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2010

I sat down last week with Austin O’Malley, SolidWorks Executive  Vice President of Research and Development. Our conversation ranged from  guitar amps to the new Macbook Air, but for the most part, we talked  about current and future technology, and how it might apply to the  next–generation software his team is working on, including online usage.

 

Matt: We first announced our plans to start  releasing cloud-based applications back in February at SolidWorks World.  Since then, there’s been a lot of talk about the “cloud” term, and how  it can mean many things. From your perspective, what are people talking  about when they discuss cloud applications?

 

Austin: In the simplest terms, cloud computing  involves a shift of processing power away from the hardware in front of  you to hardware somewhere else, with commands and responses transmitted  over the Internet. In other words, your desktop or mobile device  essentially becomes a client you use to access data and programs running  remotely.

 

I think a lot of the confusion comes from the buzz words that tend to  get thrown around, like “public cloud,”  “private cloud,” or “local  cloud.” I tend to think about the different permutations of cloud  computing this way.

 

First, you have what most people think of, which is the “public  cloud.” These clouds are at the data centers run by companies like  Amazon and Google that many businesses are using these days. Processing  power and storage capacity can be easily rented, and you can scale your  needs up and down on demand. For example, if you’re running a 30-day  free download and you need more bandwidth than your own network can  support, you can rent bandwidth from Amazon for that period. There’s no  need to buy servers that you’ll only need for a month. These companies  also provide great physical and electronic security measures to make  sure your data stays safe and is reliably available.

 

On the other end of the spectrum is what people call “private  clouds.” This is a cloud-like infrastructure that you set up behind your  firewall. You actually own (or lease) physical hardware. This is great  if you need your data to stay in-house, but it still requires an  investment in equipment, so it’s not so easy to scale up and down  depending on need. But it still gives you centralized computing power  and distributed access to data.

 

There’s a third term referred to as the “local cloud.” This is sort  of a hybrid of public and private clouds, where you’re primarily working  within a private network, but with the ability to access public cloud  resources when you need additional power or bandwidth. This involves  caching of public cloud data locally.

 

Matt: A lot of people think of services like  SalesForce.com when they think of cloud computing, where applications  are hosted and run in a web browser. Is that what you’re looking at in  R&D?

 

Austin: Sure, that’s definitely interesting, but  it’s not the only thing we’re considering. The great thing about  leveraging online resources is that you can do it in lots of different  ways. I think of the cloud as a great place to handle heavy computing  and data storage.  The device you use to access it should be your  choice, based on what you want to accomplish.  Think of desktop  computers, web browsers, and mobile devices as “windows” to your data  and applications. By removing the dependency on the desktop, you’re able  to create new applications, interfaces and workflows that are more in  line with the way people work today. That’s not to say there’s anything  wrong with the desktop—our success was built on bringing 3D CAD to  Windows after all, and we’re going to remain committed to that  platform.  But there are other viable platforms and interfaces now, and  our customers want the ability to leverage them.

 

Matt: Jon and I discussed the issue of Internet bandwidth last month, and his comment was that it won’t be an issue soon. What’s your take?

 

Austin: I was recently at a conference where the CTO  of AT&T said they will service more WiFi connections in the first  week of 2011 than they did in all of 2008. There was also a chart in a recent issue of Wired that showed how video now constitutes 51% of all Internet traffic, with  overall global bandwidth increasing exponentially as well. If there’s  enough bandwidth to carry all of those YouTube and Netflix videos, I’m  confident that the bandwidth will be there in the next 5-10 years to do  design work online.

 

Ten years ago, most homes were connecting to the Internet with a 56k  modem, with connection speeds around 40kbps. Today, average connection  speed is around 4mbps. That’s a 100x increase over 10 years. In some  countries like Korea, the average connection is 14mbps. People are  already talking about terabit connections. So, do I think that most  businesses have a connection fast enough to do real-time manipulation of  3D data over the Internet right now? Not really, but they will soon.  But, most of our customers could leverage their connections for data  management and sharing designs right now.  We’ll be releasing a product that does this (code-named SolidWorks  Connect) into beta soon.  I also think that we can combine the power of  the cloud and the desktop to provide a better experience for things like  analysis. As you work, analysis could be constantly run using cloud  resources, giving you information on the design choices you‘re making on  your desktop machine.

 

Matt: So how do you see new SolidWorks technology working when it’s released in the next few years?

 

Austin: We’re still working on everything, but I  think what you’ll see are applications that rely on a combination of  local and remote resources, at least when it comes to design software.  We’ll use the power of the desktop or mobile device to give you a great  interactive experience, and use cloud resources to give you access to  data anywhere and offline computation of complex tasks (like analysis).  And, while we may have a browser application in the next few years, it  may not be your primary tool, but rather an option you can take  advantage of for some operations, like viewing designs from your home,  or a client’s office.

 

I think other real advantages of leveraging online resources will  come into play when customers are able to start using purpose-built  applications on mobile devices. When you’re able to access your data  from anywhere on a device that you can carry in your hands, you can take  advantage of workflows that were never possible before. And while  current mobile devices aren’t the best for creating designs, they can be fantastic for accessing and experiencing designs. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to use a tablet to  review a design and approve a change from a taxi, or create a  walkthrough on the fly from the shop floor and share it over a 3G or a  4G network. Perhaps the promise of paperless manufacturing can now be  made a reality with inexpensive tablets coming our way allowing us to  create a “better” drawing.

 

Matt: Jeff Ray recently said that the team working  on our next-generation tech spent a lot of time looking at gaming  technology. What do you think the engineering world can learn from the  gaming industry?

 

Austin: Yes, we’ve looked at both gaming and  entertainment thoroughly. I think the gaming software and hardware  companies have done a great job at developing interfaces and process  flows that mirror the way people really think—a lot better than most  enterprise companies. Take something like World of Warcraft, for  example. There’s an environment that operates in real time, where time  has meaning and things don’t stop just because you log off. It’s easy to  join and get up to speed quickly. Compare that to something like WebEx,  where a meeting can’t happen if the person organizing hasn’t shown up,  or you can’t join in if you lose the meeting invitation, or can’t get  the client software to install.

 

Companies like Nintendo and Microsoft’s Xbox divisions are also doing  great work understanding how people physically interact with hardware,  and they’re creating new experiences that are more natural and  intuitive. SolidWorks probably won’t be developing software that you  control by jumping and swinging your arms around, but we can learn a lot  about how to improve our own interface.

 

And I’m speculating a little, but Apple’s rumored cloud-based iTunes  service looks to have a lot of possibility. The ability to access your  library from anywhere or stream to a brand new iPhone clearly provides a  lot more flexibility.

 

Matt: What else are you finding interesting technologically?

 

Austin: I think there are a lot of interesting ways  that other industries are starting to leverage the Internet. Microsoft  recently launched their Office 365 product, which puts the entire Office  lineup online. A lot of big cities (like Los Angeles) and towns are  contracting out to Google for their email and office applications. The  US government even has its own app store.

 

Higher education is really getting into the Internet business, with  real-time online learning now being a real possibility for a lot of  people. The medical field is starting to use the Internet to let doctors  and surgeons diagnose patients who live in other parts of the world, or  in remote areas. It’s even possible to use small, connected devices to  take blood samples and connect to remote servers to run complex  biometric tests. They’re using the power of Internet connections to have  a real, positive impact on people’s lives. I think that’s pretty  exciting.