by Caren Potter
Two new vendors have joined the mechanical design automation community in recent months, Alibre Inc. and CollabWare Corp. These companies are noteworthy, not so much for the software they provide, but for the way they provide it. Both companies are application service providers (ASPs), who make engineering-related software accessible on a pay-as-you-go basis from their Web sites. They are also being joined by familiar faces in the MCAD world-MSC.Software (formerly the analysis software vendor, MacNeal Schwendler Corp.), Engineering Animation Inc. (EAI), and CoCreate-that also rent engineering application software over the Web.
What are we to make of this? Is renting design automation software and accessing it remotely a good idea? That depends on whom you ask and what kind of software you're talking about.
Indeed, there's no consensus about whether accessing CAD, or more specifically a solid modeler, through an ASP is a good approach. Some people say it is, others say it isn't yet but may be eventually, while still others give the idea an unqualified thumbs down. Some people in favor of having ASPs supply CAD express sentiments similar to those of Robert Kross, vice president of Autodesk's Mechanical Market Group, who says, "In general, anything that gives users more choices is probably good."
To be sure, there are potential benefits to supplying CAD this way. Jim Rusk, general manager of CAD/CAM products at SDRC (Milford, OH), doesn't believe that his company's target customers-the global, Fortune 1000 companies-will want to get the majority of their CAD licenses through an ASP arrangement. "They want to be more in control of their destinies, so that nothing outside their domain will impact the productivity of their large user bases," he says. These companies would not want to risk downtime, such as when recent hacker incidents temporarily tied up some popular Web sites. But Rusk does concede that SDRC's customers might like the ASP concept and take advantage of it occasionally if it were available.
|At engineering-e.com's SimulationCenter, users can rent e.visualNastran, a program for performing motion and stress simulations and analyses of MCAD models.|
"I can see a number of our bigger customers looking to us for this type of environment when they're out of licenses and need a few more to finish up a project, or when they have a short-term need for a particular application, like a special thermal-analysis code," Rusk says. "I think our typical customers would like to have their systems set up so that they always looks to the local installation environment for applications first. But if they request a program that is not available there, and the system has authorized them to have the license served over the Web, that's how they would obtain it."
In fact, filling a short-term software need is among the most frequently cited benefits offered by the ASP approach. Although this would be convenient for the large companies that Rusk was talking about, it would be equally beneficial for the smaller companies that must deal with multiple CAD systems in the course of their work. Independent consultants, for example, who might supply customers with models in AutoCAD, Unigraphics, and Pro/Engineer formats, would probably appreciate the ability to rent the appropriate program as necessary. It's certainly cheaper to rent a U-Haul when you need one than to buy one.
|EAI's e-Vis.com-which offers Internet-enabled sharing, storing, and organizing of product data-provides data security with Hewlett- Packard's Praesidium VirtualVault technology.|
Despite the potential benefits of the ASP method, most representatives from "traditional" CAD companies fall into the "not now but maybe someday" camp. They have two main concerns. One is support. If someone is renting a solid modeler for a week or a month, what happens if the cursor freezes or the engineer needs a more complete explanation of a function than is given in the online tutorial?
Jon Hirschtick, CEO of SolidWorks (Concord, MA), believes this issue must be addressed before the ASP idea is viable. "Our company focuses on getting people into production, and that requires service and support in addition to providing software," he says. "I think remote hosting and pay-as-you-go licensing are going to be great things for the industry, if we can ensure that our service and support network is engaged to help customers get into production."
