Ahead in the cloud

Using the cloud has emerged as a standard IT option, but true cloud-based CAD has been sniffed at in the past by the design community. Its time has come, or so believes Jon Hirschtick, founder and chairman of Onshape.

The capacity and accessibility potential of using cloud-based IT functions has been first recognised and then realised. Not so, however, with CAD. Perhaps driven by the notion that precious IP could not ever be released to the ether, engineers have at best used the cloud to share models rather than it being the place in which they actually do design.

Jon Hirschtick made his name as founder of Solidworks and is therefore no stranger to introducing disruptive technology. It was his idea to have a true cloud-based CAD system – not just a resource that people download to their individual workstations or servers, with files being zapped back and forth as different engineers work on them. The Onshape solution sits in the cloud and the model that is being worked on remains there. No software needs to be downloaded to the designers desktop. Could this be a turning point in how CAD is purchased and used?

There are, according to Hirschtick, three reasons why the time is right for CAD to exist in the cloud, and for the industry to move to offering Software as a Service (SAAS). The first of these is economics. “Who wants to spend $5,000 for software?” Hirschtick declared. “It's only in CAD that we talk about that.”

However, the upfront costs compared to the SAAS fee is just one of the economic considerations. “It’s how much you save on not having to buy special hardware, not having to pay staff to configure and install it or look after it,” said Hirschtick. “It's like electricity, you can run a generator or you can buy it from the electric company, and we think most people are better off buying it. Same with computing, cloud and software as a service, compared to the economics of the total picture of licence costs, labour and hardware. Those economics favour the cloud. But saving money is the least important of the three benefits.”

The second big benefit, claimed Hirschtick, is that productivity is much better when both the CAD software and the model being worked on is in the cloud. It means that everyone in the design team is working on the same version of the software and the same iteration of the design. There is no need to copy and send files, install updates and manage revisions.

“And the third reason is teams work together incredibly well,” said Hirschtick. “If two people work alone we can make a good design story, but if you work as a team, it's an amazing story. [Engineers] produce better results in teams. Not only do they save time, but more importantly they're more innovative when they're working together.”

Security fears

So what about the security fears of working on the cloud – are you one hack away from losing your design?

“There's the perception and the reality,” claimed Hirschtick. “The reality is that anyone who uses email is willing to put their private messages in the cloud. Most people who object to the cloud actually will see their security improve on it.”

The logic is that company servers are potentially compromised as soon as anyone connects to the internet or transfers any external or executable files. Equally, anything that leaves a building on a laptop is a potential risk.

Hirschtick continued: “There are three types of people regarding security. Many people are not concerned. Many people are so concerned they won't talk to us. And in the middle are people who talk to us, and many of them, once they think about it, they take our view that they're way more secure than before.”

Another consideration is the uptime of the system. Onshape claims to have uptime of 99.9%, but that is only relevant if the user is online.

Hirschtick admitted: “If you have an unreliable Internet connection, we are not your choice. But to me it’s more reliable than electric power. My electricity is off more minutes in a year than my Internet, living where I do in the Boston area. The interesting thing about reliability is that we don't crash the way installed CAD does. If the Internet drops out, you're down. But traditional CAD drops out too, and drops out way more often than the Internet.”

Onshape is only three years old, releasing its full version early in 2016 and there will be more developments.

Hirschtick said: “We have more to come in areas like controlling who can do what, auditing what has been done, and managing those workflows more precisely.”

But is Onshape an anomaly or will other CAD vendors follow suit with cloud-based offerings?

“Well, clearly they're trying to,” said Hirschtick. “People are talking about new things they’ve installed and adding a browser, but those aren't solutions. If you use those tools, you install software. It’s like using CAD and DropBox.

“I'm flattered that a year ago people said, ‘it’s not important what Onshape are doing, don't worry about it,’ and now they're saying, ‘oh, we do it too - it'll be here in a couple of years’. Obviously they now seem to think what we're doing is important.”

CV - Jon Hirschtick

Hirschtick holds a Bachelors and Masters from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and has worked in CAD for over 30 years. He was a founder and CEO of SolidWorks, a group executive at Dassault Systemes, director of engineering at Computervision, manager at the MIT CADLab, a player and instructor on the MIT Blackjack team, and a professional magician. He serves on the Engineering Advisory Board at Boston University and as an advisor to Magic Leap and MarkForged. His hobbies include golf, 3D printing, tennis, yoga, and magic.