Security Versus Convenience: Locally Stored CAD Versus Cloud-Based
Andrew Wheeler posted on November 05, 2019 |

Adobe introduced their Creative Suite to the cloud in the spring of 2013. They announced that all future versions of their software would only be available through the Creative Cloud. Many companies that produce engineering software and visual effects software took note, including Siemens but especially Autodesk. In 2013, Siemens PLM Software gave users the option of purchasing monthly licenses for their CAD program Solid Edge. But it was Autodesk that threw down the gauntlet. 2015 would prove to be a banner year for engineering software hosted on the cloud.


In November of 2012, Autodesk announced the release of the first version of Fusion 360, becoming the first major CAD vendor to do so. Fusion 360 is not fully cloud-based like Onshape because it leverages some of your local hardware. But users cannot save their work locally, instead it is uploaded and stored on Autodesk's cloud servers. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)
In November of 2012, Autodesk announced the release of the first version of Fusion 360, becoming the first major CAD vendor to do so. Fusion 360 is not fully cloud-based like Onshape because it leverages some of your local hardware, making it a hybrid. But users cannot save their work locally, instead it is uploaded and stored on Autodesk's cloud servers. (Image courtesy of Autodesk.)


In 2015, Autodesk announced that they would no longer sell standalone perpetual licenses of their desktop software starting in early 2016. Since Autodesk holds a 30 percent market share of the USD 9 billion global CAD market, the decision to move the majority of their software to the cloud held a lot of sway and had a definite impact on market strategy at competing CAD companies. Dassault Systèmes did not immediately follow suite with their rival SOLIDWORKS product, opting to continue allowing users to buy perpetual standalone licenses. However, they did introduce quarterly and annual subscriptions for two new cloud-based products called Industrial Designer and Mechanical Designer in 2015. 


Onshape was formed by a group of former SOLIDWORKS executives in 2012. They created the first truly Cloud-based CAD software that allowed users to share designs on the cloud independent of their different local hardware. It was recently acquired by PTC. (Image courtesy of Onshape.)
Onshape was formed by a group of former SOLIDWORKS executives in 2012. They created the first truly Cloud-based CAD software that allowed users to share designs on the cloud independent of their different local hardware. It was recently acquired by PTC. (Image courtesy of Onshape.)

Then a group of ex-SOLIDWORKS engineers started Onshape with the advantage of creating a new CAD designed to run entirely on the cloud. PTC transformed its purchase of NetIDEAS in 2013 into the PLM Cloud and began offering users the option to purchase annual, biannual and triannual subscriptions for their CAD program Creo.

The dramatic shift towards the cloud is still a relatively recent trend in the global CAD industry. Many users who were used to purchasing standalone perpetual licenses were not thrilled to learn that the subscription model was taking off and would be foisted upon them, especially since new features of major CAD software are informed and powered by user feedback.

Every CAD user knows (or should factor in) there’s a bottom line and that these are publicly trading companies beholden to shareholders. In strictly technical terms, there are neutral pros and cons that can be weighed. It is difficult, because engineering software is used for a great variety of purposes in many different industries.

CAD: Cloud Storage versus Local Storage

The most glaring difference between cloud-based CAD and desktop-based CAD is versatility. The basic 3D modeling functions are there in cloud-based CAD, but there is way more functionality with desktop-based CAD. For example, branching a design or creating a configuration can be done on both, but creating a configuration for an assembly and pushing out the same configuration to every part is missing on cloud-based CAD.  

Another major difference is that cloud-based CAD has mandatory upgrades that occur automatically. For example, say a team of designers and engineers are iterating on a design and getting it to the final stages for internal design review. Experiencing automatic upgrades can alter functionality or change the familiarity of specific steps in a workflow. This might add unnecessary strife to an already tense situation centered around a serious deadline. 

As a counterpoint, automatic upgrades do reduce IT headaches. Desktop-based CAD allows designers and engineers engaged in product design to control when they perform upgrades. They can choose to wait until a critical product design review is finished before upgrading. In addition, automatic upgrades sometimes take up a lot of time to complete. This can wreak havoc on project schedules, leaving product design teams no choice but to stop dead in their tracks. This can be unbelievably annoying as a paying customer, especially when they should be racing full speed ahead to meet a critical deadline.