"Support is the differentiator among Internet companies," concurs Dan Bryce, vice president and general manager of MSC.Software's Engineering-e.com division, which rents several applications through its Web site (www.engineering-e.com). "We have established a range of support offerings, from full support contracted with MSC.Software or other suppliers, to phone and email support during extended business hours, to the ability to look something up from the material on our Web site."
|PTC may not think the ASP model will work for CAD, but the company recently announced a Behavioral Modeling Center that makes analysis tools available over the Internet.|
The second concern is that the Web may not be ready to host such an interactive application as solid modeling. "Highly in- teractive applications are more sensitive to running over the In ternet than is an ap plication where you submit a basic query and the software shows the results," says Craig Lozofsky, man ager of marketing and business development at Engineering-e.com. "Some of the things you do with CAD depend on a quick response. When you rotate a CAD model, for instance, you want to see it move smoothly and quickly." Perhaps those with fast Internet connections can get that kind of response over the Web. But for those who can't, the modeling experience would probably be frustrating.
Hirschtick's perspective as one of the first suppliers of Windows-based CAD may offer insight here. "One thing that makes me wary of it [CAD via an ASP] is that I've been a pioneer on a couple of platforms in my life," he says. "And one thing I've observed is that typically a platform is only ready for CAD/CAM a long time after it's been ready for traditional applications, like word processing, accounting, and so. Why don't we see more applications running this way? I think it's still a little bit of a green banana."
Whether that's true or not, Engineering-e.com has just announced its intention to offer a solid modeler through its ASP service. "We will introduce it and find out if it is acceptable to the market," Lozofsky says. In addition, Alibre Inc.'s solid modeler, Alibre Design, is now available from the company's Web site. (See accompanying article, ("Test-Driving Alibre Design," pg. 38), for an in-depth look at what it's like to use this CAD solid modeler over the Web.)
The unqualified negative opinion about getting CAD through ASPs comes from PTC (Waltham, MA). "We don't think that hosting your application on our computer and allowing you to run it over the Internet is the big breakthrough," says Jon Stevenson, general manager and senior vice president of MCAD at PTC. "We've analyzed the business opportunities that vendors like Alibre and CollabWare are pursuing, and there's not a lot of customer demand. If there were, we'd probably be pursuing it more aggressively.
"The Internet is more than just another platform change; it's the convergence of the network and the desktop," Stevenson contends. "Simply porting a client-server application-especially a large, complex application such as CAD-to the Internet is not what's going to benefit the users. It actually isn't even viable today because these applications are pretty thick. What's going to help them is figuring out how to take best advantage of this new platform to let engineers work together collaboratively when they're geographically separated and to share data with suppliers or customers or other engineering departments over the Internet in real time."
Whether or not the time is right for renting a solid modeler from an ASP, there is plenty of potential in this delivery model for engineers today. One area that seems particularly viable right now is analysis. "I think the ASP approach makes a lot of sense for applications that are compute-intensive rather than interaction or graphics-intensive, such as finite-element analysis for example," says Stevenson.
ASP delivery of analysis software makes sense for two reasons. One, which SDRC's Rusk alluded to, is that many companies don't need analysis on a routine basis. It makes no sense for them to purchase a license for $65,000 per year if they won't use it a lot. Renting the program for $1000 per week is the better fiscal alternative. The other nice thing about running analysis through an ASP is that it ties up someone else's computing resources. A company with an analysis that takes three or four days to solve might not want to lose a workstation for that long.
In March, both Engineering-e.com and PTC introduced analysis offerings through their Web sites. Engineering-e.com's e.visualNastran, a simulation package for designers, is available from the site's simulation center. PTC announced its Behavioral Modeling Center, a Windchill-hosted mechanical design synthesis application that makes simulation available to engineers over the Internet. Behavioral modeling capabilities have been available in the company's Pro/Engineer 2000i program, but the new Behavioral Modeling Center makes them available even to those who do not use that particular CAD program.
Collaboration is the other area that can already benefit from the ASP delivery model. In fact, CoCreate Software has been renting OneSpace collaboration sessions for almost a year now. OneSpace is a CAD-independent program that lets people in different locations view, manipulate, and alter solid models in a collaboration session over the Web. After importing one or more CAD models into the software through a standard Web connection, the participants use their own computers to view the OneSpace screen. They can use the software's arrow pointer to indicate the features they're discussing and other tools to mark-up the model. Verbal communication is handled by means of a conference call.
