by Jean Thilmany, Contributing Editor
“The roughly $9 billion CAD market remains very fragmented and stuck in the old desktop paradigm,” said Jon Hirschtick, Onshape founder and chairman of the board. (Hirschtick and fellow Onshape founder John McEleney started CAD company SolidWorks in the early 1990s.)
Other companies, notably Autodesk, Dassault Systemes, and PTC, include CAD-in-the-cloud offerings and also make desktop software. Onshape differs from these in that its software exists fully in the cloud and can be used by multiple users in real time.
“With our cloud approach, engineers don’t pull CAD files from a cloud-based server as exists in other methods,” said Hirschtick. “The other cloud CAD services are copy-based, meaning that the software and files are on the cloud and the engineer copies them from the cloud to the desktop.
“When you copy and install the software off the cloud server, hopefully it’s the same software. But what if it was upgraded?” continued Hirschtick. “With most CAD-in-the-cloud systems, multiple people can take a copy out of the cloud vault and move it to their local computer and work on it. But if I work on a copy of the same model at the same time as you, and I make a change and put it back, my changes can overwrite your changes, and your changes are gone. I can lock it in, but then I need to indicate to you to stop working on it while I work on it.”
Version control is an issue with many CAD software programs. It is too easy for various versions of a file to exist on multiple engineers’ desktops. A drawback is that this often slows design efforts as engineers must constantly check and recheck files. “That method of operating is at odds with the need to move faster in the global market,” added Hirschtick. Onshape, though, offers an alternative.
The Onshape programs are structured like business database applications such as accounting systems. CAD application functions don’t automatically override engineer changes.
“Versioning” is built in. File changes are tracked in a central database. Because any engineer with permission can access the software from any device with Internet connection, engineers in different places can work together on a design, such as a power supply for example. There’s only one power supply file; Onshape doesn’t copy it.
“If multiple engineers happen to be working on that file at the same time, there’s no problem. If one engineer rounded a corner and another one drilled a hole, both changes get captured,” said Hirschtick. “If we’re both rounding a corner at the same time, you would see my hand there in real time—at the same table—and a box around the corner would indicate that another engineer is editing that right now.”
Hosted or on-premises?
The many CAD-cloud systems operate differently as far as subscription services. “Onshape’s pricing model is a disruptive component of its strategy to make CAD more accessible,” noted Bruce Jenkins, founder of Ora Research, which provides business research on new technologies.
The professional version of Onshape’s CAD software costs $100 per month and runs on any web browser with Internet access. There’s also a free version. Both plans allow access to all Onshape’s functions, but the free plan has data storage limits and restricts the number of private documents a user can access at any time. The professional subscription requires no commitment beyond the one-month term.
Though pricing is accessible, companies looking to bring in cloud-based CAD software will still need to investigate pricing pros and cons, say experts versed in cloud-based software, which is also known as “software as a service” or “hosted software.”
According to market research firm IDC, sales of cloud-based software are expected to surpass $100B by 2018, expanding at a compound annual growth rate of 21.3%. The company predicts the subscription-based software-as-a-service delivery model will significantly outpace traditional software product delivery, growing nearly 5x faster than the entire software market and accounting for $1 of every $5 spent on software by 2018.
Though the popularity of delivering applications with the cloud is growing, … “the decision to move pertinent applications to the cloud isn’t a no-brainer,” said R. Andrew Sroka, CEO at Fischer International Systems, which helps companies manage identities for on-premise and cloud-based applications.
Comparing hosted and on-premise applications is not an apples-to-apples comparison, which makes it difficult to arrive at a bottom-line savings.
To determine whether cloud-based or on-premise software is the better choice, users need to evaluate what is most valuable to the enterprise—whether its flexibility or risk-management or the possible benefits of housing a solution on-site—and determine which method will meet engineering needs.
With cloud-based systems, issues of total cost of ownership and return on investment are generally murky because companies want to see how cloud applications compare to traditional on-site infrastructure.
“But there are so many intangibles wrapped up in the cloud that it makes it hard to put calculations on it,” added Sroka.
Pros and cons
The simplest measure is to compare up-front costs, including costs to buy versus recurring subscription fees. Cloud subscription options are considered easily scalable. Adding or subtracting subscriptions can generally be handled with a phone call to the cloud provider. So, which is better for your needs—a monthly fee or paying for the whole software usage up front?
Most cloud service providers automatically update their programs. Thus, IT staff can focus on other tasks and engineers know they are working with the latest version of the applications.
“But with capital expenses, licensing and physical hardware, costs are not the whole story,” said Sroka. “It’s important to factor in expenses like utility costs and power requirements.”
Also be sure to consider intangible costs and concerns, such as the pitfalls and benefits of on-site administration. “A cloud model removes many administration tasks that employees needed to handle,” continued Sroka, “so a lot of vendors will say that a cloud option lets you take X number of fulltime employees out of the picture. Or you can look at it as now you have more people to devote to other tasks needed by your company. You have to look at the value of what else they can do for your business after they are removed from the infrastructure administration tasks.”
Don’t forget to consider the costs of periodic infrastructure upgrades by some offerings, these will add to the total costs.
One aspect of comparison worth considering is how the cloud service handles the security of your information, whether in the cloud or on engineers’ desktops. Experts don’t offer clear advice here, coming down on both sides of the which-is-more-secure debate.
“Cloud-based tools, if not secured, can be hacked,” said Donald Hasson, product engineer at Bomgar, which makes remote support software.
But Gil Zimmermann, CEO at CloudLock, a cloud data-security provider, counters that—at many enterprises—user access is the biggest threat to enterprise security. “With the best intentions, users might take home information on a USB drive or email it to someone outside the company,” he said. “Cloud applications are quite well protected because their vendors stake their businesses on security.”
Whichever choice you make, as Jenkins noted, engineers will be designing in the cloud in the coming years.