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Written in the cloud

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“We want to change the way people do infrastructure design,” proclaimed software giant Autodesk’s senior vice president, industry strategy Andrew Anagnost on the eve of the firm’s annual convention in Las Vegas last week. “And the way we’re going to do it is by using the power of the cloud.”

Bold words. And let’s face it Americans tend not to be shy of the bold statement. Giant US corporations even less so. For Autodesk to use its annual conference to declare a new a era of cloud-based super high-powered infrastructure design should come as little surprise.

But beneath the bravado there is a sense that there is truly something revolutionary happening out there. The fact of the matter is that computing power is now, finally, in a place where practically anything is possible.

“Cloud architecture is the biggest thing to happen to computing since the personal computer,” proclaimed a revved up Autodesk chief executive Carl Bass to almost 8,000 enthusiastic fans from the stage of the Mandalay Bay Resort’s 12,000 seat arena. “This is the next generation of infrastructure design.”

Autodesk is leaping into this new generation with Project Mercury, code name for a strategy to use cloud technology to accelerate the industry’s adoption of building information modelling (BIM) for infrastructure, and make itself the market leader in the process (see News).

As he put it: “We’ve had 3D models for a long time. But they’ve been locked on our desktop PCs. What if you could give everyone who needs it access to the data anytime, anywhere on any device?,” he asked. “It’s BIM everywhere.”

It plans a host of initiatives; some are communications based such as getting contractors to use the cloud to inform site-based operatives through BIM Field. Some are taking advantage of the cloud’s computing power such, for example through a greatly enhanced version of its Infrastructure Modeler software that is used to refine concept designs.

 “We are the first company to bring you a full set of professional tools in the cloud that spans the entire design process,” Bass told the audience in Vegas. 

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But in the calmer confines of a backstage briefing room, Bass admits the construction industry won’t be an easy nut to crack. “For the first time we are in a place in which the computer is starting to help,” he says. “But the push back against the cloud has been more from the engineering side. The question is still ‘will we ever put stuff in the cloud?’” he explains.

Engineers, in the guise of Bechtel manager of enterprise systems Scott Zimmerman, agreed. “A construction company is not what you typically think of as a fast follower in the cloud space,” he said. “The biggest barriers will be the people and process, not the technology.”

But he is completely convinced of the benefits. “Cloud is really about getting the right information, to the right people, at the right time, on the right device – including the kitchen sink,” he said.

“We [Bechtel] built a private cloud called the Project Services Network that serves projects in just about every country and function in our company. You start to think about data differently when you consider the fact that every piece of data in your information ecosystem is accessible and addressable.”

Yet the engineering sector has been a slow adopter of cloud technology, largely because of fears about data security, reliability and accessibility issues – fears about “dead spots” – and doubts about download speeds with the data-rich models that infrastructure projects produce.

Autodesk senior vice president for information modelling products Autodesk Amar Hanspal thinks the concerns are overplayed. “Eighty percent of cloud concerns are security. Yet people are quite happy to do all their banking online, trusting the cloud with their money. But they don’t want to do it for projects. “

Autodesk strategy director for the engineering, natural resources and infrastructure division Richard Humphrey agrees. “Civil engineers are some of the most conservative people around,” he says. He should know – he is one. “They were probably the last to do online banking but now they all do it because the reasons why are so compelling. The cloud will be the same.”

Genuine experts are in accord. As Teresa Payton, former chief information officer at the White House’s Cybersecurity Authority and identity theft expert told the gathering.

“According to the FBI, there are two types of companies right now. Those that have been hacked and those that don’t realize they’ve been hacked,” she said.

“Autodesk wants to have an open and honest dialogue about how to understand security in the cloud. I believe with the right best practices and the right conversations with your vendor, you can actually be safer in the cloud.”

Her belief is that vendors will offer greater security because of the reprisals that would come from any security breach. “You cannot protect that which you do not have in your line of sight. And that is what makes you nervous about the cloud,” she said. “But, in some regards, you’d be better off going to the cloud because you can hold that provider contractually liable and ensure that your data is secure.” 

Bass is confident the concerns can be overcome. “This is a typical technology adoption issue,” he says.

Evidence suggests it is. Fifteen million users have access to Autodesk’s cloud services since they were released last year and Autodesk continues to add 1M new users each month.”

“Personal computers and devices will get replaced more and more by the cloud,” said Payton. “The cloud is real,” as Zimmerman put it.

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