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: Yeah, and when moving to a new platform, you probably know, even when moving to PCs say 10 or 15 years ago, there was a lot of apprehension and whenever you move to a new platform (and rightly so), you’re going to see a lot of concerns being raised by users and it’s our responsibility to provide our users with a very gradual and easy migration path which enables them to pick which components, which things, which processes they would like to do on the desktop and which make more sense to be able to do on the web.

Guri: Steve, you’ve been around CAD for many, many years. You know that CAD users usually worry about a few things. They worry about their documents and drawings. They have a lot of investment in archives of documents and drawings, they want to know that whatever changes happen in the future in the world, will enable them to keep using those drawings as usual. The other thing they worry about is their own training and experience, the way they work every day. They have a lot of habits and practices that they develop over the years and they want to know that they don’t have to retrain themselves or any other new users into new ways of doing things. And what we’re proposing is addressing both. You can use your drawings, this is still DWG, these are still AutoCAD documents, you don’t have to change, every drawing that you have that is created now or 10 years ago is still going to be useful.

So that’s one comment and the other is you can still use AutoCAD; that’s your tool of choice and whatever you do in the Cloud we purposely keep very simple so learning it and training it is really a very, very simple task.

Steve: I think you raised a valid point there about people being afraid of “what’s going to happen to my drawings”; people are concerned that if they move completely to the Cloud then they’re handing over control; they no longer have control of their documents. Do you think that’s a valid concern?

Guri: Well, I think that’s a concern, and people who have it will probably have it for a long time. What we want to do is let them choose how to deal with that. So we are not forcing anything here; we’re letting them keep their drawings on the desktop if they want, we’re letting them upload to the Cloud if they want to take advantage of it, so it’s entirely up to the user what to do. What we’re trying to do is show them that if they want to move to the Cloud, the advantages are the same advantages as photography sites such as Picasa. If you upload your family photos to the Cloud, somebody has done the backup for you; somebody has put security on it that is probably even better than you can do yourself, you can share it easily with others, provide access to your family without sending attachments and stuff like that. So there is a lot of advantages. We’re telling users it’s completely up to you; there are advantages that come along with moving stuff to the Cloud, if you’re not confident with that, that’s perfectly fine, stay on the desktop. So we’re letting the user do it at their own pace.

Steve: Can I share some of my experiences with using Butterfly? Perhaps I was using it wrong; I was trying to draw with it! As you’ve indicated, that’s maybe not what it’s really there for. I found that it wouldn’t open some drawings that I tried to upload. The display was a bit fuzzy, particularly on text, particularly when it was selected. A big issue I have with it is that I have two great big screens here in front of me and because Butterfly is confined to a browser window, it’s only using one rectangle. With AutoCAD, I can grab various bits and pieces of the interface and drag them over to the second screen, so I find Butterfly rather limiting. There also seems to be a lot of wasted space in the Butterfly environment. I can get AutoCAD to use about 91% of the screen space for drawing area; with Butterfly it was about 53%. So you’re working in a tiny little window. People pay lots of money for these big screens, and because you’re working within a browser, and because within that there’s a lot of wasted space, a lot of that investment is wasted. I’ll stop there before I confuse you all, but I have a great big list here of stuff that I found difficult to live with.

Tal: I’d love to have that list. We get a lot of requests from users, and a lot of different things bother different people. You know, we get a lot of requests that are the complete opposite, like I have a laptop with a small screen so I want to be able to optimise, I use Butterfly on the go, I need to have Butterfly optimised for that kind of resolution. But if you have a list of things we’d actually love to see it, and a lot of the times when you’re connected to a product designer on our team and have you talk to him and really go through the things that bother you, because at the end of the day it’s really our job to be able to do a good job and provide the tools which a user loves and delights users, and be able to focus on the things that are important to the majority of users and really do a good job of nailing those experiences. So if you have a list we’d love to have it and engage with you on it and see what makes sense for us to put in there and what we feel is not the highest priority for us feature-wise right now.

Steve: I’m sure you’re working on printing/plotting, because it’s pretty terrible at the moment. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that’s a priority.

Tal: Basically it does not plot right now. It enables you to print your screen, but not plot. I wouldn’t say it’s bad plotting, it does not plot right now. If you want a quick printout of whatever you have on screen, it will do the job. Plotting is one feature that is definitely very interesting to us, it’s important to a lot of users, and we’re definitely looking into it, and providing hopefully in the future a better experience revolving around that.

