08 March 2010
Cloud computing offers silver linings
Tom Shelley reports on how product development is being speeded up by cloud-based computing and other advances.
Cloud computing was definitely the hottest subject at this year's SolidWorks World event in Anaheim, California.
This was hardly to be wondered at, as cloud computing allows users perform the bulk of their computations on a group of servers, drawing on computing power in the same way that electricity is drawn from the mains as required. This greatly accelerates the opening of large assemblies, finite element analysis, photorealistic rendering and other intensive tasks. In addition, if there is a system hang up or crash, no data or time is lost and a user can immediately restart where they left off.
Furthermore, SolidWorks product marketing manager Mark Schneider was able to demonstrate that, by using clouds via the Internet, the software would happily run on a Mac or a Toshiba Netbook or anything else. "Internet is all you need", he said.
With shipping of cloud-based applications scheduled to start later this year, we asked about the logistics of making is happen on a large scale and costs. Jon Hirschtick, the founder of the company, said: "Our vision is that we will retain a cloud resource and make it available to users."
Presently, the company is using computers provided by Amazon, which Hirschtick said "has achieved a huge lead in cloud computing. Costs are currently about 50 cents per CPU hour, but Solidworks would not yet be drawn on how much they planned to charge customers for this. However, Bernard Charlès, CEO of SolidWorks' parent company Dassault, did reveal that the software would not be purchased, but operated on a subscription basis. He also said that the company will have its own clouds as well as using those from third parties. The choice, he said, will be highly influenced by differing national policies, such as those relating to defence work in the US.
On the subject of security, Hirschtick said: "Your money is safer in a bank than under your bed" and argued that data was similarly safer across a cloud of well-managed computers than in an individual PC. He also maintained that data was less likely to get lost in a cloud, saying: "We are not going to get rid of crashes, but clouds will help recovery because the database is not updated just once in a while but continually – like an online business application." In the event of a crash, operators can simply walk over to another computer and restart.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the plans to make the software work on any platform stem from user input. Says chief technology officer Austin O'Malley: "[Users] want to collaborate virtually and access their data anywhere, even if they only do actual design work in the office with access to a big screen." He also said the company is continuing to investigate alternative ways of interfacing to computers, "There are going to be lots of ways, there is going to be a plethora of devices – we are looking at a lot under non-disclosure agreements."
One such device on show was the Infinite Z platform, which came out of a joint research project with SolidWorks. The three demonstration units each comprised a horizontal LCD screen, producing a 3D image observed through polarising glasses, and a device mounted above it to detect the position and orientation of a special 'Stylus' through which the user interacts with the software. Applications on show included: a 3D sketcher, which allowed pipes to be routed in a plant in 3D; a 'Snorkel camera', which allowed the user to see fly through images selected by moving a virtual camera in 3D; and a 3D assembly that included tubes that could be lifted out and looked through.
One of the highlights of the event was the sneak preview of what users can expect to see in SolidWorks 2011, whether hosted in a cloud or on a user's own PCs. This began with the announcement by Solidworks' CEO Jeff Ray that: "More than 50% of the R&D effort has been focused on improving reliability and stability." Speed is improved by releasing memory as soon as an operation is finished, releasing 460MB in one example. In addition, Luxology's PhotoView 360 is to be integrated.
Simulation in the 2011 version of SolidWorks will include 2D simplification, so that analyses can be undertaken with finer mesh without incurring time penalties and then projected back into a 3D volume. Dimensions can be applied to a whole drawing all at once and then staggered, spaced out and tidied. A design checker will ensure that issued drawings conform to company specifications. Chamfers and fillets can be done at assembly level and there are new facilities to model intermittent weld beads and to produce weld table documentation.
Walkthroughs in the 2011 version of SolidWorks can use manikins for improved control and realism. There are enhancements to piping and also a feature lock, so that completed features are not rebuilt when a model is rebuilt. In the example shown, this reduced model rebuild time from 65s to 0.4s.
Summing up, Jeff Ray observed: "We will be launching more technology in the next two years than we have in the last 15."
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