Cloud computing offers new possibilities to design engineers
To say that cloud computing is a hot topic at the moment would be an understatement. This is particularly the case in the consumer world, where the hype is generally around Apple's iCloud, Google Docs, Amazon EC3, and the like.
But the philosophy behind cloud computing is not really anything new with its origins going back to the early days of computing. So what exactly has changed? And, more importantly, what does it mean for design engineers?
Big innovation has often come from industry before being rolled out into more commercial applications. But things are changing. Cloud computing has already been heavily developed and rolled out into the consumer space and it is only now being trickle-fed into engineering.
The plethora of devices now used to access the same information has also increased massively. People might have a PC at home and at work, a laptop, a smartphone and even a tablet computer. But they want to be able to access their most recent information on any of these devices, at anytime. It therefore makes a lot of sense to migrate this data onto the cloud. But while this makes a lot of sense for many office and home users, for design engineers there are many challenges to overcome before the potential benefits can be realised.
Perhaps the most obvious area to use cloud computing is with a CAD system. The goal is to have a significantly lower hardware requirement than present and offer online access to powerful simulation, synchronisation, rendering and modelling capabilities.
The CAD giants are not quite there yet. To go to a website and log on to CATIA or PTC Creo and begin 3D modelling is not yet a possibility. Anyone that has tried using LogMeIn with a 3D CAD system will know that the bandwidth on most networks is simply not good enough. Driving multiple high-resolution CAD monitors requires large quantities of processing power for graphics handling.
However, there are real solutions being rolled out. Dassault Systèmes, for instance, has long made clear its belief that the cloud is the future for CAD and PLM and its Enovia V6 is a cloud platform (see page 20). Meanwhile, Autodesk, too, has made a number of recent announcements about using cloud computing and is making this technology available and practical for design engineers.
Autodesk vice president of suites and web services, Andrew Anagnost, says: "Mobility and distributed workflow play together and are important aspects of cloud computing. If information sits in the cloud, you can access it anywhere, at anytime, and you do not need a complex infrastructure to do that. It can be very elastic and reactive.
"But we are extending it into another dimension and overlapping that with computing power and that is where it gets really exciting about how the cloud can be applied to design. It is not just about doing big simulations, but about exploring options in a way that you have not been able to before. You could look at it that large simulation files run in the cloud are processed faster. It does do that, but it also comes back in the same time, with five or six optimised design variations, for minimal material use, strength or whatever. People have not been able to do that before unless they were NASA or a very large firm with supercomputers. Now everyone can access that processing power via the cloud."
As well as powerful simulation, it is also improving the resolution of rendered images in less time for better visualisation and with reduced hardware costs. Additionally, Autodesk is to launch its PLM system exclusively on to the cloud from March. So how long before designers will be able to log in to Autodesk Inventor and work exclusively online?
"I think within three years, all of our major applications will be on the cloud," says Anagnost. "That doesn't mean all of our users will be using them, but it is quite likely all of our major applications will be accessible online. But for that to happen the bandwidth has to expand and our technological approach has to change a little bit, too. The reason I am so optimistic about this is that this stuff is changing very quickly. We have already done some experimentation with it and there are some other technological barriers to overcome for the full 3D modelling experience, but those dominoes are falling very quickly. Three years is not an outrageous timeframe at all."
It makes sense that large design projects that are being carried out by hundreds of users, often simultaneously and thousands of miles apart, is managed and brought together in a cloud system. But it opens up another possibility and the concept of the 'petabyte' age.
Sensors everywhere, infinite storage and clouds of processors giving the ability to capture massive amounts of data. Every car crash, for example, will record the data from the crash. Data from millions of instances of the same activity will be recorded and made available. And that will have a fundamental impact on the way engineers approach design.
Tristan Jones, technical marketing team leader at National Instruments, says: "Whereas we might take a snapshot of data at the moment and use this to form the basis of a theory or model, this will allow you to take actual real-world data. Take for example a bridge; it could have hundreds of strain gauges mounted on it that give years of continuous readings. That data will enable us to extract new and interesting information and allow us to see things as they really are.
