Autodesk Aims for the Cloud
You can certainly use your own machine to render an AutoCAD drawing into a pretty picture or run an algorithm to extrapolate points from digital photos, but doing the same on a remote cluster dedicated to this purpose will be significantly faster. Even the most powerful workstation on the market cannot outperform a bunch of CPUs or GPUs that collectively function as a supercomputer in the cloud.
In his address to Autodesk University attendees as part of the general-session keynote, Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski pointed out, "We don't have to own all the computing power ourselves; we just have to [be able to] get to it." Photofly, Neon, and many other applications featured at Autodesk Labs hold clues to how the company plans to let those who use its software "get to" the supercomputers in the cloud.
This vision, dubbed "infinite computing" by Autodesk CEO Carl Bass, is one the company is betting on for the foreseeable future.
From Local to Cloud
Photofly and its companion Photo Scene Editor make up just a small, lightweight installation, downloadable from Autodesk Labs. Once installed, your computer can communicate with a more powerful cluster, currently maintained by Autodesk, accessible to you via a broadband connection.
The heaviest computational burden — the operations involved to translate a series of source photos into points in 3D space — falls on the remote cluster, not on your local machine.
Similarly, Project Neon (no download required; a simple login and password from Autodesk Labs gives you access to it) uses a remote cluster to render the AutoCAD drawings uploaded to it, thus leaving the processors in your own machine free to take on other tasks.
You won't, for example, see your AutoCAD or Revit session grow sluggish while you're rendering something in Neon or building a scene in Photofly, whereas if you're rendering an image using a rendering package installed on your machine, the performance of the other applications you're running simultaneously will most likely suffer.
Currently, architecture visualization artists using 3ds Max have the option to render their scenes on a graphics processor (GPU) in their own machine, a feature powered by iray technology from mental images (a subsidiary of the GPU maker NVIDIA).
But soon, you may no longer need to own a machine with a GPU to do the same. In fact, you may be able to render your 3ds Max architecture scenes using a netbook or an iPad, previously considered unsuitable for computing-intensive tasks.
Autodesk is working on a feature that allows 3ds Max to connect to a remote GPU cluster in the cloud to perform rendering operations. They'll be made available first to subscription customers of 3ds Max.
Going after SketchUp
Now considered by many to be a default conceptualization package, the freely downloadable Google SketchUp has become entrenched in the building design industry. Without the high cost and the steep learning curve of Autodesk Revit (or almost any other architecture modeling package, for that matter), SketchUp quickly finds an audience in the previously untapped early design phase.
The time has now come for the Autodesk Empire to strike back. The company's weapon is Project Vasari, now available at Autodesk Labs. Fashioned as a smaller, nimbler tool much easier to use than AutoCAD or Revit, Vasari is clearly aimed at challenging SketchUp's dominance.
With integrated energy analysis (some basic functions found in Autodesk Ecotect Analysis), Vasari also addresses the SketchUp–IES partnership, which allows SketchUp users to use a freely downloadable plugin called IES VE to perform energy analysis on early building designs.
Still Up in the Air
In the press briefing immediately following his keynote speech at AU, Autodesk CEO Carl Bass was asked to share his pricing plan for cloud-hosted services (such as rendering). Though many applications like Photofly, Photo Scene Editor, and Neon are free in the test phase, the company has revealed plans to eventually integrate them into its core software packages.
Like any other web services, these additional features could become a revenue source for Autodesk, separate from the sales of the principle software packages.
"Frankly, I don't know, I have no idea," replied Bass. "There are a whole lot of business models that will become available with infinite computing. We are looking at our subscription program as the foundation."
Autodesk is not just advocating cloud-hosted software for its customers; it's also using it to deliver many of the previews in Autodesk Labs. One initiative, Project Twitch, lets you try out large software packages, including AutoCAD, using an internet-connected thin client — without having to download and install the software on your machine.
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Kenneth Wong, a freelance writer based in San Francisco, has been covering the architecture software industry for ten years. His writings have appeared in Cadalyst, Computer Graphics World, and Desktop Engineering, among others. More by Kenneth Wong