CAD in the Cloud is Now
Michael Alba posted on July 11, 2018 |
Screenshot of Onshape, a cloud-based CAD program that runs entirely in-browser.
Screenshot of Onshape, a cloud-based CAD program that runs entirely in-browser.
The “cloud” may be the greatest euphemism in tech, in that it is just a fun word for a rather simple idea: instead of using your own computational resources to perform a task, outsource the computing power to someone else. Why should your vacation pictures take up space on your hard drive? Just put them in the cloud. Why should your GPU have to sweat out that rendering job? Just push it to the cloud. Why should you have to install a whole program on your computer to do CAD modeling? You shouldn’t. Just stream it from the cloud.

Of course, the cloud isn’t always the right answer for everything. The cloud is simply one end of a spectrum opposite local computing (called the edge), with several options in between. But both consumers and industry alike are finding real value in cloud solutions. For example, Amazon Web Services (AWS), one of the biggest cloud providers in the world, reported a revenue of $17.4 billion dollars in 2017.

The value of the cloud is not lost on engineering and design software vendors, who have been migrating—some more hesitantly than others—to cloud solutions. The success of services like Dropbox, Box, OneDrive, and Google Drive (for cloud storage), and Google Docs, Sheets, and Slides (for cloud word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations) has not gone unnoticed, and engineering professionals are more eager than ever to reap the advantages of cloud software solutions.

The Advantages of the Cloud

The cloud—especially the use of the cloud for professional software and services—offers several advantages. Imagine a program that runs completely through the cloud compared to the same program that runs locally. Let’s contrast the user experience of each:




Extreme flexibility. Users are not tied to a specific device, nor even a specific platform. If you’re connected to the internet, you can access the program.

Inflexible. Users are limited to devices with the program installed locally, and are often limited to one platform (PC).


Users don’t have to worry about updating the program—updates are rolled out as available with no interruption to the user.

Users must download and install each update.


Cloud-based programs are almost universally sold as a subscription or pay-to-use service. In many cases, this allows costs to shift from capital expenses (investing in dedicated hardware) to operating expenses (paying a subscription fee).

Whether a perpetual or subscription license is employed, users must invest in the hardware necessary for the program to run. This includes workstations, servers, and other infrastructure.


Users can collaborate simultaneously on the same document without worrying about different file versions.

As all data is stored in files, users can only modify their own copy of a file while another user modifies theirs. A back-and-forth file swapping is necessary for collaboration.


There is a single source of truth as to the current version of a file. Data can be rolled back indefinitely to capture previous versions of a document.

Users must keep track of file versions manually.

There are some disadvantages of using the cloud. For example, users must maintain a continual connection to the internet in order to retrieve or work on their files. Users may also worry about storing their intellectual property on external servers. Though these are legitimate concerns, the internet has never been more accessible, and cloud security has never been as high a priority. Ultimately, these concerns do not outweigh the distinct advantages of the cloud such as those listed above.

CAD Providers Agree: The Cloud is Now

The idea of combining CAD with the cloud can be traced back to 2012, when Autodesk first announced Fusion 360. For the first time, CAD users had a software option that offered some of the cloud’s main benefits: access everywhere, platform agnosticism, better collaboration, greater flexibility. But Fusion 360 got off to a slow start—the platform itself needed development, and potential users were very wary about cloud security back in 2012.

But Fusion 360 opened the door to other CAD companies wanting in on the cloud action. Now, almost every major CAD vendor has a cloud service available or in development—usually alongside a more traditional localized platform. Autodesk still offers Inventor, a local program, alongside Fusion 360. Dassault Systèmes still offers SOLIDWORKS alongside their cloud-based 3DEXPERIENCE Platform. Siemens’ Solid Edge and NX are both local programs, but offer some limited cloud capabilities. PTC offers Creo along with Creo in the Cloud, a way to stream Creo through a web browser.

More and more, these software companies are realizing the true benefit of cloud solutions. Dassault Systèmes is currently promoting a “complete design to manufacturing [SOLIDWORKS] Cloud Solution…for organizations that want to take advantage of the cloud, with its inherent scalability and collaboration.” One of the cornerstones of this solution will be SOLIDWORKS xDesign, a long-awaited version of SOLIDWORKS that will run in the cloud (if it ever manages to get out of beta).

Having pioneered CAD in the cloud with Fusion 360, Autodesk too is flying higher and higher in the clouds. The company now offers a number of cloud services, like A360 for collaboration and viewing, Rendering in A360 for cloud-based rendering, and a whole suite of Fusion products for collaboration (Fusion Team), product lifecycle management (Fusion Lifecycle), and design (Fusion 360).

PTC and Siemens have both caught up to the cloud trend as well. PTC Cloud is a service for managing and hosting PTC applications in the cloud, and PTC lists a lot of advantages to this approach: “PTC Cloud enables you to increase your margins, secure your data, outperform the competition and reduce downtime while we rapidly deploy, manage, secure and optimize your PTC solutions in the Cloud.” Siemens PLM offers several cloud services and solutions to drive innovation “that is no longer limited by out-of-date tools,  time consuming implementations and low performance caused by hardware limitations.”

A Full Cloud Environment

Landing page of the Onshape App Store. (Image courtesy of Onshape).
Landing page of the Onshape App Store. (Image courtesy of Onshape).
One CAD company stands out for not just grasping at the cloud, but living in it. Onshape, which beta launched in 2015, is the only current CAD software that runs 100 percent in the cloud. There’s no software to install, no files to save, and no licenses to keep track of. Onshape runs entirely within a web browser, and users simply log in to access all of their documents. Currently, thousands of companies use the software in production, with over 75 percent of these companies reporting it as their primary CAD system. Onshape users have logged 4.6 million hours of usage.

Onshape’s unique approach to CAD has done more than just demonstrate the full capability of the cloud. It’s also fostered an environment of third party software vendors in the Onshape App Store. Many add-ons to Onshape—for rendering, simulation, and much more—can integrate directly within the browser-based Onshape interface. Again, users don’t need to install any software or switch back and forth between different programs. Not all apps are so fully integrated—some desktop apps remain. But any Onshape user would agree that the integrated cloud apps are by far the most convenient.

More and more engineering software is taking the hint from Onshape and starting from scratch in the cloud. Frustum Generate and ParaMatters CogniCAD, for example, are both topology optimization platforms that run completely within a web browser. SimScale and Simright are cloud-based simulation tools that encompass FEA, CFD, meshing, and more, and also run in a browser. It’s now possible for a design engineer to do almost every aspect of their work without ever leaving Chrome.

Screenshot of SimScale being used alongside Onshape. (Image courtesy of Onshape).
Screenshot of SimScale being used alongside Onshape. (Image courtesy of Onshape).

Embrace the Cloud

In all likelihood, you’re already using cloud storage services like Dropbox or Google Drive, and if you’ve ever needed to collaborate in real-time on a text file, you’ve probably used Google Docs. The advantages of the cloud are numerous and readily apparent, and software vendors are scrambling to capitalize on them. You should be as well.

If you’re a design engineer, consider trialing cloud-based CAD solutions if you don’t already use them. Look to Fusion 360 if you want a desktop program that connects to the cloud. Look to Onshape if you want a CAD program with a database architecture and no installation needed. Or simply try out one of the many analysis programs available in the cloud, like Generate, CogniCAD, or SimScale.

In any case, there has never been a better time to re-evaluate your software to take full advantage of cloud computing.

Onshape has sponsored this post. They have no editorial input to this post. All opinions are mine. —Michael Alba

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