The Business of CAD
Issue #810 | March 11, 2014
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In This Issue
1. Virtualization, and What You Can Expect from It
Pushing a lot of raster images really quickly
2. Heard on Twitter and on the Blog
3D Systems share price falls on warning from Barron's
3. Letters to the Editor
Russian readers appreciate being differentiated from their leaders
Virtualization, and What You Can Expect from It
The cloud is not only for storing cat photos. Virtualization is another purpose. This is where CAD (and other) software runs on servers in a data center. Each server has one or two high-end nVidia or AMD graphics boards, each capable of serving raster images to four to eight remote computers. (See figure 1.) The raster images are displayed sufficiently quickly that CAD users think they are operating the CAD software on their desktop computer. As users enter commands and move the mouse, the servers running the software update the images they send over.
Figure 1: The kinds of rack-mount computers needed to serve up raster images to terminals (click image for larger version)
Dell Precision executive director Andy Rhodes explains the need for virtualization this way: "The notion of a 1:1 relationship between a user and a piece of hardware is going away, as an increasing number of IT [information technology] managers see desktop virtualization as a viable means of providing users with a secure, manageable and resource efficient way to access their desktops and applications." (Precision is the name of the division at Dell that designs and manufactures workstations.)
A group of 50 editors were, last week, learning about virtualization at Dell headquarters in Round Rock, TX. The company, on Thursday, launched a new Workstation Center of Excellence, and listed just four virtualization software partners: Siemens PLM (available now), PTC, Autodesk, and Dassault Systems (available later in Spring). Dell has certified that certain software packages from these vendors work through virtualization.
(The fallout from the list of names is, curiosity. Siemens PLM was not present at the event, even though their software is the only one certified currently. Representatives from Autodesk and Solidworks spoke at the event. Dell uses Pro/E in-house for designing its computers, but PTC's software is not available until Spring.)
To improve the it-feels-just-like-the-software-is-running-on-my-desktop feeling, Dell adds routines to do things like cursor anticipation (updating the screen only where users appear to be moving the cursor) and zoom pixelization (lower resolution images are generated when users zoom in and out of drawings).
Virtualization for CAD Operators
After a design firm implements virtualization, CAD users will come in to work and discover that they no longer operate big, honking desktop computers. Instead, they will find the hardwarereplaced by tiny computers hooked up to the usual big monitors. These small computers are just powerful enough to take the raster images coming over the network connection and to display them on the screen. They can be Wyse terminal units from Dell ($350 each; see figure 2), older PCs or laptops no longer powerful enough for today's CAD software, or even tablets connected through wireless networking.
Figure 2: Typical form factor of Dell's Wyse zero-client computer for Citrix HDX
The data center is best located right on the premises of the design firm, due to the latency problem. Latency is the time it takes for data to flow over the network between the data center and the end users' computers. The further the distance, the more likely users will experience a halting image on their screens. When I asked a Dell executive about the maximum allowable distance, he instead quoted the maximum latency: the delay should be no more than a 1/4-second at worst, and ideally no more than 0.10-0.15 seconds. In the rare case of sufficiently high-speed and dedicated network lines, it could be possible to host in England and view in India; but on-premise gives the best performance, he told me.
You may recall the announcement Autodesk made a couple of months ago that their software now can be virtualized. Dell execs and users reported at this press event that they had to work with Autodesk to get its software working properly. For example, moving the cursor created a lot of unnecessary data for the network; the first solution was to turn off hardware graphics acceleration. Revit in its native form in particular was poorly equipped to work with Citrix virtualization, and needed the most reworking.
Why Bother Virtualizing Software?
Replacing the normal way of running CAD on desktop computers directly seemed to me like an awful lot of work. Why would a design firm bother with virtualization? These are a few advantages that Dell told us about:
Zero Install. Software is no longer installed on individual workstations, desktop by desktop. Instead, it all resides in the central location (the servers), and users sign into their terminals to access the software.
Hardware Reuse. Older computers can be kept in service, instead of buying new ones.
Secure Backup. Files are stored on the drives of the servers, not on local computers. Indeed, drawing files never make it to the engineers' work areas. While the data center might be more secure against natural disaster than the office, the real security comes from employees being unable to steal files with USB thumbdrives, etc.
These advantages could make medium-size firms consider buying gear from Dell. One representative of a CAD vendor indicated that in his experience virtualization tends to be adopted by firms with 100-200 engineers.
For Dell, the advantage is that they make higher profits selling servers and associated services. With sales of desktop computers falling year over year, companies like Dell, HP, and Lenovo are keen to increase sales of expensive kit.
"Won't sales of servers for virtualization eat into the sales of workstations?" asks an editor. "No," avowed the Dellexecutive, spreading his hands apart to indicate a market whose size is growing larger. I wondered if perhaps this was the first time the question ever came up. The exec figured Dell would make up the difference from increasing sales of low-end workstations to non-CAD professionals, such as in banking and healthcare.
