I’m not the right kind of Subscription customer so I’m not allowed). Another problem is that I’m not qualified to review things like structural engineering software where the greatest computational potential appears to lie. Fortunately, Alex Bausk is qualified, so it was interesting to read his review of Autodesk’s Project Storm software. It’s important to point out here that anything Autodesk with ‘Project’ in the name is not a finished product. It’s an Autodesk Labs thing, designed to attract feedback rather than use in production. I very much approve of this process. It’s one area in which I’m happy to endorse the way Autodesk is approaching the whole Cloud thing, and has several benefits over the flawed private Beta process that Autodesk uses for its mainstream products such as AutoCAD. The downside for Autodesk when it comes to doing pre-release things publicly is that the criticism can be public, too. For example, selected from Alex’s review: …the product is, for reasons unknown, available only in selected countries… …utterly meaningless popups… Options for analysis settings are, to put it short, appalling. Project Storm is nothing more than a web envelope for our good old ARSA package. It is basically…

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Autodesk Cloud interview May 2010 – Part 3

Steve: Another issue I have with Cloud-based environments is the lack of customisation. One of the things that makes AutoCAD so efficient for people is that they can get it exactly the way they want it. With a browser-based environment, we’re pretty much stuck with what you guys decide to give us. Can you see any solution to that in the longer term? Tal: From a pure technical point of view, there’s not a lot of difference in terms of the way you can customise an application on the desktop versus customising it on the web. I think AutoCAD, having a very mature application has a lot of functionality which has built up over the years to provide customisation capabilities to the nth degree. So I think it has less to do with the platform of your choice and more to do with the maturity of the solution and how much customisation the people who designed the product wanted to put in there. Steve: I guess you have the issue of where does that customisation live? Does it live on the PC or on the Cloud? Tal: A good thing about moving it to the Cloud would be that if you moved to another computer, the app would still be customised to your needs. Guri: I was going to say the same. It’s actually an advantage to store it in the Cloud because regardless of where you are accessing it from, you can still have your customisation go with you wherever you go. To address your previous question about customisation, I think it’s a pretty relevant request to be able customise this application. But at the same time, remember who is the target audience for that. If you are an AutoCAD user, we assume you have AutoCAD with all the…

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CAD on the Cloud according to Autodesk’s Jim Quanci

In all of the Cad on the Cloud discussion so far, both here and elsewhere, there have been a lot of anti-Cloud comments and very little in the way of response from the pro-Cloud crowd. Participation in the debate from Autodesk people has been minimal. In one way I can understand that, because given the current atmosphere, who would want to stick their head above the parapet? On the other hand, Autodesk wants to position itself as a Cloud leader and obviously needs to bring its customers with it. It is unlikely that many hearts and minds will be won over with press releases and other forms of corporate self-praise. Therefore, it makes sense for someone to get their hands dirty and engage with the plebs. Step forward Jim Quanci, director of the Autodesk Developer Network. In the last edition of upFront.eZine, Jim was brave enough to enter the fray with a “letter to the editor” response to Ralph’s The Cloud is Dead position. I appreciate that Jim went to some length to compose his epistle and I thought he deserved more of a reply than Ralph’s one-liner. There will probably be a few letters in reply in next week’s upFront.eZine, but I’m placing my own response to Jim’s arguments here. It’s quite a lengthy tome and it would be unreasonable to expect Ralph to publish the whole thing unedited. I have quoted parts of Jim’s letter for the purposes of comment and criticism; for the full context you should read the original in upFront.eZine. You’ve been at this CAD thing a long time; use more of that long term perspective you have. Think past that time you and I have retired. I think of my two kids in college. My younger son (in engineering school) believes having valuable data…

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Autodesk Cloud interview May 2010 – Part 2

Steve: Autodesk is currently giving away these Cloud-based services, Butterfly for example. Presumably you’re not going to keep doing that for ever. Are you going to start charging for these services eventually? Guri: Again, you’re pushing us to talk about future. Currently, for as long as this is in a Labs environment, we’re encouraging users to use it and we’re giving it free in the Labs environment and we’re not putting any limits on it during the Labs experiment. Once we make it a commercial product we may change that. Steve: I put a poll on my blog asking readers what they thought about CAD on the Cloud, and most of them are either concerned or frightened. Solidworks users are in revolt about what they see as being forced onto the Cloud. Why do you think there is this fear or apprehension of CAD on the Cloud? Guri: I’m not sure. I’m curious myself about this type of reaction. Maybe it’s fear of the unknown, it’s a new environment, maybe there is some fear about security of documents while they are in the Cloud, it’s just “it’s a new thing”. We believe the approaches we are taking in providing a complementary product to the desktop environment which takes advantage of the latest and greatest web technology and enables those advantages to the user actually will make them feel more at ease. We’re not changing their normal CAD tools, we’re adding to them by enhancing them to take advantage of the capability of infinite storage and infinite CPU that the Cloud brings to them. So in a way, it’s a mixed environment. It’s probably easier to think about moving from desktop only to a mix of desktop and Cloud rather than a step-function where you move entirely to the Cloud. Tal:…

