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    Autodesk University 2011 - "Software Everywhere"


    For the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industries, the big news of this year's AU conference is that Autodesk is snatching up Horizontal Systems and its technology for an undisclosed amount. When the acquisition closes in January 2012, the company's flagship product, Glue, will become part of Autodesk 360 for BIM, a newly branded software bundle launched at AU.

    Autodesk 360 comes in two versions: Autodesk 360 for product life-cycle management, aimed at manufacturers; and Autodesk 360 for BIM, aimed at the AEC industries.

    The version for BIM combines Autodesk Vault, the data management solution that currently comes with Autodesk design software packages, with Autodesk Buzzsaw, an existing project management solution delivered as web-hosted software. Soon, a yet-to-be-named product based on the newly acquired Glue will be integrated.

    According to Jim Lynch, Autodesk's VP of AEC Solutions, "Horizontal Systems technology will help accelerate our Autodesk 360 for BIM capabilities by allowing multi-discipline teams to more easily communicate and synchronize information — helping reduce waste and errors during the design and construction of AEC projects and leading to faster, more efficient project delivery."

    Like typical software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers, Horizontal Systems currently markets its products by subscription at an affordable rate, for as little as $150 per user per month. (The "Collaborate" module comes with the base subscription; the "Exchange," "Estimate," and "Schedule" modules require additional fees.) The browser-based interface allows subscribers to perform many complex operations, including merging 3D structural models and building design models, obtaining cost estimates, and doing collision checks.

    Currently, to access some functions directly from within Autodesk design software, subscribers may download and install plugins for Autodesk Revit and AutoCAD. The Horizontal Systems platform supports several dozen 3D file formats, including neutral formats exported from software developed by Autodesk's competitors.

    Horizontal Systems is not the only player in the realm of cloud-hosted BIM, though its products may be the most efficient. ONUMA also develops and promotes the use of web-based BIM collaboration practices, and has hosted a series of successful virtual build-marathons, dubbed BIMStorms, to prove that its approach is feasible.

    Remote Rendering and Analysis

    The Horizontal Systems acquisition helps address two of six major technology trends shaping the AEC disciplines, as outlined by Lynch, the Autodesk VP, at AU 2011.

    Those trends comprise cloud-based solutions, BIM, mobile apps, social media tools (to incorporate Facebook- and Twitter-style communities into the design workflow), reality capture (to digitally record the shape of existing buildings using technologies such as laser scanning), and augmented reality (to merge digital design data and physical structures for design evaluation and simulation).

    Whereas many others view the cloud as a remote data management solution, Autodesk has been experimenting with delivering cloud-hosted computing horsepower. The company's initiative has produced, among other things, cloud-hosted rendering services for Autodesk Revit and AutoCAD users.

    Autodesk Cloud Rendering services, made available to Autodesk customers on subscription, let you upload an AutoCAD file with a predefined camera angle, and render it using remote processors. Similarly, Autodesk Revit users on subscription may use a rendering plugin to perform the same operation. Cloud-hosted rendering leaves the users' local CPUs and GPUs (graphic processing units) free to perform other tasks, allowing users to continue interacting with large design files without suffering a slowdown in their desktop computing systems while rendering is in progress.

    Going beyond visualization, Autodesk is also launching Project Storm, which allows Revit users to perform structural analysis using remote processors. The technology preview now available at Autodesk Labs lets you run Revit Structure analysis jobs using remote servers hosted and maintained by Autodesk. Afterward, you can view the results from within Revit Structure software.

    Increasingly Mobile

    In the realm of mobile apps, the list of Autodesk apps at Apple's App Store is growing. Many of them complement existing desktop software titles, allowing people to interact with design data from mobile devices and smartphones using WiFi. The company is also offering 3 GB of free storage space to subscribers to encourage the use of mobile computing.

    The AutoCAD WS app, for instance, lets users store, share, and view DWG files from an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch, and also allows mobile users and desktop software users to view and work on the same file simultaneously.

    Similarly, users may use Constructware Field to interact with AEC project documents from construction sites, or use the Buzzsaw mobile app to access and visualize 3D CAD files hosted in Buzzsaw's cloud-hosted database.