Steve: And the limitation of selecting more than 30 objects; is that going to go away at some stage?

Tal: I believe you’re going to be seeing a lot of improvements in that area relatively shortly.

Links to part 1 and part 3.

The best feature ever added to AutoCAD is…

LISP. I have now closed the What are the best features ever added to AutoCAD? poll, and the winner is AutoLISP/Visual LISP, by a long, long way. I don’t always agree with the majority view expressed in the polls here, but in this case I wholeheartedly agree. Adding LISP was the biggest and best thing that ever happened to AutoCAD. Autodesk owes an enormous debt of gratitude to John Walker for incorporating the work of David Betz, who was of course standing on the shoulders of John McCarthy. It’s a crying shame that Autodesk has been so terribly neglectful of Visual LISP for over a decade.

Here are your top ten “best ever” AutoCAD features:

  • AutoLISP / Visual LISP (32%)
  • Paper / Model Space / Layouts (21%)
  • Xrefs (20%)
  • Copy / Paste between drawings (19%)
  • Dynamic Blocks (16%)
  • Object Snaps (15%)
  • Layer Visibility per Viewport (12%)
  • Undo (12%)
  • Grips (12%)
  • AutoSnap (9%)

Something interesting I noticed is the age of these features:

  • AutoLISP / Visual LISP – 1985 (significantly improved 1999)
  • Paper / Model Space / Layouts – 1990 (significantly improved 1999)
  • Xrefs – 1990
  • Copy / Paste between drawings – 1991
  • Dynamic Blocks – 2005
  • Object Snaps – 1984
  • Layer Visibility per Viewport – 1990 (improved 2008)
  • Undo – 1986
  • Grips – 1992
  • AutoSnap – 1992

The youngest feature here is 6 years old, the oldest is 27. The average top-ten AutoCAD feature is over 20 years old. What does that tell you?

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 it different types of furniture from libraries, and see how physical spaces fit together in this 2D and 3D type of product which is a completely SaaS-based offering.

The end user for this is not traditionally an engineer or CAD user at all, it’s more like the person at home; a typical user would be a 35-year-old lady who is interested in home decoration. The libraries in the product are either generic libraries or branded vendor-provided libraries from a variety of vendors in this space. That’s another type of product using SaaS technology that enabled us to get into a market that we’re currently not in.

There are other projects going on under the umbrella of taking existing products and trying to run them in a Cloud environment, and measuring the performance that they give us. All of them are experimental; some of them are on Labs already with some limitations of distance. So if you are in the California area you can try and use, mostly for trial and evaluation, some of our products such as AutoCAD or Inventor even, in this type of environment. You don’t need to install anything because the application runs in the Cloud; you have full access to the full application for a trial perspective.So there are different approaches to the Cloud. One approach is starting from scratch, developing something like Butterfly or Homestyler from scratch in the cloud to try and target a new market possibly. Another attempt is to take an existing application and try and run them centrally in the Cloud and see whatever performance it gets. Currently our intent is to use it for product evaluation.

Steve: The existing products running in the Cloud in the geographically restricted trial, is it just AutoCAD and Inventor?

Noah: AutoCAD, Inventor and Maya are the only ones currently running. There are also two recent technology previews happening in Manufacturing for Centaur and Cumulus which are different, but that involves Inventor and Moldflow.

Steve: With my experience with Project Butterfly, I agree that as a collaboration and review and viewing/markup tool it’s excellent, but it seems to me that it’s also being promoted as a drafting tool; that people will actually draw with it. It doesn’t seem so strong to me, for that. What is Project Butterfly now, and what is it going to end up being?

Guri: Steve, we’re not promoting this as a drafting tool, we say that the real authoring tool to create drawings is AutoCAD on the desktop. This enables you to upload a drawing that was created using AutoCAD to the Cloud, and in addition to review it and annotate it and share it; you can also make changes to it, to edit it. So what we’re providing in Butterfly is editing tools, not really drawing creation tools. I can tell you we have a free product called Autodesk Design Review, this product has only viewing and annotation capabilities. What a lot of users there are asking for is some basic editing tools where they want to make some local changes, and that’s what we are providing. The editing tools are intended for users that are not necessarily AutoCAD users, we keep them simple for that purpose.