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Autodesk Cloud interview May 2010 – Part 1

On 26 May 2010, I had the opportunity to ask Autodesk some questions about the Cloud in general and what was then Project Butterfly (now AutoCAD WS) in particular. The Autodesk people were: Guri Stark,Vice President, AutoCAD & Platform Products Tal Weiss, R&D Center Manager (Israel) Noah Cole, Corporate Media Relations The interview was conducted by phone conference with no prior notice of the questions. Here is the first part of the interview, which I will be posting in three sections. Steve: Guri, are you responsible for all of Autodesk’s Cloud-based offerings? Guri: Tal and I are responsible for Butterfly, that’s the only Cloud-based offering that we are responsible for. Noah: Steve, you can put the cloud-based offerings into three categories, those that are related to current products and therefore come out of the same organisations and divisions that those products come out of. So Butterfly which is related to AutoCAD so it’s coming out of the AutoCAD group. Similarly what you’d see happening with manufacturing and those projects. You also have the more emerging Cloud solutions like Dragonfly was (that’s now Homestyler) that’s coming out of Labs. So you see projects coming out of either the divisions if it’s related to product or the Labs group if it’s more forward-looking. Steve: Can you give me a one-sentence summary of each of the Cloud-based offerings and what market it’s intended to fill? Guri: Butterfly is one we’ll talk about in more detail in a minute. One we just launched as a product is Autodesk Homestyler (previously Project Dragonfly). It’s a SaaS-based offering done completely in a browser, targeting the home improvement market. It’s free to the end user so users who want to redecorate or remodel their kitchen or their living room can access this product, do a layout, place in…

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Any Autodesk/Akamai people care to explain this?

Akamai is an Internet/Cloud infrastructure company, used extensively by Autodesk. To be polite, my experiences using its services over several years have been somewhat negative. Back in March, when trying to download the AutoCAD 2012 trial, I went through the usual Akamai download manager struggles before being informed of the wonderful Opera workaround (thanks again, Helper). I thought I’d seen the last of Akamai for a while, but today, while left unattended, Windows threw up this warning: Huh? What is Akamai software trying to do here? I hadn’t asked it to do anything. I’m not downloading Autodesk software or even visiting an Autodesk site. There’s no reason for it to be running at all. Whatever it is, I don’t like it. Time to uninstall anything and everything Akamai, I think; something I should have done back in March. But wait! When I go to uninstall, what do I see? This: Note that the dates are in DD/MM/YYYY format. There’s an application installed back in March, for which I granted permission (unwisely, apparently). OK, but there’s another one installed today! No permission was sought or granted. Right, that’s it. Akamai is now on my brown list, which is not a place anyone wants to be. Nothing in any way related to Akamai will ever be installed any my computer or any computer over which I have influence or control. If Autodesk continues to use Akamai’s services, Autodesk can expect to see continued strong criticism in this area. Unless, of course, somebody from Autodesk and/or Akamai can provide a reasonable explanation of what’s gone on here. Over to you.

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Cloud discussions generating interest

This is one of those self-indulgent posts you probably hate, so feel free to skip it and just read the more interesting stuff. Last month, my site statistics went through the roof. Here’s a graph that shows the number of unique visitors and the number of visits per month since I started the blog in February 2008. Page views, hits (a pretty useless statistic) and bandwidth all spiked in a similar fashion. I remember being very surprised when over 1,500 people visited my blog in the first month, as I would have been very happy with a few hundred readers. I was astonished when more than 5,000 people visited here on the second month. Last month, there were 30,921 unique visitors who visited 58,342 times, viewing 129,206 pages. I’m sure there are other CAD blogs with many times the traffic, but for this blog, October’s numbers were crazy. The mentions on upFront.eZine didn’t hurt, but the daily statistics were already high and didn’t show a huge leap afterwards. So what’s going on? Well, just posting anything rather than little or nothing (as has happened here from time to time) obviously helps a lot, but I think it’s more than that. I think it’s the Cloud generating interest. While it might be tempting for Cloud proponents to associate interest with excitement, that would be a mistake. Judging from the comments and poll responses here and elsewhere, I’m convinced that many more people are interested in CAD in the Cloud because they are concerned about it, they fear it, they even hate it. Given that atmosphere, I think CAD in the Cloud is going to be a very hard sell.

