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Feb 13 2008

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SaaS – the killer app for CAD?

Evan Yares’ CAD blog alerted me to a great article by Brian Seitz among the COFES blogs. Brian asks: Is SaaS the Killer App for the CAD Industry?, suggesting that:

“the business model most major CAD vendors operate under – market share and maintenance annuities – is showing its age.  It will not be long before an innovative company will introduce a new business model and value proposition; one that is more closely aligned to current engineering and business priorities.”

Could Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) be the answer? Well, there are many  potential benefits, as Brian writes:

“First, all the procurement and maintenance costs are put back on the vendor’s lap. Second, Engineers need not worry about the process of updating their workstations and are freed to focus on design issues. Engineering departments will be freed from having to have a fulltime CAD system manager and programmer. Third, the fixed costs of some hardware and software become variable expense; thus, as utility needs rise and fall, so do the costs freeing funds for other business initiatives.”

However, Brian also explains some of the possible obstacles to be overcome: ease of customisation, for example, but also intellectual property and security issues, information transparency and data access.

An AEC SaaS perspective

Brian doesn’t look specifically at the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sector, but I think his idea certainly has merit given the already increasingly widespread take-up of SaaS-based services to improve information-sharing and management of key project processes in the delivery of AEC projects.

After all, perhaps more than any other sector, construction is characterised by its fragmented supply chains and the need to create, share, develop and manage complex design information among a temporary community of often widely geographically-dispersed, multi-disciplinary team members. In an effort to overcome these physical and professional constraints, many project teams have adopted construction collaboration technologies (aka: ‘project extranets’) which enable team members to exchange their drawings and documents and to manage other project-related processes (from simple RFIs and submittals through to more complex contractual interactions). While some systems can be internally hosted by a team member, others are delivered online on a SaaS basis and are hosted by the vendors. As a result, we are well placed to offer the benefits of practical experience of using SaaS.

Currently, these platforms tend to act as secure repositories for numerous files created by other applications (eg: AutoCAD, MicroStation) which are then published to the system, usually in an agreed file format (eg: DWF, PDF) that allows easy information sharing even by those who don’t have the originating application. Brian clearly envisages a time where this process becomes much more seamless: designs could be created online and almost immediately shared with and developed further through collaboration with other authorised members of the project team. This ‘CADaaS‘ vision perhaps also takes us beyond scenarios of a BIM-driven world in which designers and constructors work together on nD building information models that are fully interoperable with other applications – though software compatibility and people and process issues also remain potentially major stumbling blocks here, as I’ve written before (for example, see Software incompatibility bar to interoperability, Collaboration: standards, viewing, plus industry education and Integrated Project Delivery).

Towards CADaaS

In the meantime, let’s look briefly at the pitfalls that Brian identified, and see how SaaS-based systems might deliver.

  • Customisation – Recognising that many clients, contractors and consultants will often want to present information using in-house standards, some of the more sophisticated collaboration platforms have extensive levels of configurability. As a result, the vendor can continue to maintain a single instance of the core software code, but the end-users can maintain their own branding, naming and numbering conventions, layouts, etc. Of course, this won’t be the complete answer for CAD environments but it suggests one potential route forward.
  • Data ownership – I think SaaS construction collaboration vendors tend to regard themselves essentially as neutral platform or environment providers, exercising no rights over the authorship or copyright of the designs or other information loaded onto the system. I imagine a similar approach might be adopted for CADaaS. However, among the people and process issues to be resolved is the issue of IP relating to a design that emerges as the result of multi-disciplinary collaboration by individuals drawn from several different organisations.
  • System reliability – AEC experience since the turn of the century shows that SaaS-delivered collaboration services can be incredibly reliable 24/7 – certainly, most construction organisations that I have worked with would struggle to return comparable figures for availability of internal systems. While a future CADaaS provider would not be able to overcome major infrastructure issues (damaged under-sea cables, for instance, or poor company networks), it would at least be able to offer service level agreements that contractually bind it to maintaining multiple back-up systems and delivering high levels of system availability, speed, etc – just as collaboration vendors do today.
  • System security – Similarly, SaaS-delivered collaboration services offer high levels of physical and logical security (always assuming, of course, that individuals can be relied upon to manage their user IDs and passwords, etc!). Modern data centres are highly secure facilities, whereas I have spoken to firms who’ve lost vital project data due to an office break-in. Bank-level internet security and encryption tools already help ensure that only authorised individuals have access to data – and then only to data relevant to their role and responsibilities. The best systems also maintain tamper-proof audit trails detailing all user interactions, so who did what and when is never an issue. And, since data need never be downloaded to a laptop, at least one potential security loophole is easily closed – unlike some of those managed by government agencies, for example.
  • Data access – Again, construction collaboration vendors have already tackled this challenge. Most providers offer facilities whereby all of a customer’s data can be downloaded to DVDs or hard-disk drives, complete with the necessary applications to allow offline search, access and view of all information (similar archives can also be offered for supply chain members who require them to satisfy professional indemnity insurance requirements). The UK vendors’ tra
    de body, the NCCTP, is already working towards a data exchange standard that will allow data to be migrated from one system to another.
  • Escrow – BIW [my employer] and 4Projects, among others, have escrow agreements and related hosting arrangements in place to reassure customers that they will still be able to access and extract data even if the provider ceased trading for any reason.

As a final thought, CADaaS isn’t necessarily decades away. There are already several online drawing tools available – I’ve written before about Autodesk’s ProjectDraw, for example – and there are increasingly sophisticated CAD mark-up and commenting tools embedded in many online file viewing applications.

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2008/02/saas-the-kill/

3 comments

3 pings

  1. Scott Sheppard

    Thank you for helping spread the word about Project Draw.

  2. Kennith

    Brian addresses many good obstacles to adoption. Some not mentioned:
    1. File complexity – The management of externally referenced files (xRefs). Typically with large .dwg (AutoCAD) files, the designs are broken down into smaller pieces. Sometimes these smaller pieces are then worked on by others and linked back to the parent file. This works fine with the files located on the same local machine, but when collaborating the external files are often forgotten. To complicate matters further, these xRefs can be nested, and there are several different path settings that are only relative to the local machine.
    2. Multiple Design File Types – Architects today are using a variety of file types and individually, partners may have their preferences. A solid CAD collaboration platform need to have support for more than one. AutoCAD, Revit, Microstation, DWF etc.
    PHASE 2 designed software called ShareCAD to plug into our SharePoint SaaS to address these issues. http://www.phase2int.com

  3. Paul Tracey

    When words such as ‘compatability’ and ‘interoperably’ crop up as ‘major stumbling blocks’ it seems to be that the inexpensive simple answer is to use TurboCAD. It will easily handle the smaller pieces, mentioned, and intergrate into a main design in whatever file format is required.

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