Steve: So it’s not intended to be a drafting tool and you never intend it to actually become one in the end; is that correct?

Guri: I’d rather not comment on future direction. I can tell you right now that the positioning of the product is as a web accompaniment to AutoCAD, in a way similar to Microsoft’s Office Online in the most recent Office application is doing, in which an author on the desktop using Microsoft Word can upload it to the Cloud, view it, share it, edit it. So we are enabling editing of documents in the Cloud.

Tal: Just to add to that, we have different platforms, the desktop and the web. Each platform does certain things very well. So authoring, for example, on the desktop is something that is great, it’s mature and you can do a lot of amazing stuff there. What we want to focus on in building a tool for the web is leverage what the web can do for our users. Stuff like being able to access from anywhere, design timeline, collaboration, sharing; really hitting all those sweet spots instead of trying to imitate what’s already up there on the desktop and is working well. That’s why you see the different focus on the different platforms trying to do that thing it can do best.

Links to part 2 and part 3.

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.

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.

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?

Fencing in Canberra – video

It’s about time I posted about something other than the Cloud, or even CAD.

Every year, there are four national-level fencing competitions in Australia. As they are almost all held on the other side of the continent, I don’t get to compete in them as often as I’d like. However, a couple of months ago I did have the opportunity to compete in the third of these competitions for 2011, held this year in Canberra.

This was very special to me because my mother and sister were in the audience and it was the first time either of them had ever seen me fence. It was also special because my sabre coach, Frank Kocsis, flew out to be with me and his other students. Frank has taken only two years to move me from complete sabre novicehood to being competitive at national level, particularly in the veteran (over-40) events.

This is not an entirely Cloud-free post, because this video of me fencing in the Veteran Men’s Sabre Semi-Final (2:49 long) is hosted on YouTube:

I’m on the right. If a green light goes on, I’ve hit him. If he hits me, it’s a red light. If both lights go on, we’ve both hit each other within 120 milliseconds and the referee awards the hit based on right-of-way rules. Veteran direct elimination bouts (like this semi-final) are fought until one fencer scores ten hits.

If you want to see how the winner of the semi-final did, here is the Final (4:46).

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:

  1. 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 Citrix. One day, your software just isn’t there any more. What now?
  2. Price ramping. Once you and enough of your fellow customers are tied in, there is nothing to prevent the vendor from racking up the prices. Autodesk has already done this kind of thing with upgrade pricing and Subscription, so it’s not as if it’s an unlikely scenario. If the boil-a-frog-slowly approach is used and you’re the frog being boiled, you’re better off not being tied down when you decide it’s time to get out of the water.
  3. Unwelcome terms and conditions. The terms and conditions under which you operate are often in the Cloud themselves and can be changed by the vendor without you having any say in the matter. What if one day your company lawyer spots a clause has been added that is totally outrageous (even more than normal, I mean) and there is no way your company can possibly continue to operate under those conditions? Good luck trying to negotiate your way out of that one from a position of weakness.
  4. Unwelcome technical changes. I intend to cover the issue of as-you-go upgrades more fully later, but let’s say the vendor introduces a new feature that seriously impacts your ability to use the software productively. No off switch is provided. Sound familiar? It happens to standalone software. It will happen to your SaaS choice, too.
  5. Ignoreware. Your once-fashionable product stops being The New Black. The vendor decides to concentrate its resources in other areas to attract new customers rather than the ones it has already tied up. While your SaaS product continues to be provided, it is put into maintenance mode and nothing useful is added to it. As the rest of the computing world moves on, your SaaS product does not. Holes start to appear that make your life difficult or impossible. Again, Autodesk history is replete with examples of this kind of thing.

If you’re using standalone software and any of the above occurs, it’s probably a pretty big deal, but you can work around it in the short term by simply continuing to use the product that works. You can keep doing this into the medium term, perhaps for several years. Sure, if Autodesk goes down you’ll find that you can no longer authorise new installations or transfer software from one computer to another. But you’ll have some breathing space. You’ll still have all your data, bang up to date. You’ll be able to continue working productively while you look around for an alternative.

If you’ve deeply committed your company to a Cloud solution and the SaaS hits the fan, it’s more than a big deal. It’s a disaster. It could kill your company. It could kill your career. As a computer once asked me, “Do you really want to do this?”

(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.

