Heads in the cloud
29 Mar 2012
Is the sky the limit for the possibilities offered to engineers and students by the cloud? Justin Cunningham looks at what's on offer and where the technology is leading.
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 young design engineers and those just entering the profession?
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 amount 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 (computer aided design) 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 product lifecycle management (PLM) and its Enovia V6 is a cloud platform. 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: "If information sits in the cloud, you can access it anywhere, at anytime.
"But we are extending it into another dimension and overlapping that with computing power. It is not just about doing big simulations, but about exploring options in a way that you have not been able to before. Large simulation files run in the cloud are processed faster. 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.
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."
Cloud computing also opens up another possibility; 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. "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.
"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."
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. 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.
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