The sense of insecurity with cloud-based data storage designers and engineers experience is due to the lack of control over their data. Sometimes this data is sensitive in nature because it is intellectual property. Mostly, its about wondering who’s backing it up and understanding how it would affect continuity and disaster planning. The counterpoint is that the hassle of testing your server and performing backups manually is a relief and cuts down on IT overhead. Cloud-based CAD storage is also extremely convenient if you’re working for multinational corporation with locations all over the world, or a small but distributed design team. The ability to create a file and share it instantly with anyone anywhere is beneficial for distributed teams of designers and engineers.

Cloud-based storage allows users to bypass annoying restrictions on what CAD program runs on what platform. For a long time, mac users were out of luck when trying to run 3D engineering software such as SOLIDWORKS, for example. Cloud-based CAD program Onshape is perhaps the best example of leveraging the value of platform independent versatility. Their users are unencumbered by worries about their local storage hardware capabilities. They don’t worry about which OS and other system requirements are necessary for optimal performance. PTC, which recently acquired Onshape for USD 470 million, obviously sees the value of cloud-based CAD. Onshape is also beneficial for users who have different workstations at their workplace and others at home. Cross-compatibility and interoperability issues shrink when your CAD workflow is primarily based around cloud-based storage. 




Performance for CAD with cloud-based versus local storage is a difficult comparison. Leveraging the powerful servers of cloud-based CAD, performing computing-intensive tasks like topology optimization can actually run faster than those same tasks performed on local storage CAD. Even if a workstation is top-notch, different types of simulation can be performed more quickly through the cloud on a workstation with lesser hardware. However, performing design analysis on every part while an engineer or designer is creating the part is still easier to do on the more robust local storage CAD programs.

But CAD that uses cloud-based storage is catching up to local storage CAD in terms of performance and doing things like performing design analysis on every part through the cloud may soon become a reality.

Bottom Line

The biggest point of contention between local-storage CAD and cloud-based CAD is licensing and cost. Intellectual property concerns boil down to weighing the cost of security (local-based CAD) versus convenience (cloud-based CAD).

After Autodesk went all-in on cloud-based subscriptions, customers who are used to being valued as the source of critical feedback to refresh and create new features for flagship programs like AutoCAD felt a little betrayed by the usurping of control over their local machines. Data collection by tech giants in Silicon Valley is now viewed correctly with a lot more suspicion since the dawn of the personal data industry, which is now more valuable globally than the oil industry. Prior to the rise of cloud-based CAD, a desktop seat meant a perpetual standalone license. Paying for and possessing a perpetual license still means customers can install and run the CAD software indefinitely per seat. Every seat purchased affords companies the ability to give multiple users access via a network license.

By contrast, cloud-based CAD subscriptions remove customer ownership of the software, so if you stop paying your monthly subscription, you lose access. Cloud-based CAD also forces customers to buy a seat for every individual user who wants to log in, removing some of the value of buying network licenses. For example, in they heyday of local-storage CAD, you could buy 10 seats for 20 users with a network license, and everything was copasetic as long as there were just 10 users on at one time. With Cloud-based CAD, you have to buy 20 seats on a per-user basis so they can log in.

But hey, there's a lot of free CAD software to choose from, you might say to yourself. Free CAD software should always be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to protecting your work. It often means your designers and engineers are feeding it to the public domain with little or no protection guarantees. If that isn't a concern, then by all means use free CAD software.

Ultimately, it is a mixed bag of pros versus cons. If overall robustness and security are your primary concerns, then purchasing a perpetual license of local storage-based CAD outweighs the risk that a cloud-based server could be hacked and open up your IP to theft. If convenience and cost are your primary concerns and you can deal with the possibility of less security in favor of more convenience, than cloud-based CAD may be your best bet. Cloud-based CAD is on the rise, but you should have a choice between the two. In perpetuity.

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