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 web at the hands of our AutoCAD and even non-AutoCAD users. That kind of signature was the reasoning behind doing that acquisition [of Visual Tao]; really creating a strong web component from AutoCAD, really enjoying the synergy that both companies could have by incorporating that hopefully in the future to one coherent offering.

The main capability of Butterfly: to allow users to be able to upload content and to be able to edit it on-line. Butterfly today offers a fairly rich set of functionality in terms of what you can do, and we’re constantly adding more tools and capabilities. When we designed this interface, we wanted to make it on the one hand familiar to our existing AutoCAD users, but on the other hand familiar to people who are not AutoCAD users. We’ve seen really good success with that; people are very easily able to upload content and immediately be able to interact with it and manipulate it, edit and comment on content using just a web browser. So that’s probably first of all the one key feature.

Another thing Butterfly needs to do is to allow you to very easily manage and browse through your on-line content. You upload drawings and Butterfly allows you to manage folders in a structure, and to move files around and navigate through your content very easily and to search for your content. We’re making it dead simple for you to manage your AutoCAD drawings on line.

Once the content is on line, it becomes very easy to share that content with other users. With one click, you can take a drawing, or a group of drawings, or an entire folder, and share it with another user. You give them access in a way that is very familiar with Google Docs. You’re not sending them emails with file attachments that they then have to download to the local computers and they need to have the right software for them to be able to open it. What you’re giving them is a link which you can send via email or even post on the Internet, and once they click it those users are able to open that drawing in a web browser and to be able to view and edit it with very good fidelity without having to have any sort of software or files stored on their machines.

There are also a couple of cool things you can do here when you share content, we give you a lot of control over the way you share it. You might want to share your content with someone but without allowing them to edit it. If you’re sending content out to a client you might want them to be able to review the drawings and just do simple markups over them. Or you might not want the user you’re sharing the content with to be able to download it to their machine.

You can do all of that very, very easily. Because you’re sharing the same content with multiple people, you’re not duplicating it in the way you would if you were to send drawings via email, where every time you send out an attachment you’re creating a duplicate where it’s very hard for you to manage which version of the content your consumers are using, especially down the line. This method of sharing on line using just one centralised copy on the web provides you with the ability to have one single point of view for all your design consumers to be able to view, edit and interact with that content. So that’s another exciting feature that you get by using Butterfly for managing and sharing your drawings on line.

Another nice thing about security is that you can actually unshared content. So if today you’re sending out files to users you’re never really able to reclaim that content back; once you’ve sent it out you’ve basically lost control of it. People can do whatever they want with your design and you’re not able to control it. What you can do here [with Butterfly], you have a lot of control over the content because you’re not actually giving them a copy of it, just giving them access to it. You can at any point in time remove access to that content or revoke permission to download and edit once a specific phase of the design process, just leaving up there the content for others for documentation. So there’s a lot of things you can do with the web which are very hard to do when using a file or email-based approach.

One of the things we set out to do when we built this product was provide very strong collaborative capabilities. We’ve seen these for asynchronous collaboration where it’s dead simple for me to just share a file with somebody, give them a link to that drawing and permit them to view and edit it. We also wanted to bake into the system a strong real-time component, especially with the web becoming more and more real-time, and we did it. So it’s very easy for users who are using Butterfly to go into meeting mode with another person, in which they can really laser [focus] in and work on specific components and work and exchange ideas and communicate over design very easily. We provide them with a lot of tools to do so, such as synchronised viewports, shared cursors, enabling users to really co-edit and view drawings together at the same time. So you can have changes propagated between two users as they happen.

For example, if I’m an architect and I want to walk a client through a design, I can just send him out a link to click, and he’s in the drawing with me, we can discuss the drawing together, I can show him various alternatives, things I’d like to do and I can actually control what that other user can do with the drawing. It might make sense for me to only provide that user with viewing and mark-up capabilities and just walk him through that design. Or if I’m working with an environment engineer working on the West coast and another engineer on the East coast and I want them to exchange ideas on the specifics of design we might want both of them to be able to move, edit and manipulate drawings together, and this enables our customers to not only collaborate asynchronously, but also in real time without having to set up any sort of dedicated web conferencing solution, which as we see a lot of the time is hard to set up and get it to work, and those tools which are not really design-dedicated.

So we really want to build a design-dedicated tool for enabling real-time collaboration between users over designs. That’s another key feature that the system today provides users with.