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Virtualization, and What You Can Expect from It, continued...
How HOK Uses Virtualization
At these kinds of events, the vendor is sure to bring in customers to tout the product. HOK is a large design firm that operates worldwide on big architectural and other projects. They have begun to implement virtualization with 30 Citrix servers and 85 terminals -- out of about two thousand workstations.
"A lot of people at HOK have the same question: what is the usefulness of virtualization," said the speaker from HOK. There is the ability to show projects without clients needing to travel to the office, and to share files with other offices. Employees can work from home, or can engage in-house experts who reside in other offices. With CAD files becoming large, HOK finds it more efficient to store all files in a central location, and then send the raster representations instead. (As drawings become more complex, the raster image stays the same size.)
An editor asked, "Have you looked at the cost, such as the large upfront cost [of implementing servers and new terminal hardware] vs ongoing costs [of keeping desktop workstations]?" HOK saved the cost of 85 engineering laptops due to the Wyse terminals they got instead. The uptime for users is faster, because computers no longer need to be customized for each user with software, etc. Some projects are so big that they can only be opened on Citrix servers, they can't be opened on local machines.
"We are committed to BIM," he concluded. "This is not to say we ignore the most important tool of our trade: the pencil."
Dell Tells Us Why Their Computers Are Different
Dell spent some time at their first-ever Worldwide Media Event explaining to us why their workstation computers are better than those from competitors. I've heard the arguments before, and me, I don't particularly buy them. As for Dell employees, well, they have to believe in the difference, because the company spends in excess of $50 million in developing a new line of workstations.
But it was really cool that they gave us a first-time-ever tour of their engineering lab, where really smart people use a half-million-dollar oscilloscope to precisely determine whether CPUs and cores, as well as system and graphics memory are utilized fully. They certify every little piece of hardware inside the computer, as well as the software (Windows, CAD, and so on) running on the computer.
"Who pays for all this testing?" I asked. "Do software vendors kick in some funds?" No, Dell bears the costs all to themselves. I would add that ultimately the customer pays, explaining in part why workstations cost more.
Here are some stats I recorded on how Dell optimizes the performance of it workstations. They have ten design centers in USA, Europe, and south east Asia. There, some 250 engineers build 3,500 prototypes. Dell engineers optimize performance to the point that they can boast that their workstations run 18% faster than competitors' computers with the same components. In the labs, the company showed us the world's fastest workstation (currently), as measured by a benchmark. We also toured their massive design studio (where shapes, colors, and materials are selected for new computer lines) and photo studio, though half of all images are now digitally generated from CAD drawings.
"Which software do you use for design?" asks an editor. Pro/Engineer, it turns out, and not just for designing the insides of the chassis but also for the industrial design of the outside. Other product names mentioned included Allegro for PCB layouts, and ANSYS and Flowtherm for strength and thermal analysis.
Dell includes with workstations a number of software programs that optimize the way in which the hardware operates. There is some that automatically optimizes the hardware so that it works best with specific applications. Other software caches reads and writes to speed up disk performance.
What Ralph Grabowski Thinks
I found it fascinating to see how much effort is put into squeezing a few extra percent of speed here and there out of a workstation. From my experience, 18% is meaningless. As companies like Dell, HP, and Lenovo desperately attempt to outsell each other in this era of "the end of the computer," marketing departments nevertheless find great comfort in a number like this.
Virtualization is one way of solving the problem of how to run software on an in-house cloud, especially for software from vendors like Autodesk and Siemens PLM who don't offer customers the option. (Autodesk only has off-premises cloud, and Siemens doesn't have either version.) Virtualization could be useful to mid-size firms. Huge firms will have little interest in what Dell offers, because they already do this sort of thing with their in-house IT capabilities. It is not cost effective for small firms.
And One More Thing...
Intergraph's new CADWorx E&I V2014 import instruments and electrical load data from CADWorx P&ID though an Access database, SQL server, or Oracle. Differential view checks the results and creates a log file. The new release now supports DXF binary and DWG for AutoCAD 12 through 2013. Users can define custom attributes for loops and loop elements; plus other new functions. Get all the info from http://www.intergraph.com/products/ppm/cadworx.
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Heard on Twitter and On the Blog
upFront.eZine (@upFronteZine): The share price of DDD falls 5% after Barron's cover story, "Beware 3-D Printing!", saying shares could fall 80% -> http://seekingalpha.com/news/1616783-3d-printing-stocks-fall-on-barrons-piece
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Randall S. Newton (@RSNatWork): Autodesk to discontinue Softimage. No-cost cross-grades to Maya, 3ds Max for subscribers. http://bit.ly/NRJaRL
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Alex Bausk (@bauskas): Wow look, a BIM jedi handwave. "The open BIM versus closed BIM problem doesn't exist" http://www.augi.com/library/myth-buster-revit-ifc
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upFront.eZine: Ray Kurzweil forgets that when robot brains exceed that of humans in 2029, he too becomes unemployable, like the rest of us.