"Some people told us they didn't want to put their own infrastructure in place for these collaboration sessions, they just wanted to buy it on the Web," says Doug Johnson, general manger of CoCreate's Shared Engineering Division. So CoCreate got into the ASP business. The company recently established a partnership with Engineering-e.com to make OneSpace available through that site's Assisted Collaboration Service as well.
This sort of collaboration environment is also what Alibre is providing. Even though the company makes a solid modeler available on its site, the use of it is free. Customers are charged only for the collaboration session.
"The whole notion of running a CAD program over an ASP may not be the most interesting impact on the engineering community of ASPs," notes Hirschtick of SolidWorks. "The real potential for ASPs in engineering may not be not for the CAD user per se, but for all the other people who need to access CAD data for viewing, markup, and measuring. I don't see any reason why someone would build another non-remote-hosted, non-Web product in that area. Data sharing, communication, and support for e-business and e-commerce will all go to the Web very quickly."
How do the ASP developers respond to such comments and criticisms from traditional CAD vendors? Like other proponents of Internet technology, they tend to emphasize the potential of the new medium. On the topic of service and support, for instance, J. Paul Grayson, president and CEO of Alibre, comes at the issue with a futuristic perspective consistent with his company's forward-looking business model. "We believe the Web will provide a superior mechanism for support. I wish we could say we have all of our ideas [implemented] in the current product. We don't. But we can see some of the possibilities from what other companies on the Web are doing," he explains.
"For example, assuming the customer would allow it, we could monitor what's going on and supply help at the appropriate time, like shopping sites where service personnel hover in the background and come out when they're needed," Grayson says. Currently Alibre has a Web-enabled infrastructure based on the customer relationship management system, Onyx, that allows the company to keep track of customers and automate responses to them.
In terms of training, Alibre plans to take advantage of Web technology to offer an alternative to traditional classroom methods. According to Grayson, Alibre will provide Web-cast training on a regular basis. "We'll publish the times [on our Web site] and offer online, real-time training by a specialist virtually every day" he says. "This way, people can get training on an as-needed basis. They don't have to wait for a dealer to offer a class."
|With Alibre Design, one of the first MCAD programs available over the Web, users pay only for the Alibre-hosted collaboration sessions.|
What about the notion that the Web is not yet ready as a platform for CAD? "They're joking, right?" Grayson says. "Because the Web has grown so fast, there has been an enormous demand for facilities to support Web applications. Think about the IT requirements of a company like Amazon.com or Mic rosoft. They are outsourcing most of that expertise to companies known as Internet hosting companies. I like to call these companies the information age equivalent of a nuclear power plant. People who say they are unstable or are incapable of handling an interactive application are just not paying attention."
The other major point of contention relates to whether CAD can be sufficiently interactive over the Web. As Grayson explains, "People confuse what we're doing with a thin-client approach to computing." In thin-client computing, a small part of the application resides on the user's computer while most of it resides on a central server. "We call our program a rich-client application. We have a larger footprint on the individual workstation, so we don't have to transfer graphics files over a low-bandwidth connection. All we transfer are modeling commands-which are very short text strings-so you get a pretty much instantaneous display of the same model in different locations."
As all of us know by now, things change rapidly where the Internet is concerned. While it may seem premature to some to access our software tools through an ASP now, who knows what we'll be doing in the future? Perhaps this is similar to Internet shopping. How many products did you buy over the Internet in 1997? I don't think I bought any. But last year? Let's just say Christmas shopping was a whole new experience, and I've learned not to rule out anything when it comes to the Internet. SolidWorks' Hirschtick agrees. Even though he was careful to note the current limitations of renting CAD from an ASP, he says, "We're pretty aggressively looking at it because we want to make sure that if it can happen, we're there."
Caren D. Potter is a contributing editor of Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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