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All major Autodesk products on the Cloud by 2014?

As reported by multiple on-line news outlets, Autodesk just announced that it is increasing its research and development budget (having slashed it last year), and increasing the percentage of that budget on the Cloud. Carl Bass: When there are technology transitions in place, you better be more mindful of that, or you become roadkill. That’s fair enough. Autodesk would be stupid to ignore the Cloud, and needs to bet at least some of its cash on anything that stands a significant chance of being important. This quote from Autodesk spokesman Paul Sullivan gets more specific: We are devoting a larger percentage of our R&D budget to cloud computing, with a significant portion of our new product investments going toward products that are cloud-enabled. We expect that all of our major products will be available in the cloud within the next three years. Now “available” can mean various things. The restricted trial of Cloud-based AutoCAD, Inventor and other products is already year-old news, but that fits the “available” bill. So does a situation where the product is exclusively available on the Cloud and you can no longer buy standalone software. Between those two extremes, there are a variety of possible definitions of “available”. So we’re not that much wiser as a result of that statement. However, one thing is clear. Autodesk is spending up big on making this Cloud thing happen, so traditional software is going to suffer from a comparitive lack of investment. Autodesk customers, you’re the source of all that cash. How do you feel about subsidising the move of your software tools to the Cloud?

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Cloud concerns – tie-in

One of the major attractions of the Cloud for vendors is that it ties in customers, providing a reasonably consistent revenue stream. It is an effective anti-competitive strategy. There are various technical and other methods that can be used to ensure that it’s difficult or even impossible for customers to jump ship. While that’s all very nice for vendors, it’s not such a wonderful thing for customers. Let’s say you’re a CAD Manager who persuades your company to use a great new SaaS service and Cloud storage. Let’s assume it performs well, is secure, has 100% uptime and offers functionality that is not available with standalone software. Your company is pleased with all this and uses it increasingly over several years, eventually moving completely into the Cloud. A good news story, right? Well, maybe. There are a few things that could go wrong. Very wrong. Wrong enough to get you fired. Most of these things have multiple precedents, some of them quite recent. They are realistic concerns and it’s not really plausible for anyone with any knowledge of the past to argue that they won’t happen in the future. I have grouped these concerns into five categories: Impermanence. The vendor stops providing the service. There are many possible reasons for this happening. Computing is full of product failures and withdrawals. Autodesk alone has such a long history of dead products and orphaned customers, that it would be a major undertaking just to document them all. If the product’s not making money, it’s unlikely to have a future. The vendor itself could go down the tubes. Computing history is littered with the corpses of once-dominant companies. Because there is a chain of dependencies in a typical Cloud solution, there are several potential points of corporate failure. Maybe Autodesk doesn’t go down, but Amazon does, or…

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(so (long (and (thanks (for (all (the (parentheses))))))))

A few days ago, John McCarthy died at the age of 84. He didn’t make a fortune selling gadgets, he just profoundly affected the world of computing. He will be remembered mainly as the father of LISP, without which it is quite possible that AutoCAD and Autodesk would not have survived beyond the 80s. However, his original thinking went well beyond the development of a language. For example, 50 years ago he came up with an idea that is very relevant to what we are actively discussing today: In 1961, he was the first to publicly suggest (in a speech given to celebrate MIT’s centennial) that computer time-sharing technology might lead to a future in which computing power and even specific applications could be sold through the utility business model (like water or electricity). This idea of a computer or information utility was very popular in the late 1960s, but faded by the mid-1990s. However, since 2000, the idea has resurfaced in new forms (see application service provider, grid computing, and cloud computing.) (Credit: Wikipedia) Back to LISP, I still use John’s antique language today. It’s still the best language choice for the vast majority of the development I do. Thanks, John.

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Cloud benefits – collaboration, with Autodesk’s Tal Weiss

In May 2010 I took part in a phone conference with several Autodesk people about the Cloud. Part of that discussion was in the form of an interview, which I will publish in later posts. Another part was in the form of a verbal presentation from Autodesk’s Tal Weiss, concentrating on what was then Project Butterfly, Autodesk’s then Labs-based Cloudy CAD offering. This product had been called Visual Tao and was later renamed again to AutoCAD WS. As this presentation was largely based on the benefits of the Cloud for CAD collaboration, I think it is worthwhile reproducing it here. Obviously, it represents Tal’s view rather than my own. First, a little background. Project Butterfly started with an Autodesk acquisition in November 2009 of a company called Visual Tao, based in Tel Aviv, Israel. This is now an Autodesk development office led by Tal Weiss, former CEO and co-founder of Visual Tao. Here is what Tal had to say: Butterfly is a web application to enable users to edit, share and collaborate on AutoCAD drawings, on line using any web browser. One way to describe it in just a single sentence is, “Google Docs to AutoCAD”, meaning a web application to which you can upload your desktop content to then be immediately able to view and to edit that content using just your web browser with no desktop software necessary, and to share that content very easily with other users without them having to have any kind of software to download and install on the local machine. The way that we look at it is that Butterfly extends AutoCAD to the web, meaning turning AutoCAD from a best-in-breed software experience for drawing, drafting and modelling on the desktop and extending that over to the web; putting the power of the…

