Issue: Volume: 32 Issue: 7 (July 2009)

Pictures in the Cloud


Kenneth Wong
The move from desktop to cloud computing makes visualization affordable. By Kenneth Wong

When you log into Autodesk’s Project Showroom, you see a 3D scene, a fully rendered kitchen or bathroom. You see light bouncing off the marble counter’s smooth surface. You see the sheen of the polished wood-cabinet doors. It’s the kind of photo­realistic rendering that would require an hour or more to produce, even with a professional workstation or a supercharged desktop. So you might be surprised to find that when you randomly choose a different tile for the floor or a new refrigerator from the material panel, the scene updates in about five seconds with the new object, complete with raytracing effects.

That’s because the CPU inside your local machine is not shouldering the bulk of the computing burden necessary to bring the scene to life. You are, in essence, tapping into the horsepower of a server farm elsewhere, hosted by Autodesk and its partners. As a result, you get to view a custom 3D scene without processing the complex algorithms that define your scene.

This mode of computing is sometimes called cloud computing, a poetic description of the way your local machine and the more powerful machines communicate with each other over an ethereal network to exchange highly compressed data. With this method, you can perform sophisticated computing tasks—analyze DNA sequences, run particle physics simulations, and generate broadcast-quality movies, to name but a few—far beyond the capacity of your own computer’s chipset.


Project Showroom, an Autodesk technology currently in development, lets you create high-quality rendering, with little or no wait time, through a browser. Delivered in the Software as a Service (SaaS) model, the technology could conceivable be deployed to help interior designers, material suppliers, and clients hold discussions online

The method also offers economic benefits. Instead of purchasing a costly high-performance system, you call up the resources over a network when you need them, paying only for the times you use them. On the other end, someone—usually a company that has invested in considerable infrastructure and storage capacity—delivers the computing horsepower you need on demand. Hence the term Software as a Service (SaaS).

Cloud computing is nothing but an evolution of the old client/server paradigm, a transformation prompted by the ubiquitous presence of the Internet and the availability of high-bandwidth connections. Many of us are already using cloud computing, though we may not call it so. If you’re on Facebook or Twitter, if you’ve ever wandered inside the rolling terrain of Google Earth or World of Warcraft, you’re already halfway in the cloud.

For some digital content creators and industrial designers, the cloud is a promising playground. Within the cloud’s infinite confine, they can be much more creative and productive than they would be on their own local machines. For some engineers and project managers, the cloud is a viable substitute for on-premise IT systems and databases. In this grim economy, where cutting operating costs is a common means of survival, the cloud’s affordability makes it almost irresistible.

Rendering as a Service

In February 2007, surrounded by playful, imaginative, kid-friendly gadgets inside the Zeum Theater at Yerba Buena Gardens (San Francisco), Autodesk’s CEO Carl Bass pronounced a new motto: “Experience it before it’s real.” Under his stewardship, Autodesk began pursuing technological advancements that would let its customers see, feel, and understand their design projects—from sustainable residential structures in New Orleans to hybrid vehicles—before the first brick was laid or the first sheet metal was cut. In other words, the digital model created in Autodesk design software becomes a replica of the physical object that will be built.

In July 2007, Scott Sheppard, a software engineer and Autodesk blogger (“It’s Alive in the Lab”), introduced an application called Project Showroom. He gave the public a glimpse of an Autodesk technology that would let interior designers and their clients collaborate over the Web. Through a standard browser window, the designer could propose ideas about the configuration of the kitchen or the bathroom, using a fully rendered 3D scene to show what the furnished environment would be like.


AfterCAD uses cloud computing for its AfterCAD online viewing and markup tool. Additional 3D support is powered by Ogre, an open-source 3D game engine.

The drag-and-drop interface lets you grab a 3D object from the side panel populated with household items readily available in the market: a Jenn-Air refrigerator with cabinet-depth French doors, a single-handle Delta faucet, and DuPont countertops are just a few of the content items in the catalog.

Equipped with the 3D geometry of the room and the furniture, anyone could have produced a realistic rendering of what the layout would look like. So what’s so special about Showroom? The answer is, in one word, speed. Because of its use of cloud computing, Project Showroom could deliver the visual output faster than a standard PC could, allowing you to reconfigure the room at will.

Explaining the appeal of SaaS—the delivery model for Project Showroom—Auto­desk developer Frederic Loranger wrote, “With tens of thousands of servers available in server farms (for example, Amazon EC2), the idea of infinite computing power opens the doors to a wide range of complex mathematical problems and real-time finite-element analysis. Regardless of today’s personal computer advances, they pale in comparison to what can be accomplished by a legion of servers ‘rented’ for just a few seconds.”

In the case of Showroom, the rented serves let you see, in a matter of seconds, what the room looks like with stainless steel doors and a marble floor instead of oiled bronze doors and ivory tiles, for instance. Currently, Project Showroom offers three prototype environments: two kitchens and a bathroom. But nothing prevents a home decorator from capturing the 3D geometry of another environment—say, a living room or a bedroom, complete with bedding, curtains, and window blinds—and making it configurable via Project Showroom technology.