On the Blog
Here are items that appeared on the WorldCAD Access blog recently at http://worldcadaccess.typepad.com:
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(You can donate through PayPal to this newsletter using the Personal or Corporate donation links at http://www.upfrontezine.com.)
Letters to the Editor
Re: About Version 15 of the C3D Kernel
"I translated your 'What Ralph Grabowski Thinks': http://levin-isicad.blogspot.ru/2014/03/c3d.html "
- David Levin
The editor replies: "For context, here is the English translation of the Russian page: http://translate.google.com/translate?sl=ru&tl=en&js=n&prev=_t&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&u=http%3A%2F%2Flevin-isicad.blogspot.ru%2F2014%2F03%2Fc3d.html."
"All the world still love iPhone, in spite of Iraq or Libya... 'let the politicians rattle their sabers' - great words."
- Oleg Zykov @olegazykov
"It's time to be professionals! Everybody should have an open view on their business opportunities in the age of globalization. And don't worry about our leaders with temporal hysterics. Phones are working good, economics are needing their friendship :) "
- Бурый медведь @savagemen
Re: Heard on Twitter
"This looks like an interesting candidate for a distributed database for cloud CAD: http://techcrunch.com/2014/02/26/nuodb-raises-14-2m-round-led-by-dassault-systemes-for-its-distributed-database-management-system
"Imagine hosting instances behind the corporate firewall (on a private cloud), on the public cloud, and in offshore engineering offices. All of a sudden, the latency problems of cloud CAD go away."
- Evan Yares
"You wrote in upFront.eZine: 'How Autodesk plans to grow 12%/yr: extract 20% more revenue from every customer, get 50% more customers on subscriptions, and cut more costs.' I'm just a CAD tech at this engineering firm. I originally purchased AutoCAD LT for Windows 95 and have had several upgrades since. Currently I am on AutoCAD LT 2010 and I do not think I am going to continue with this upgrading path due to a couple of reasons.
"First, the original purpose to get AutoCAD LT was to learn AutoCAD and get off the drawing board (literally!). I saw the writing on the wall and saw hand drafting was going the way of the dinosaur. But now, I am doing very little at home and the pricing on upgrades has gotten to the point that even upgrading to LT has become a MAJOR investment for home users. And the upgrades do not warrant the cost.
"No surprise here that Autodesk is not meeting their [financial] goals. Perhaps they should check their math. 20% of 0 = 0."
- Brian Spillane
Re: The End of Print
"Your comment about lazy video watching -- 'This is one side effect of choice: a regression to the least effort' -- piqued my interest. When water does that, it's called the path of least resistance, right? More recent translations include 'The path of highest efficiency'.
"I have been personally wrestling with this question for years, and society has been doing so for decades: If it is more efficient (and simply faster) to ingest information via video (as compared to reading), aren't we better served by doing so, the laziness label be darned? If we can safely assume that a picture is worth a thousand words, then an accurate video must be worth at least that, and it adds audio for even further value.
"Books and reading are a passion of mine but they are, objectively speaking, a fairly slow and primitive way of transferring knowledge. We are all well aware of the high social esteem in which reading is generally held, but we must also recognize its limits.
"The same can be said of our current method of transferring knowledge onto the page, namely typing on a keyboard. As a hunt-and-peck typist, I often silently curse the limitations of the keyboard, which Dvorak will tell you are intentional, at least in part. We need to have a more direct interface with our computers, which is a concept both frightening and exciting.
"To the future, and beyond!"
- Peter Lawton
The editor replies: "Video has lower information density than text."
Mr Lawton responds: "But MUCH higher bandwidth, both in the visual and aural pathways? This is my guess. Also, how would your statement reconcile with the old adage, 'a picture is worth a thousand words?' What would be more efficient, reading three pages of Thomas Hardy's descriptive text of a garden in spring (five minutes of reading), or seeing a 30-second HD clip of that same garden, birds chirping, and bees buzzing?"
The editor replies: "It an adage and it's old. Sometimes pictures work better, sometimes text does. What does this icon do?
"Here it is again with text:."
Mr Lawton responds: "Agreed!"
"No longer working. Still receive your newsletter at my home office – which I read with interest."
- Brian McKenzie
Spin Doctor of the Moment
"This is the right move for Microsoft."
- Satya Nadella, ceo Microsoft, on the acquistion of Nokia's phone biz
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Entire contents copyright 2014 by upFront.eZine Publishing, Ltd. All rights reserved worldwide. Letters sent to the editor are subject to publication. Article reprint fee: $840. All trademarks belong to their respective holders. "upFront.eZine," "The Business of CAD," and "WorldCAD Access" are trademarks of upFront.eZine Publishing, Ltd. Letters to the editor may be edited for clarity and brevity. Translations and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by upFront.eZine Publishing, Ltd.