"Rather than come up with a theoretical model of how a system might work, you will be able to get hold of the real-world data for what the system is actually doing and use that as part of the design process."
In the nearer term, however, National Instruments has produced a cloud-based version of its measurement, test, and control system software called Labview Web UI builder. Normally Labview, like CAD software, is time consuming to install and get going. But NI says the expectation of much quicker access to specialised software is shifting.
"Students especially are used to going to websites, logging on and accessing very powerful design, scientific and engineering tools in a very easy, low-installation, way," says Jones. "The willingness of businesses to take up this approach and apply it to developing applications in the cloud is an increasing area of interest.
"Applications can be built and hosted in the cloud so that, when you go to the website and use the development environment – and when it comes to compiling code – it is passed off to NI.com. We rent some space on the Amazon Elastic Compute cloud-based servers that compile the code. This is then sent back to the users web browser where it can be deployed down on to applications and run."
Like many firms going in to the frontier of offering services via the cloud, the business model with regards to charging for these services is still far from concrete. Whether this takes the form of a yearly subscription for a log-in name or a monthly utility-style bill for usage remains a big question for many.
"The technology is there as is the willingness of businesses to take up the technology," says Jones. "But, how does the business model actually work in terms of providing the service and charging for it? That is the interesting bit."
Control and automation supplier M.A.C Solutions based in Worcester has also recently launched a cloud-based offering of its products. Its WEBfactory 2010 Everywhere is a process visualisation and HMI software suite for the control of industrial processes. Users can choose to display visualisation pages in any web browser, including Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome or Safari.
Dennis Price, product manager at M.A.C Solutions says: "WEBfactory is the world's first genuine web-based visualisation system and cloud computing solution for SCADA systems. It can also be installed as a standalone SCADA system, providing all of the added benefits that a SCADA system offers.
"The software is very cost effective for the customer because customers only buy what they require at that time. The user can then expand the software over time in a practical, cost effective manner by means of modular software add-ons."
All applications run over the Internet and require no separate installation on the display device and thus no change to the existing IT infrastructure. WEBfactory is also 100% ActiveX and JAVA-free, as they are often seen by IT departments as potential risks to security and blocked.
Also included in WEBfactory is its 'Smart Editor'. This simplifies the professional design process, enabling the user to quickly assign, via drag-and-drop, parameters to the machine installation for improved page visualisation.
WEBfactory Symbol Libraries provides users with a comprehensive library of symbols and animated graphics. Templates can be saved in the library and reused or adjusted for subsequent installations, saving valuable design time for the user. Importing data and graphics from existing systems is also straightforward.
The consumer market does seem to be driving the rollout of cloud-based systems and it is a trend that is very likely to spread to industry. The only question is timescale. There are still severe limitations in terms of bandwidth for utilising CAD systems via the cloud, with only limited access to certain parts being available. But the question is when, rather than if, this will be overcome. And it is looking like it could be sooner rather than later. Perhaps as little as five, but certainly within 10 years it is feasible that all CAD and PLM systems and providers will be accessed via a pay-as-you-go subscription service.
As for the rollout of real-time sensors that are everywhere, the continuing fall of computer chip prices and the proliferation of sensors being installed in buildings, cars and aircraft is happening. But it is likely to be some time before engineers will be able to tap in to this data and it has a fundamental impact on design.
What is cloud computing?
Cloud computing, if you didn't already know, is all about offering software as an online service. This alleviates the need for installing large chunks of software on individual machines to allow access to a computer application or program, whether it is for storage or something like email, via the web.
When computers were the size of rooms and very expensive, users would tend to operate a mainframe and terminal computing model. So the mainframe would run all the important code and separate small user devices would handle the data input and output.
The same kind of thing is happening today. Massive data centres the size of office blocks and warehouses store and compute data that can then be accessed by any number of devices in any location that has an internet connection. But essentially this has been going on for some time. Hotmail, for example, is essentially a cloud based email application, flicker too is the same thing for pictures.
Tristan Jones, technical marketing team leader at National Instruments, says: "At its centre there is this core infrastructure; large installations of computers which are the basis for what makes up cloud computing as we know it. That processing power and storage can then be accessed on different devices from smartphones to PCs."
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