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Remote possibilities: cloud computing isn't just about delivering the same old systems, albeit from a distant supplier. It also enables you to do things you couldn't do before.

Cloud computing is being sold to the engineering community as the big thing in collaborative working and as a way of making heavyweight computer power available at the ordinary desktop. But even those big benefits, say some companies pioneering cloud applications, may seriously under-sell the concept.

"The prevailing thought about cloud is that it allows companies to get to IT services faster, more reliably and at a fraction of the cost," says Greg Johnsen, chief marketing officer of US-owned logistics and supply chain system supplier GT Nexus. "But the real advantage is that it transforms the way companies communicate."

"Cloud is low-risk, it's fast to deploy and offers a quick return on investment," says Peter Grant, chief executive officer of CloudApps, a small UK firm developing systems that help firms measure and expand their sustainability efforts. "That's how it started out, but now it's just getting better and better."

Johnsen and Grant both see the cloud as rather more than just a place to do the kind of business you've always done, but more efficiently. They say cloud is disruptive technology--a whole new way of doing business. In 10 years' time, maybe sooner, it will be the default way of delivering and using software systems of the kind we'd recognise today; but it also opens up new applications.

Cloud computing is the term now universally used to describe systems where software is deployed remotely from the user, usually in a vast data centre with a lot of computing power, rather than locally on the desktop. Users access the system via the internet in terms of inputting data, asking for tasks to be done and collecting results for local analysis.

The advantages are speed, size, resource allocation, and usually cost. Big cloud-based systems crunch their way through data-heavy work much faster than your desktop PC can manage; companies and individuals don't need expensive servers to run heavy programs on; local PCs are freed up to work on detailed projects of greater creativity; and there are new models for payment so you rent access to systems you couldn't buy.


In addition, cloud means responsibility for updating systems to the latest version passes to the software supplier or the platform host: the days when individual machines had to be updated to version 6.74 are over, as are the communication difficulties between local machines with subtly different versions of the same software.

For the moment, the big names in mainstream engineering software are getting their heads around fundamental cloud advantages. Autodesk has been, perhaps, the most wholehearted in cloud deployment: it has launched many of its systems in cloud form under the heading of "Autodesk 360".

The move has enabled it to advance on two fronts. It has, for the first time, gone into the product lifecycle management (PLM) market --it was pretty scathing about other people's efforts before--with a cloud system it believes will appeal to users deterred by the cost and complexity of deploying earlier systems on their own local machines.

And it's just launched Simulation 360, which puts its full range of simulation systems within reach of users with limited local computing power. "It means our customers can do things they couldn't before," says Erwin Burth, Autodesk's European head of simulation sales.

Aside from bringing new people in to use simulation tools, Burth sees other distinct benefits from cloud deployment.

"We've had a lot of barriers in terms of cost, hardware, time and the skills needed to do it," he says. "So simulation today has been largely used by specialists: often people sitting in larger organisations in a simulation department, where what they do is basically to validate a design after it has more or less been completed."

The new way of accessing systems, he believes, opens up "simulation-driven design". He says: "If a concept designer or engineer has access early on, they can benchmark design alternatives and then make an informed decision. It also means we're moving away from a 'product' type of thinking, where we have different simulation tools for, say, mechanical design and flow to a more seamless way of working."

Autodesk has quietly gone around buying up specialist suppliers in recent years, so past fears that CAD-related simulation was, perforce, lightweight stuff no longer apply.

But if users can now get a different experience, then cloud is also making a difference to Autodesk's own business model. Where CAD and previous simulation systems were sold through licences and subscriptions, cloud services are bought by "a term-based model" in which the users pay for time or access. Pay-as-you-go tends to be cheaper for users and offers a new way of working for the suppliers.

Burth reckons cloud will become the default model for delivering complex and heavyweight engineering software, but with caveats: CAD is still mainly a desktop function, and in some companies internet access is restricted due to security concerns or habit.

But that's not the only potential development. Companies in other parts of software are demonstrating that cloud not only changes the mechanisms in existing types of systems, but also creates new things that couldn't be done before.

