The relationship between hardware and software has always been symbiotic – one can’t exist without the other. As one technology develops, the other keeps pace.
If you trace the origins of Computer-Aided Design (CAD) back to the middle of the last century, the hardware was the mainframe and the software was mostly home-grown, built by large corporations that could afford to run mainframes and develop their own CAD. When the mainframe was superseded by the “minicomputer” – closer in size to a large refrigerator than a small condo – CAD became available commercially and at a much more “affordable” price. Several companies developed and sold turnkey solutions of minicomputers and graphics terminals for one purpose only – to run their CAD software in dark, air-conditioned rooms.
Then hardware advances brought about the microcomputer. PCs and Unix workstations became popular with companies and independent software vendors alike. CAD applications could now take advantage of the local processing power of the desktop computer without the need for a central server.
With mainframes and minicomputers, all number crunching and data storage was managed centrally. Any operator could log on to any terminal and access their data files. With microcomputers, everything was managed locally, so data was difficult to access unless you had your own dedicated computer. Two steps forward and one step back. To address this shortcoming, client/server architectures were introduced to facilitate local processing and centralized data storage.
Today, companies can choose to either manage their own hardware and software on their own premises, offload everything to the cloud, or somewhere in between. To make the distinction, new naming conventions were required: either “on-premises” (also referred to as “on-premise” and “on-prem”), or for true cloud-native solutions, “Software-as-a-Service” (SaaS). There are other hybrid solutions, but those are beyond the scope of this article.
From an operational standpoint, managing your own hardware and software infrastructure has its pros and cons. Let’s start with the positives: all hardware and software components are owned and managed locally. You decide on the configuration and when upgrades and system changes are performed. For data-sensitive applications, you have control over where your data is stored.
Now for the negatives: the costs involved with managing hardware and software can be astronomical. Companies need to manage and maintain multiple servers, networks, firewalls, VPN, storage, backups, and disaster recovery plans. Facilities require server rooms with adequate power, cooling, fire protection, and physical security. Software needs to be downloaded, installed, configured, licensed, and updated several times a year on each server and every client workstation. All of this needs an army of IT professionals to keep things running smoothly, keep all systems up-to-date and ensure that everyone is on the same version of the same software. If your company operates across multiple sites, continents and time zones, simply multiply all those costs. Implementations take longer and downtime for maintenance or disaster recovery can halt an entire business.
Some believe that storing data on company servers behind the company firewall is the only way to ensure that sensitive data is secure, and the only way to keep track of where data is and who has access to it. That statement is only true if:
Once data has left the security of the firewall, or you permit internet and email access on your employees’ computers, then all data is extremely vulnerable to theft, viruses and ransomware. Needless to say, the costs of those problems are potentially limitless.
Today’s engineers and designers do more than just design products. They are company advocates and trusted advisors, visiting customers and suppliers, and working closely with all areas of the business. In order to perform all these activities effectively, engineers need product development tools that enable them to get access to their data whenever and wherever they need it, and tools that enable them to collaborate easily.
On-premise software requires on-premise hardware or at least a laptop powerful enough to meet the demands of resource-hungry design software. This usually means that a designer is tethered to a desk. When working remotely is required, data must first be checked out of the company vault and copied to a local hard drive or external device. If the designer needs to visit a customer, several checks need to be made to ensure that all the data is copied in its entirety, and that the required software is installed, licensed and up-to-date. If those checks aren’t carried out before leaving the office, or the customer wants to review a different project, the engineer may have had a wasted trip. If the data belongs to a live project, there may be other engineers in the office actively making changes and causing potential conflicts.
Sales and marketing like to get their hands on the latest product data. Manufacturing and external suppliers need access to the latest version of a part. Unfortunately for the engineer, that usually means being pestered for files, screenshots, and drawings. Files must be located, packaged up, documented with instructions and emailed. These are all time-consuming, non-value-adding activities that take the engineer away from working on the project.
Collaborating with coworkers can also be a challenge. The architecture of on-premise software enforces a one-person, one-file way of working. In other words, only one person can work on a part or an assembly at any one time. This creates bottlenecks in the process as each designer waits on the others to finish their work before they can start theirs. This serial workflow adds unnecessary delays to a project and unnecessary frustrations for all involved.
Cloud-native Software-as-a-Service platforms, also known as “SaaS,” address all of the on-premise issues mentioned above. Instead of downloading and installing software on your company servers and workstations, the application and your data are accessed via a web browser on any device running any operating system. There are no setup costs, maintenance costs or implementation delays. There is no requirement for IT support – software updates are applied automatically and downtime is negligible. A web browser and a subscription are all that’s needed.
For the engineer, using a SaaS platform means instant access to all project data from anywhere in the world. It also means:
With a SaaS platform, all data processing operations are carried out remotely in the cloud. No data is transmitted or downloaded locally to any user’s computer, keeping sensitive data secure at all times. SaaS applications implement security measures that go way beyond what most companies are able to implement or afford on their own.
Are there any downsides to SaaS? Only if you have no internet. However, the wide availability of WiFi, 4G and 5G networks makes this far less of an issue. You’re much more likely to be without your desktop computer than to not have internet access and your smartphone.
Just like every other business-critical process, product development is moving to the cloud. If you want to explore why – and examine the competitive advantages of making the switch – join me for a live webinar to discuss the benefits of SaaS in product development. There will be plenty of time for Q&A – click on the button below to register. Alternatively, if you would prefer a more technical deep-dive into Onshape and how SaaS tools can improve your design processes, you can request a live demo using this form.