Canadian Consulting Engineer

Feature

Computers: Cloud Computing 101

Whhen Blaine Jansen, in the Calgary office of Entuitive wants to collaborate on a presentation for an upcoming conference with a colleague in Entuitive’s Toronto office he uses Dro box, a popular cloud technology.


Whhen Blaine Jansen, in the Calgary office of Entuitive wants to collaborate on a presentation for an upcoming conference with a colleague in Entuitive’s Toronto office he uses Dro box, a popular cloud technology.

“Using Dropbox has been great to allow staff to collaborate with each other in multiple offices on things like marketing efforts and standards development,” says Jansen. ” It has also allowed us to effectively work in a truly mobile way. We don’t need to make sure that files are saved to a flash drive before leaving the office — they are just available wherever there is an Internet connection. In fact, [the service] has worked so well for us that we are in the planning stages to expand this type of technology to handle sharing of our project based files.”

The term “cloud computing” refers to someone making use of off-site computing resources over the internet. They may do this to store and share files as is the case with Dropbox, or to speed up a certain function, like Autodesk 360 Render in Cloud. These off-site computing resources are stabled in large datacentres owned by IT giants like Amazon and Google.

The increased complexity of computations, the increased bandwidth of the internet, and a mobile and global workforce are three developments that are making cloud computing more popular. Of course, the term “cloud” is being used generously by marketing departments at IT companies. They tout convenience and lower IT costs as the main benefits. But for companies who use cloud services, security and the physical location of data are concerns.

What are the advantages?

These days, with the increasing complexity of projects, engineering companies need to make large investments in hardware to run simulation and analysis. Even with large scale hardware, an engineer may wait for days for results. Cloud computing makes these massive calculations possible for consulting engineering companies of all sizes. Using the power of their large data centres, software companies are offering complex analysis resources that require only an internet connection while posting the data. Autodesk, for example, offers cloud based simulation for energy use, and building structural design.

Engineering companies spend large amounts of resources on upgrading software, which represents a significant expense in IT-hours and hardware. But now that Microsoft, Autodesk, Bentley and others are releasing their most popular software in cloud format as a “Software as a Service” model (SaaS), users can log into the service and immediately have the latest version running on their device of choice. In some cases the user needs continuous internet connectivity, but for other cloud-enhanced features they may only need an internet connection while they are uploading critical information for analysis.

In order to increase the amount of specialized tasks, without tying up valuable system resources, the staff at Entuitive frequently uses many of the services available via Autodesk 360. Presentation quality images and renderings are completed in the Cloud.

“In the past, we would be very careful to schedule rendering work to happen during off hours in order to keep staff as productive as possible,” explains Jansen. “Using Cloud technology we have been able to decrease the time it takes to create great quality renderings while allowing our users to continue to work on regular project work. The net result is better quality images and virtually no impact on our ability to deliver our core services.”

The speed and accuracy at which digital design data is shared has a direct impact on company profits. Teams scattered across the country, the world, or even just working from home, need fresh data to make decisions. The cloud offers the possibility of all parties logging in to see the status of a project no matter where they are.

One example of software for project collaboration using cloud computing is the free iPad app for Navisworks by Autodesk. It allows people to remotely view a 3D data-rich model. Bentley offers a similar solution called Navigator. These tools allow people in the field to compare directly what they are building to what is coming out of the design offices.

The potential for tracking the entire lifecycle of a project is a powerful concept. Cloud based Project Lifecycle Management has the ability to link all of your systems, from design to accounting to commissioning and beyond. Some companies are currently making use of this in a “private cloud” scenario, where within the security of their network they are able to manage the complex flow of data in a multidisciplinary engineering firm.

The notion of a private cloud can be attractive for addressing concerns over security and the ownership of data, but it can be onerous to manage. The private cloud by its very nature makes it difficult to allow other firms into your network, thus making collaboration more difficult.

How secure is our data?

The number one and two concerns for companies using cloud technology are “Where is my data?” and “Who owns it?” When data is stored in the cloud, as is the case with Apple iCloud, the ownership issue becomes foggy. Most major commercial data centres are located in the U.S., which may prove to be an issue for Canadian companies. Does U.S. law enforcement have jurisdiction over Canadian owned data that is located in the U.S.? The answer is not yet known but, according to some, U.S. law may give it some jurisdiction. Canada has similar laws but some say they are not as intrusive.

The other concern is over the level of responsibility the data centre will share if your data is lost or compromised. Banks personally guarantee online transactions. If you were to lose money, likely the bank would reimburse you for it, dollar for dollar. It’s harder to place a value on data. The data may be returned to you but it may be after a critical deadline.

At this time companies like Amazon, and by extension those who rent Amazon server space, will not provide a financial reimbursement for a data centre outage and the subsequent losses. Their current position is one of proactive protection and redundancy. At best, you will get your data back, someday, in the future. However, most cloud companies will provide hard copy backups of your stored data upon request.

Cloud technology is here to stay whether we like it or not. Most of us already use it every day. While it solves many immediate business issues it also brings up new risks. Being able to access enormous amounts of computing power may be a game changer, but the cloud computing industry will have to listen and adapt their policies and practices based upon the rigorous needs of the engineering community.

Sidebar

CLOUD TECHNOLOGY THAT ENGINEERS MIGHT USE

File sharing

Dropbox , Skydrive, iCloud

Design Drawing Review

AutoCAD WS

Navisworks Mobile and Autodesk 360 mobile

Bentley Navigator Mobile

Analysis

Revit Structure Analyze in Cloud

Revit Energy Model or Green Building Studio

Project Lifecycle

Management

Trimble VICO

Autodesk PLM

Others

Gmail, Hotmail, etc.

Quickbooks Online

Autodesk 360 Render in Cloud

Jay Polding is an applications specialist with SolidCAD, based in Toronto. He is an Autodesk Implementation Certified Expert and Instructor, a founding members of the Ontario Revit Users Group (ORUG.ca) and the author of the blog “Revit in Plain English.” e-mail jpolding@solidcad.ca