As with PLM, cloud is good at drawing together disparate data from many sources and enabling new things to be done with it. Cloud handles "big data" issues: not only more data from single sources, but also data coming from many places.

GT Nexus is a cloud-only operation, providing software that aggregates and rationalises supply chain and logistic information, mostly for large companies but also their small suppliers and customers. Supply chain, says marketing chief Greg Johnsen, is key to many firms: "If they can't manage the supply chain, they won't stay in business."

But where supply chain and logistics used to be an internal company issue, now it's to do with networks of firms across the globe, as well as with individual items and orders, often customised. Standard transaction-focused systems such as ERP (enterprise resource planning) don't handle this level of complexity and inter-company working well, says Johnsen.


"What we do is to give a company and its network a high-definition picture of their supply chain and, because no one company has the entire picture, it needs hundreds of people to contribute the pixels and once it's there it's for all to see. So everyone along the supply chain can synch their operations with the picture and build processes around it. It's not just about seeing the same version of the truth; it's about orchestrating the process automation around it."

Johnsen likens the GT Nexus system to social media, where an update is instantly translated across the whole system. "We're not dealing with the profile pages of individuals, but the profile pages of thousands of business objects, such as purchase orders. And we're not sending these to and fro, but we're 'persisting' them in the cloud. It's radical and allows massively scaleable information sharing."

GT Nexus is targeting big companies with its systems, but not all the new ideas coming from the cloud are for big players only: CloudApps' sustainability and energy usage monitoring ideas are not size-dependent. They also borrow from social media.

Environmental monitoring is needed for companies to meet legislative requirements as well as for PR purposes, but the relevant data is widely spread through organisations--not just measurable through electricity meters, but also in items such as business travel. "We looked at sustainability and saw there was a growing market there," says CloudApps CEO Peter Grant. "People were using spreadsheets to do it and we thought we could automate it through the cloud."

As with GT Nexus' supply chain systems, CloudApps brings together data from many sources to enable both monitoring and analysis. Not all employees bother to turn off lights when their employer is paying the bills. So the system uses social media-style competitions and crowd-sourcing techniques to "incentivise" participation.

Because it's on the cloud, using the existing platform, the development cycle for CloudApps is simple. "The platform has built into it security, scaleability, workflows, reporting analytics and such like," says Grant. "What we do is to build on top our IP for calculation engines to turn electricity into carbon, our performance sensors that go down through the organisation and a gaming structure that makes it fun for employees. That's where our IP is, but it means that we needed only a small development team and were a lot faster to market. We started a company and had our first product in six weeks and had monetised it in three months. You couldn't do that in traditional software. You could only do that on the cloud."

At GT Nexus Johnsen goes further. "In 10 years' time, people will say the cloud is a basic part of the infrastructure. It's like electricity. It's a big thing. Not like client-server, which is a small thing. This is a major step-change."

Cloud cover for summer of sport

The shared database that's easily accessed and configured is the essence of cloud computing, and platform providers create the basic infrastructure on which software companies put their wares.

What the platforms provide, says Andy Evans, CEO of Sheffield-based Xactium, is security, certainty and functionality such as mobile access.

"People can leverage platforms and don't have to worry about updating their systems," he says. "We use Salesforce and they update three times a year and you don't have to install a new version or update your internal portal: it's all done for you."

Xactium develops cloud-based systems in governance, risk and compliance, so companies can identify and track incidents.

"Because it's in the cloud, there's only one version of the truth, whereas in companies you might have hundreds of locations all doing their own thing," Evans says.

Tracking risks and assets helps cut insurance premiums, and Xactium's systems link across personnel records and ERP. So, for example, if there's a particularly accident-prone employee, a routine can be set up to monitor them.

"We started out as just three or four people-but we hit way above our weight in terms of our client base," Evans says. Xactium provided the cloud-based incident monitoring system used by the Olympics organising committee to co-ordinate responses in the summer of sport.
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Title Annotation:SOFTWARE
Author:Lucas, Richard
Publication:Professional Engineering Magazine
Date:Nov 1, 2012
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