If you depend on computers for your livelihood, there’s nothing more annoying than those warning messages that pop up like mushrooms whenever you upgrade a software product.

Backward compatibility is a huge and serious problem in the CAD world. It remains a challenge for any software that stores data and has releases with enhancements that change the stored data representation.

When we visit our customers, frustration over the upgrade process and having different software versions than your collaborators are two of the biggest productivity issues that always come up. 

The whole premise of an “enhancement” or “upgrade” is to get better, not take away access to valuable tools and information required to do your job.

When those enhancements create data that older versions of the software cannot understand, the older products cannot read the new information. In these situations, traditional CAD products do one of two things:

  1. They don’t let you open the new file on the older product, or;
  2. They try to recognize what they can understand and warn the user that they may (or will) lose the newer information they don’t understand.

Computer users see this happen all the time with common desktop document and spreadsheet tools.

Faced with this roadblock, the user has two options: Either install the newer version or read the file on the older version (if that is even allowed) and accept that some information will be lost.

In the most heavily used 3D mechanical CAD products, forging ahead with the older version is usually not even possible or severely limited. The only practical choice is to upgrade.


Many people suspect it is to force customers to pay for a yearly subscription in addition to the upfront license cost.  Even if this is a factor, it is not the primary reason. The overwhelming problem is that data representations of CAD models -- especially parametric CAD models -- are extremely difficult to impossible to backport reliably.  And the fact is, the great majority of 3D mechanical design is done parametrically.

So why don’t CAD users just keep up to date with the latest version of their desktop CAD software all the time?  There are a myriad of reasons why this just isn’t feasible:

  1. New Product Releases Are Often Buggy – Because they come out only once a year and contain many changes, it often takes many months and several service packs for them to settle down. In fact, our research reveals that most CAD users regularly skip entire releases. (One might ask why they pay subscription fees for releases they are skipping, but that mystery is for another day).
  2. Upgrades Need to Be Companywide – Upgrading may not be a big deal when you are one person using a spreadsheet.  But when you are in a company where many people work on the same data, and you have a lot of software installed on a lot of machines, the update process has to happen all at once for everyone. This can be very time consuming and costly.
  3. Collaboration Partners Need to Upgrade at the Same Time – If your company is working with another company using the same product, then both companies need to synchronize their updates. This is really not practical when you consider the web of companies that work together. Consequently, CAD consultants that work with many companies often have several versions of the same CAD product running at the same time – and pay license fees for each. Version mismatches aren’t just a problem in big companies; they are a problem for anybody who wants to share CAD data.
  4. There Are Also Forward Compatibility Problems – When users upgrade, they sometimes have regeneration failures with old models. Why? Because an improvement that makes 99% of cases better can make 1% of cases worse. When you have enough improvements in a release, and enough models that need to regenerate, some will fail.


Onshape solves the backward compatibility issue architecturally by avoiding it completely. All Onshape users work on the latest version of Onshape. How is this possible?

  1. Onshape is updated transparently and frequently in the cloud. Instead of big bang annual releases or service packs issued months apart, our agile development approach to the cloud allows releases every few weeks.
  2. Customer models are constantly and robotically regenerated in the cloud in a hands-off automated fashion. This exposes most regeneration issues and allows Onshape to fix those errors before the next version of Onshape is released. Although Onshape will still have some regeneration issues, users will see them far less often.

Automatically keeping all users on the current version is not a new idea -- it is only new to CAD. This is what Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) is all about. Salesforce, Google Docs, Workday and many other heavily used enterprise cloud products have been doing this successfully for years. These products all store complex data that many users collaborate on and they release frequent updates transparently on the cloud. Users of these products never think about what “version” they are on. They never worry that a collaborator might be using a different version. It just works.

Imagine the possibilities… What if mechanical CAD users didn’t have to worry about version mismatches, upgrades, backward compatibility, forward compatibility, and waiting over a year or more to see bug fixes and enhancements?

At Onshape, we’re pleased to say this is no longer a hypothetical question. Backward compatibility issues are an unwanted artifact of the installed software world. The cloud enables us all to achieve a new level of cost-efficiency and collaboration. It will let mechanical designers and mechanical engineers spend less time shaking their heads at the computer screen while doing mundane IT chores and more time designing tomorrow’s great products.

Join me for a live presentation this Friday and let's continue the conversation!