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Cloud concerns – security

OK, this one’s a biggie. For many, security is the biggest Cloud turn-off. Drawings are valuable property, and the thought of putting them up on the Internet is enough to give some people nervous twitches. I see two major worries: Is my property safe from destruction? Is it safe from unauthorised access (copying, modification, theft)? There are at least a couple of ways of looking at this: If you’re worried about data destruction, back up! You should be doing that anyway, regardless of where you store your stuff. Most people are comfortable enough with Internet banking, or at least using a credit card to make Internet purchases. The security of a major Cloud infrastructure provider is likely to be better than that of your own in-house infrastructure. It’s certainly a lot better than email, and almost everybody emails drawings about the place without even thinking about it. Plus, you can use Cloud security features to restrict access to your drawings in ways that you have no hope of doing if you’re emailing your drawings to other parties. So what are you worried about? Isn’t one of the supposed benefits of Cloud storage that backups are all taken care of for me? Putting my designs in the Cloud doesn’t remove any risk if I also need to store my own backups. However, it adds extra and unnecessary risk. Amazon (Autodesk’s Cloud infrastructure provider) irretrievably lost some of its customers’ Cloud data just a few months ago. There are many, many instances of supposedly secure sites being infiltrated by hackers. You’d have to be very unlucky to have somebody that wants your designs intercept your email, but a static site that is known to contain millions of dollars worth of drawings is a huge and tempting target. Putting your designs on the…

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“The Cloud is Dead” is not what I said

I guess most of this blog’s readers also read WorldCAD Access and upFront.eZine, so it probably hasn’t escaped your notice that in the latest upFront.eZine, Ralph had procalimed “The Cloud is Dead” and referred to some of my recent posts here as supporting evidence. I’d just like to point out that it’s Ralph announcing the death of the Cloud, and not me. Personally, while I agree with some of Ralph’s points, I think there’s life in the Cloud yet and the obituary is somewhat premature. My own attitude toward the cloud matches that of most of you, judging by the poll results here. I see pros and cons, and have strong concerns about many of the cons. However, I intend to cover both sides objectively. Look out for more coverage soon.

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Cloud benefits – processing power

A frequently stated advantage of CAD on the Cloud is the access to large amounts of processing power. Instead of relying on your lowly local processor to perform complex tasks, you can instead zap the job up to the Cloud where vast numbers of processors churn away in massively parallel fashion and then zap the results back to you before you’ve even had time to head for the coffee machine. This is a scenario that applies only for certain types of very complex tasks that are suited to subdividing the calculations among many processors. Autodesk already has a big toe in the waters in several of those areas. The recent Autodesk Cloud changes made available Inventor Optimization, Cloud Rendering, Green Building Studio and Conceptual Energy Analysis to a small subset of Subscription customers. It’s safe to assume that these services will be improved and expanded over the next few years. (Is there anybody out there using Autodesk Cloud services for these processor-intensive tasks? Let’s hear about your real-world experiences.) What this doesn’t mean is that it makes sense for us all to be using CAD on the Cloud, all the time. The processing time gained by using the Cloud is offset by the communication time spent passing the data back and forth, so any processing gain has to be substantial to make it worthwhile. Twenty years ago, when every zoom extents was followed by a looooong wait, a big swag of extra processing power would have come in very handy. These days, processors are ridiculously fast in comparison. They are also very cheap and getting cheaper. Even low-end PCs have had multiple cores for some years, and these days seeing eight almost unused cores on your performance monitor is pretty normal. The performance of today’s CPUs and the variable performance of today’s Internet, mean that…

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Any AutoCAD WS users out there?

In the post Cloud benefits – collaboration, I asked for people’s real-life experiences using, or attempting to use AutoCAD WS. In particular, I’d like to hear about you using its features to collaborate with others, which is a major selling point of the Cloud. As the other post hasn’t seen any replies yet, I’ve added this one to better attract the attention of AutoCAD WS users. Autodesk has put a lot of effort into this and it’s been out for a while, surely somebody’s using it for real work? If so, I encourage you to comment on the other post.

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