It’s been nearly ten years since the cloud became the hot topic in the AEC sector. Martyn Day explores the current cloud developments at Autodesk and shares his thoughts on where things might be heading - for good and bad

For all the hype and hoopla, the impact of ‘the Cloud’ on AEC is still in its infancy. In the beginning there were worries that applications were going to be web-based only; the reality is, this isn’t happening at the flick of a switch.

For all the architects, structural engineers, MEP engineers, civil engineers and construction workers, the world is still exceptionally file-based. Authoring tools sit on workstations and projects are all about managing files. It’s only now, having seen the concentration of development on cloud applications by Autodesk and others, and some applications built on Autodesk’s cloud-based Forge platform, that we are starting to piece together how our world is going to change.

Phase one cloud

Phase one of cloud benefits has been centralising data, repositories for project files, communication, viewing, sharing — the whole collaboration benefit. For firms that have had to invest in complex servers and data compressors, the near future indicates that, by and large, that can be outsourced to products like BIM 360 and the benefits of storing the data in Autodesk’s cloud is that Autodesk will offer a suite of ever-expanding services which can work with your project data in the cloud. Assemble Systems, which Autodesk has just acquired, is a case in point.

Phase two

cloud Phase two is the Forge backbone, which is Autodesk’s third-party development platform which resides in the cloud. Historically, developers would get access to the core AutoCAD engine through APIs. They would write some code to do something useful, customers would buy copies and it would be installed on each machine. Everything was local.

For CAD managers, every workstation on the network was a node that needed updating and maintaining — core applications plus the third-party add-ons. In a cloud-based world, with Forge, the third-party application is freed from the desktop and can reside in Autodesk’s BIM 360 environment alongside your data. Up until this point if the application needed functionality that is within Revit, it still needed to reside or call on the Revit instance on the desktop.

Autodesk is soon to add something called to the Forge backbone, which allows developers to access Revit functionality within the cloud environment, which means that Revit data stored in BIM 360 can be accessed, interrogated, manipulated and, if necessary, edited in the cloud without the need of a desktop-based authoring application.

To be clear, does not mean that users run Revit on the cloud through a web browser. It is, for now, something to enable deeper application development on Forge. Autodesk has been promoting a product called Fusion to manufacturing customers which runs locally, or on the cloud which was written from the ground up to be a cloud-based application. We don’t see a Revit equivalent coming out anytime soon but perhaps will be used to deliver some capability through the browser in the future.

BIM 360, Forge and point towards and represent a fundamental change in the relationship between project data and applications. Once models are in BIM 360, BIM managers will have a choice of applications they can turn off or on. The integration has already been done; it will just be a choice deciding the suite of Autodesk and Developer services that It’s been nearly ten years since the cloud became the hot topic in the AEC sector. Martyn Day explores the current cloud developments at Autodesk and shares his thoughts on where things might be heading - for good and bad would benefit your workflow and switching them on. For BIM managers this will be a huge boon, as implementation of company- wide systems is a flick of the switch.

Once the project data is in the cloud and it can be sliced and diced, there will be Forge-based applications which will allow non-BIM trained participants to leverage the power of the models. Targeted applications for niche uses, such as fire prevention and evacuation are already in development from firms such as Xinaps, where Revit models are used and analysed on the cloud, with the results being served up and rendered in a highly visual way for non-CAD users interested in assessing a design’s performance.

Autodesk is also working on machine learning / AI solutions which will optimise building layouts and designs, presenting multiple ‘solved’ results, from which the best can be selected. What was available on the desktop with a downloaded specialised add-on, will be available in the cloud to everyone. Because of the cloud, the relationships between authoring tool, data, processing and access, are set to change dramatically over the next five years.

The gilded cage To come back down to earth, the cloud is also a gilded cage. For years we have been hampered by operating in data silos and the cloud will blow the walls away but with the interest in firms having Common Data Environments (CDE), hosting data authored in applications from multiple vendors is still a bit of a dream. By moving from your own hosted data management systems to a cloud-based service such as BIM360, you are letting Autodesk expand into controlling your entire process - not just authoring, team collaboration and project management but wherever that data touches or may be needed in the future.

The reliance on one firm, one subscription, removes a lot of the negotiation capabilities when it comes to renewal. Historically, Autodesk product has seen street competition in pricing. With subscription this has tended to go away. Should you be large enough to warrant a three yearly Enterprise Business Agreement (EBA), total reliance on one vendor does not give you much leverage. In many of our conversations with large firms, there is a fair bit of resentment at paying for products they don’t need (subscription bundles, stuffed with products that don’t fit into existing workflows) together with mandatory consultancy hours, which many do not want.

The cost of ownership is going up but Autodesk would argue that the benefits, the ROI and the value are increasing with the capabilities being delivered. However, the estimation of ‘value’ is really one that can only ever be truly assessed by customers. Autodesk needs to work harder to change this perception within its customers, as it moves from tool developer to service provider.

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