Just as most manufacturers would generate a bill of materials (BOM) for production, sourcing, and cost estimation, Project Showroom lets you generate the room’s content as a list, complete with thumbnails of each cabinet and floor tiles. Currently, the viewport window remains static (you cannot move your cursor around to zoom, pan, or shift perspective), but with increased back-end support, the room could easily be presented as a dynamic panorama. Project Showroom now lives on Autodesk Labs (labs.autodesk.com), where the company previews its works in progress. You can test-drive it for free. The latest update to the application lets you share your room by e-mailing a link or posting the rendered view to your Facebook profile.

Floor Plans on the Fly

In March 2008, Joshua Hall, a product designer and software engineer, filed a report titled “Autodesk: Code-named Project Dragonfly” on his blog “Surreal Notions.” Hall wrote, “For the last few months I have worked with an extremely talented team. We have explored numerous potential product concepts and several innovative UI models to make those products both competitive and unique.… Our product designs focus on leveraging existing Autodesk technologies across the emerging Software as a Service (SaaS) distribution channel.… Once a beta of the product is released, I’ll speak about it in more depth.”

The beta version of Project Dragonfly is now live on Autodesk Labs, the same site where you’ll find Project Showroom. Like Project Showroom, Project Dragonfly lets you use a browser to configure a room. Whereas Project Showroom allows you to experiment with applying different materials in a predefined environment (the 3D geometry of the room is fixed), Project Dragonfly lets you start from an empty floor plan, a template, or a furnished space from the gallery. The drag-and-drop interface lets you instantly resize the floor plan, with parametric values visible so you can adjust it to your preferred dimensions.

Should you choose to expand your room, you can attach add-on shapes to the area to increase its size. Similarly, you can add walls or wall openings to create partitions or open up space within your plan. When you’re placing appliances and furniture in a virtual room (say, a plasma TV in the bedroom), the intelligent alignment system automatically suggests various possible positions and orientations (parallel to the wall, for instance). You can also rotate the item at will, but if your rotation makes the items collide with nearby objects (adjacent walls or tables), you’ll get a visual prompt urging you to seek alternatives.

So why call it Project Dragonfly? Amanda Collins, Autodesk Labs’ marketing manager, had a theory: “Dragonflies often symbolize change. In Japanese art, they often represent light and joy.” But Autodesk’s Brian Souder, one of the original program managers behind the product, had a more scientific answer, explained in a colleague’s blog: “The original development team simply liked the engineering behind the insect.”

Project Dragonfly now has a homepage on Facebook, too, allowing you to join the community and get feedback on your floor plans. If it ever becomes a product, Dragonfly has commercial potential as a solution for facilities managers, decorators, and architects to propose layouts, complete with appliances, electronics, and furniture based on what’s currently available from retail and wholesale outlets.

CAD Viewing as a Service

Frequently, industrial designers and engineers working in costly CAD programs faced a quandary. They felt the need to share their work with colleagues in purchasing or marketing, but couldn’t deliver the data-rich 2D and 3D files in a way that was viewable by those without a CAD system. Because buying additional licenses of professional software just to let the extended team members view, inspect, and annotate the CAD files isn’t a reasonable proposition, businesses turned to CAD viewers, simple desktop applications that let you see the CAD files but prevent you from editing the geometry. Informative Graphics, a viewing technology supplier, made a name for itself with its product Brava for just that purpose.

Recently, AfterCAD, which entered the viewer market with its AJAX-based AfterCAD Insight, made a decision to float its viewing and markup tool in the cloud. Renaming its offering as AfterCAD Online, the company began delivering its software via the Web to subscribers for as little as $39.95 a month. The vendor also spiced up its viewer by adding 3D support, powered by the open-source game engine Ogre.

To prove what their software can do, most software suppliers would provide a trial version, to be downloaded and installed on the user’s local machine. With SaaS supplier AfterCAD Online, the solution is much simpler. The company uploads a series of 2D and 3D files to its server, and then lets potential subscribers view the files within its browser-based viewer. With the same viewer that you would use as a subscriber, you can view, pan, zoom, rotate, take measurements of different 2D/3D blocks, and even place one or two annotations.


HP's Remote Graphics Software lets off-site users connect to a workstation via a standard network, making it possible to use a regular computer to do workstation-level computing.

“We created our own online file system and added the visualization and markup applications to that environment,” says Chris Boothroyd, AfterCAD Online’s CEO. “This is like Microsoft SharePoint for CAD, whereby companies can have their own branded, shared spaces to work with clients in a 100 percent browser-based environment.”

According to Boothroyd, AfterCAD uses its own patent-pending technologies, several dual-core Dell blade servers (for file storage, user accounts, work spaces, and other uses), and two blade servers that take DWG and PDF files and render them into AfterCAD’s Webdoc format. In addition, the company has invested in a pair of 3D rendering blade servers, each with four off-the-shelf Nvidia graphics cards. This setup is reinforced by a load balancer from Barracuda Networks and several redundant blade servers for backup, staging new features, and fail-over.