When we set out with Visual Tao and later on Butterfly, we really wanted to build a system that was open and mashable from the ground up. We architected the system and we built it that way, and we launched that on Autodesk Labs. We wanted to be able to test the feature aspect of the system with our users with something that’s meaningful and not just an exercise in technology.

One of the things that’s good about having a project out in Labs is that you get a lot of input and a lot of feedback from the community; a lot of engagement. We’ll be passing the 100,000 visitor mark this month* and we’ve received hundreds and hundreds of emails from users who talk about different things we’re doing with the app, features that are missing. We’ll actually be seeing probably over 27,000 AutoCAD files and drawings already uploaded to Butterfly* by our users. One of the prime requests we have is they wanted the ability to view and share, to collaborate on their drawings in a real-world context.

That’s something we really took to heart and that might mean overlaying your drawing over imagery, or aerial image, or it might mean positioning your content over a third-party service such as Google Maps. So we decided we were going to do that and build that feature out for our users and we provided support for over 30 popular image formats for people to overlay on their designs, and on the other hand we connected our system to Google maps, enabling users to position their drawing over a map and view and edit it in that real-world context in order to be able to share that with other users. We put it out on Labs and we immediately saw a lot of activity revolving around that feature. For probably the first 3 or 4 weeks after putting it out we have seen over 1,000 drawings overlaid over Google Maps and it’s very satisfying for us to be able to get requests from users regarding features that they like and being able to work on that very quickly and put it in their hands and see them using it and see them deriving value out of that.

I think probably over the course of the four months since the service has been up, we’ve actually updated it six times. Each time adding more features, more functionality, all based on user and community requests. That’s something that is very satisfying for us, to be able to get that feedback from the community and to be able to deliver on that.

A strong feature that the web provides is the ability to provide our users with infinite storage space. Whenever you upload a new file version to Butterfly, whenever you send out a drawing to review, whenever you meet on a drawing and co-edit it with a colleague or review it, Butterfly stores all that information and automatically places it on a design line, enabling you with just a couple of clicks to immediately go back to a previous versions, reviews, meetings, without having to archive or manage all that data yourself.

So if you’re working on a design and you need to incorporate some changes based on comments you got from a design review which happened 3 or 4 weeks ago, there’s no need for you to go back to an email or a file to look for those spots, you can with just one click go back to Butterfly and see all the changes and comments that were made during that meeting or review session automatically, and not only view it but download it to your machine, take it back to AutoCAD and work on the file some more, then re-upload it and have that design timeline automatically updated and all of the users sharing that file automatically getting access to the latest version. That’s another strong and interesting feature that Butterfly provides our users with today and which we’ve seen a lot of excitement about.

* Remember, this was back in May 2010, about 4 months after Autodesk Labs launched Project Butterfly.

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:

  1. Is my property safe from destruction?
  2. Is it safe from unauthorised access (copying, modification, theft)?

There are at least a couple of ways of looking at this:

  1. 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?
  2. 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 Internet isn’t like locking your diamonds in a bank vault, it’s like putting them on the dashboard of your car, parking it in the seediest part of town, then hoping nobody breaks a window. Sure, you might be lucky, but why take the risk?

Which side do you fall on? Is Cloud security a dealbreaker or no big deal?

“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.

Is a CAD in the Cloud takeover inevitable?

One argument that CAD in the Cloud supporters sometimes make is that the Cloud is taking over regardless of what anybody thinks, so we might as well just embrace it and reap the benefits. Nice try, Nostradamus, but I’ve been around computers long enough to see many Next Big Things come to nothing and am thoroughly unconvinced by such attempts at self-fulfilling prophecy.

How inevitable is a CAD in the Cloud takeover, in terms of Cloud-based applications replacing traditional software? I’ve added a poll with a specific question about that, so it’s your turn to play soothsayer. What are the chances of you using a public Cloud-based application as your primary CAD software in 5 years? Please vote, and as always, your comments are welcome.

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 calculations need to be very substantial to make them worth outsourcing to the Cloud. For the vast majority of tasks associated with using CAD software you simply don’t need to hand the job to somebody else’s hardware, because there is ample capacity right there on your desk.

(As an aside, whether it’s on your desk or a server farm, writing software that takes advantage of all those cores must be really difficult. I say that because today’s CAD software seldom uses more than one or two at the same time. Even a seemingly straightforward split like loading AutoCAD’s Ribbon while allowing you to start drawing appears to be too hard. It took Autodesk four Ribboned AutoCAD releases to even attempt this, and the result is a failure; the cursor lag while background loading the Ribbon is unacceptable.)