    And apps are certainly not limited to Autodesk. In the same week it was hosting AU 2011, rival company Bentley Systems released the Structural Synchronizer View App to bolster its iWare lineup. The free iPad and iPhone app lets you view and interact with "i-model" design files — lightweight 3D models exported from Bentley's desktop 3D software — that are stored in the Bentley ProjectWise platform. The latest app follows previous ones already released, called ProjectWise Explorer and Bentley Navigator.

    Is Traditional Software Dead?

    Nearly a decade ago, Marc Benioff, founder of the SaaS platform, ruffled quite a few feathers when he announced, rather hyperbolically, "Traditional software is dead."

    In AEC, traditional software packages are still expected to persist for the foreseeable future, because the complexity of architectural geometry and the demand for intense local processing power make powerful workstations indispensable.

    Nevertheless, for project management, data storage, and collaboration, many users may soon turn to mobile apps and cloud-hosted solutions, as reflected in the changing attitude of the new generation. In the future, more people may opt to pay for access to software, and opt out of owning and installing software on their own computers.

    "We're blurring the boundaries between devices and platforms so you can design regardless of using a laptop, tablet, or smartphone," said Autodesk's Bass at AU. The mantra for today, he said, is not "no software," but rather "software everywhere."

    Autodesk is expected to rely on professional software titles like AutoCAD and Autodesk Revit to bolster its revenues annually. But the success of its consumer-friendly mobile apps, like SketchBook Mobile, surprised even its own product managers. Since its launch in 2009, SketchBook Mobile has attracted more than 7 million downloads.

    Attendees at AU 2011 were primarily the professional crowd, but those who chose to tune in to AU Virtual — an online version of the conference, delivered via live streaming over the web, open to Facebook and Twitter users — may represent a bigger audience and a wider mix, comprising hobbyists, enthusiasts, craft makers, and garage-dwelling inventors.

    A short distance from the conference center where AU was taking place, guests at the Venetian and Palazzo hotels and casinos huddled over slot machines and roulette tables, hoping to change their fortunes with a few lucky bets.

    Autodesk has historically thrived on desktop software licenses with a significant price tag. But the shift to cloud-hosted solutions and mobile devices suggests Autodesk may take a gamble exploring micro-payments and optional cloud services as new revenue streams.

    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

    Kenneth Wong, a freelance writer based in San Francisco, has been covering the architecture software industry for more than a decade. He is the senior editor and resident blogger at Desktop Engineering, and also contributes regularly to Computer Graphics World.   More by Kenneth Wong



    ArchWeek Image

    Autodesk's mobile app AutoCAD WS, shown here running on an iPad, allows users to store, share, annotate, and exchange DWG files between desktops and mobile devices. The app allows simultaneous viewing of the same file while collaborators are working together online.
    Image: Kenneth Wong/ ArchitectureWeek

    ArchWeek Image

    Autodesk has released 19 apps, both paid and free, for Apple's iPad. Some apps also work on the smaller iOS devices.
    Image: Kenneth Wong/ ArchitectureWeek

    ArchWeek Image

    Autodesk CEO Carl Bass, who spoke at Autodesk University 2011, anticipates a future in which the company's software runs not just on desktop workstations, but on multiple platforms: in the cloud, in browsers, on Android devices, on iOS devices, and on other kinds of smartphones and mobile computing devices.
    Photo: Kenneth Wong/ ArchitectureWeek Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Autodesk Constructware Field, shown running on an iPad, allows mobile device users to access, review, and annotate previously created construction documents and project data that is then housed in Constructware project sites.
    Image: Kenneth Wong/ ArchitectureWeek

    ArchWeek Image

    Supporting its ongoing investment in cloud computing, Autodesk recently acquired Horizontal Systems, a software company offering cloud-hosted BIM services accessible through a web interface. The company's Glue product is shown performing clash detection.
    Image: Courtesy Horizontal Systems Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    By early 2012, Autodesk plans to integrate the Horizontal Systems Glue software into its Autodesk 360 for BIM offering.
    Image: Courtesy Horizontal Systems Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Project Storm, now available as a downloadable plugin at Autodesk Labs, lets Autodesk Revit users perform analysis on structural models using remote servers.
    Image: Courtesy Autodesk Extra Large Image

    ArchWeek Image

    Results of analyses performed with Project Storm can be reviewed within Autodesk's Revit software.
    Image: Courtesy Autodesk Extra Large Image


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