“We have a multi-tenant SaaS solution (multiple users sharing the same computing architecture) to support up to a petabyte (more than 1000tb) of files, which we figure will max out [at] around 3000 to 5000 simultaneous clients,” says Boothroyd. “We offer a managed services option for clients (SaaS Platinum)—the ability to have us purchase, configure, and host their own branded multi-tenant solution for their engineers and clients. For a license fee, they can unbolt that setup and mount it in the rack behind their own firewall as an enterprise installation.”

Boothroyd reveals that AfterCAD is now an Adobe Solutions Partner and that the company is working closely with the graphics giant to integrate AfterCAD Online with Acrobat 9 and Adobe LiveCycle ES. “In May, we’ll be introducing our new 3D view and markup technology to the public SaaS product lineup, where people can upload, share, view, and mark up 3D files created in SketchUp and 3D PDF,” says Boothroyd.

These new functions are targeted at the mechanical CAD and architectural CAD users in pursuit of LEED certification. Support for Google’s SketchUp is a timely enhancement for the architectural crowd because Google’s intuitive 3D modeler has become the architects’ preferred tool for early concept exploration.

On-demand Graphics

Computing in the ethereal dimension has caught the attention of not just software developers, but also hardware developers, including Hewlett-Packard. The computer maker has incorporated remote visualization, a form of cloud computing, as a value-added feature to its workstation line. Known as Remote Graphics Software (RGS), HP’s utility lets you access the computing and visualization horsepower of your workstation over a standard network. Simply put, RGS lets you remotely tap into the processing power of an HP workstation from another machine to perform computing-intensive tasks, such as rendering. With this method, you can load large geographical datasets and 3D files, edit them, animate them, and interactively visualize the output in real time from an inexpensive laptop, as if you were operating a professional workstation equipped with a dual-core processor and a high-end graphics card.

Bill Case, senior associate and manager of technical support for the mechanical/electrical-engineering consultant Peter Basso Associates, was among those who discovered RGS’s benefits. “Many times in the past, designers would have to be off-site, traveling, or working at home,” Case explains. “They need to be able to get into [their work environment], but because their setups and configurations are so complicated, we can’t run them over a standard VPN. We never had a solution for that—until HP’s RGS came along.”

Contrary to the flimsiness suggested by the metaphor, cloud computing might offer some users solid security protocols. Because RGS lets employees of Peter Basso Associates remotely communicate with their workstations by transmitting mouse- clicks, computing commands, and screen images only, the source data—the CAD files—doesn’t leave the workstation located in the office. “There’s a lot of proprietary content we’ve developed over the years that I don’t want floating in a laptop somewhere,” Case notes.

Justifying SaaS

With Project Showroom and Dragonfly, Autodesk is making considerable strides toward the cloud-computing paradigm. But don’t expect the company to become a full-service SaaS solutions provider like Salesforce.com, for instance. Brian Mathews, director of Autodesk Labs, remarks, “We’re a software company, not an infrastructure company. We’re not going to be running data centers.”

Project Showroom and Dragonfly are both proof of concepts. If either becomes a commercial product, the company will rely on SaaS infrastructure suppliers and technology partners like Citrix, Sun, and IBM to provide many of the data warehousing and connectivity components. Because the same SaaS infrastructure is often shared by many companies, Autodesk and other SaaS merchants should be able to provide the service—be it an online floor-plan application or rendering program—for a much lower cost than they would if they were selling individual software licenses and seats.

“The beautiful thing about cloud [computing] is that it’s multi-platform,” says Mathews. “Historically, our code has been very Windows-centric. But cloud and SaaS allow you to keep the computing platform and the display platform separate. Dragonfly and Showroom run on Adobe Flash, so the client (the end user or the consumer) can be on Windows or a Mac—the application will run on anything that runs Flash.”

At the moment, the cloud is like the prairies of the Wild West: open fields of opportunities. But early settlers have an advantage over latecomers because a good track record gives subscribers confidence. If the software resides on your desktop machine, you have access to it 24/7. When the software lives in the cloud, you need the service provider and its network to remain up and running 24/7. Ultimately, the reliability of the supplier may be the most tangible asset in the cloud.

Data Streams in the Cloud

Because the demand for high-quality visuals tends to outpace the horsepower offered by the desktops and laptops available in the market, cloud computing recently emerged as one of the possible answers to tackle this challenge. For data warehousing, document management, and project management, the cloud has already proven to be a viable platform. The following companies and their SaaS brands represent a fraction of this market:

Arena Solutions
www.arenasolutions.com
Online manufacturing-related data and document management solutions offered via subscription
 
Adobe LiveCycle ES  www.adobe.com/products/livecycle
Web-based collaboration and document management platform, built on Adobe PDF and Flash technologies

Photoshop.com  www.photoshop.com
Adobe’s popular photo-editing application, delivered SaaS style to subscribers

Protectedpdf  www.protectedpdf.com
Browser-based PDF security tools designed to let you assign read/write
privileges in your PDF documents, track them, and monitor them

Aligni  www.aligni.com
Online parts and components management system, delivered as subscription services for as little as $39 a month



Kenneth Wong is a freelance writer who has covered the digital video, computer gaming, and CAD industries. He can be reached at Kennethwongsf@earthlink.net.
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