For tasks where there is the technical potential to share the load, a remote service still might not be the best solution. How about a private cloud instead, where the processing load gets shared between your company’s idle processors via your LAN, and your data never leaves the premises? It seems to me that such a solution could provide most of the Cloud benefits and remove almost all of the concerns. This has already happened in pilot with some Autodesk software. I’d like to see more emphasis placed on private-cloud-friendly software, because I think it has a much better chance of customer acceptance and the development effort is less likely to be wasted.

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.

Cloud concerns – downtime

One concern with any SaaS (Software as a Service) product is the potential for downtime. Is this really an issue? After all, big Cloud vendors have multiple server farms as part of their huge infrastructure investment. This provides redundancy to keep things going even in the event of a major local disaster or two. Cloud vendors have a lot of experience handling things such as power outages, hackers, denial-of-service attacks and the like. Amazon, the vendor currently used by Autodesk, promises an annual uptime of 99.95%.  That’s got to be good enough, surely?

Maybe not. The Amazon cloud service has had some noticeable failures, in some cases affecting customers for several days. Amazon may promise a certain average uptime figure, but it provides only credits if it fails to meet its targets. Amazon has been known to be slippery about using fine print to avoid paying those credits, which in any case would go to Autodesk. Joe Drafter, who relies on a Cloud application to do his work and who suffers a significant loss of income and business reputation from a 4-day outage, probably shouldn’t hold his breath while waiting for a big fat compensation check to turn up.

But is a Cloud solution really going to be less reliable than what you have now? Nothing’s 100% reliable, including a standalone PC, so what’s the problem? The problem is that with the Cloud, the potential for downtime is in addition to that you currently experience. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of the sort of things that could stop you producing a design using traditional software:

  • Power failure at your office
  • Your hardware fails
  • Your operating system fails
  • Your CAD software has problems bad enough to prevent you working

Here’s an equivalent similarly non-exhaustive list for a SaaS CAD application:

  • Power failure at your office
  • Your hardware fails
  • Your operating system fails
  • Your browser or thin client software fails
  • Your modem fails
  • Your Internet service provider has an outage
  • Internet connectivity infrastructure failure
  • Cloud vendor infrastructure disaster
  • Cloud-based CAD software is down for maintenance
  • Cloud-based CAD software has problems bad enough to prevent you working

Each of these items may represent a relatively small risk, but the additional potential for disaster adds up and is real.

There’s another aspect to this issue that makes it significant, and that’s the psychological one. People hate feeling powerless when faced with a problem. If your hard drive crashes, even if you don’t have IT people to look after it, you can hop in your car, buy another drive and start working towards getting your problem fixed. If Amazon has a Cloud outage, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it but wait for an unknown amount of time. Even if you were Amazon’s direct customer and not a sub-customer through Autodesk, you could expect to have a very frustrating time even trying to find out what’s going on. I’ve been in that situation when my old web hosting company went through a massive and protracted meltdown, and it’s horrible.

What do you think? If everything else about the Cloud was great, would worries about downtime prevent you from considering a SaaS-only solution? Is it non-negotiable for you to be able to keep working even when “the Internet is broken”?

Cloud benefits – collaboration

The “other” C word – collaboration – was super-trendy in a mildly amusing way a couple of years ago, so I hesitate to use it here. But it seems to me that it represents a real potential benefit of CAD on the Cloud. Not just potential, because it’s already here, free for anyone, thanks to AutoCAD WS. The optional ability to put your designs where they can be worked on by those who are contributing to the design, regardless of their location, has to be a good thing, surely?

Let’s find out how it’s going in the real world. I’d like to hear from people who have used AutoCAD WS, or tried to use it, in order to collaborate with others. What are the benefits and problems? Does the workflow match your needs, or do issues such as contractual and legal responsibility prevent you from working in this way? Are there practical difficulties in areas such as performance and CAD management? Is AutoCAD WS a good enough CAD tool for this job, or does it have a way to go yet?

Cloud concerns – terms and conditions

I just used Autodesk Cloud Documents for the first time, and was asked to confirm my acceptance of the Terms of Service. Fair enough. But just what is in those terms, and what do they mean to you if you are dubious about using the Cloud? Will you be reassured by what you find there? Maybe not. Here are a few clauses that might make you go hmmm…

The terms applicable to a particular service may vary.

Translation: Autodesk can move the goalposts.

Autodesk has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor Your usage of the Service to verify compliance with these Terms.

Translation: Autodesk can keep its eye on you.

You acknowledge and agree that: (a) You will evaluate and bear all risks associated with Your Content; (b) under no circumstances will Autodesk Parties be liable in any way for Your Content, including, but not limited to, any loss or damage, any errors or omissions, or any unauthorized access or use; and (c) You (and not Autodesk) are responsible for backing up and protecting the security and confidentiality of Your Content.

Translation: whatever happens, it’s your problem, not Autodesk’s.

Third Party Content and services may be made available to You, directly or indirectly, through the Service (including Content shared by other users of the Service, through Forums or by any other means). In some cases, such Content and services may appear to be a feature or function within, or extension of, the Services or the Autodesk Software. Accessing such Content or services may cause Your Computer, without additional notice, to communicate with a third-party website … for example, for purposes of providing You with additional information, features and functionality.

Translation: Autodesk and others can use the service to advertise to you.

Autodesk reserves the right to delete inactive accounts or purge related Content (and all backups thereof), without further notice and Autodesk Parties shall have no responsibility or liability for deletion or any failure to store Your Content.

Translation: don’t just leave your stuff up in the clouds and expect it to still be there a few years later.

You acknowledge that Autodesk may use third-party service providers in connection with the Services, including without limitation the use of cloud computing service providers which may transmit, maintain and store Your data using third-party computers and equipment in locations around the globe.

Translation: it’s not just Autodesk here, there is a chain of responsibilities and vulnerabilities.




Translation: Autodesk lawyers LOVE SHOUTING. Whatever happens, including gross negligence on Autodesk’s part, it’s still all your fault and you’re severely out of luck.

…for all Service Offerings accessed as part of Subscription, these Terms and Your access to the Services will terminate when Your Subscription (and the Subscription Program Terms applicable to Your Subscription) terminates or expires.

Translation: here’s a further disincentive to ever dropping out of Subscription once you’re on it.

It is Your responsibility to retain copies of Your Content. Upon termination Autodesk shall have the right to immediately delete, without notice, Your Content, if any, and all backups thereof, and Autodesk Parties shall not be liable for any loss or damage which may be incurred by You or any third parties as a result of such deletion.

Translation: don’t rely on the Cloud alone.

Autodesk reserves the right, from time to time in its sole discretion, to (a) modify or release subsequent versions of the Service, (b) impose license keys or other means of controlling access to the Service, (c) limit or suspend Your access to the Service, and (d) change, suspend or discontinue the Service at any time.

Translation: Autodesk can do pretty much whatever it likes, including killing the whole thing.

I don’t think any of this means Autodesk is evil. Looked at from the point of view of a corporation that needs to cover its backside and reduce risks to itself, it’s quite understandable. Much of it is just very sensible advice. You can expect similar conditions from other companies providing Cloud services. But what if you’re not happy with using a Cloud service that has such conditions attached? Well, you can use it anyway and keep your fingers crossed, or you stay away from it altogether.

How do you see this? Assuming you were happy with everything else about the Cloud, would clauses like those above be a dealbreaker?

Edit: this post is also being discussed on the Dezignstuff blog.

Note: the above clauses are Autodesk copyright, reproduced here under fair use (comment and criticism).

How do you feel about CAD in the Cloud?

Early last year, I ran a poll to gauge your feelings about CAD in the Cloud. Here are the results of that poll:

Cad in the Cloud 2010 Poll

As you can see, the poll response bell curve was clearly biased toward the frightened end of the spectrum, and there was little in the way of excitement at the Cloudy prospects for CAD. A fair bit has happened since last February (particularly the recent Autodesk Cloud announcement), so I thought I’d see how the ground lies at the moment. Are you feeling more positive about Cloudy CAD than you were 18 months ago? 

I’ve just added a poll for you to vote on, identical to last year’s. In addition, I’d love to see your comments on the subject. Is CAD in the Cloud inevitable, or is it not going to fly? If you don’t think it will take off and take over, why not? Is it going to be Heaven, Hell, or somewhere in between? I have my own views, but I’ll keep them to myself for now; the floor is yours.