Autodesk Forma

Autodesk Forma: one platform to rule them all?

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During his Lord of the Rings inspired keynote at Autodesk University, Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost shared some massive news — a new AEC cloud platform called Autodesk Forma. AEC Magazine’s very own hobbit, Martyn Day, examines what this could mean for future design workflows, Revit and other applications


For many years AEC magazine has been pondering what comes next for Autodesk, as the company has long stated its objective to move from desktop applications to the cloud. Revit is such an important BIM application for the AEC industry. But it has suffered from a lack of development for so long. It seemed that Autodesk did not want to redevelop the 20-year old application, despite complaints and frustrations from a broad range of AEC firms. Indeed, there have now been two ‘open letters’ from customers and architectural associations trying to find out what the future of their core application will be.

If there were to be no second generation of Revit, what would replace it? At Autodesk University this year, Autodesk might not have explicitly given a definitive explanation, but at least it chose to give its customers the destination.

Autodesk CEO, Andrew Anagnost, during his keynote address at Autodesk University 2021, requested that users do not get too attached to their desktop brands. He placed some very subtle hints about how, in the future, Autodesk software would rely on its impressive range of Forge cloud services, moving the company’s development tech stack gradually from desktops to the cloud. Last week at Autodesk University 2022, Anagnost gave the audience Autodesk’s future vision for the convergence of the next generation of design tools.

Autodesk Platform

In his keynote, Anagnost explained that Autodesk is developing cloud ‘platforms’ based on a set of common services. There will be three cloud platforms, specific to different industries – Forma for AEC, Fusion for manufacturing and Flow for media and entertainment. These platforms will aim to connect the tools, data, processing and workflows for every phase of Autodesk’s customers’ projects.

These industry ‘clouds’ take Autodesk from providing point solutions like Revit, to delivering cloud environments to streamline workflows and span the full lifecycle, from concept to operation. In the case of Autodesk Forma for AEC this would be early-stage design to digital twins.

Autodesk’s Platforms have two essential components: a Unified Database and what were branded as Forge components. The Forge platform itself was rebranded Autodesk Platform Services (APS), which was a bit of a surprise given the years of marketing and branding that Autodesk had given the initiative. APS is a suite of interoperable cloud services that provide building blocks to create applications, workflows and integrations.
Autodesk indicated that the process of building and moving to these new platforms will take three to five years but a lot of the foundational work has been done through the creation and development of what was Forge.

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Autodesk’s applications will, at first, plug into Autodesk Forma, together with a raft of connectors for third-party products and data in a wide variety of formats, which will enable data exchange. Autodesk was particularly hyping its new connector to McNeel Rhino and has endorsed USD and IFC as open formats it will support.

Quantum > Plasma > Forma

Autodesk’s Platform vision is not new. In 2016, the company unveiled Project Quantum, a centralised, cloud-based common data environment which ‘connects workspaces, by breaking down the monolithic nature of typical AEC solutions.’ This data-centric approach to software was aimed at breaking down the silos and connecting design with manufacturing. Quantum was set to bring new life to Revit by offloading the Revit database to the cloud, meaning huge files would not need to be shunted around. After Amar Hanspal (co-CEO of Autodesk) left, Quantum kind of went dark.

For many, the path of least resistance may lead them to go with the flow and drift into Autodesk’s cloud utopia. However, others may be more sceptical.

Under the then new CEO Andrew Anagnost, Quantum, which was once described as ‘little more than a Powerpoint’, became Project Plasma in 2019. It transpired that what the AEC team had been working on was something that other Autodesk divisions felt they needed too, so it moved from being a division-specific technology to something much more foundational.

Back then, AEC Magazine got a little insight into what Autodesk’s development team was planning. The idea was that Revit should not be the co-ordination point for all AEC data, but this should be happening back on the cloud. Plasma was to be the single version of the truth.

Having decided on a data-centric approach and a single unified database, the work was to then define this functioning data layer / schema. Given the plan was to be a single version of the truth, and to be able to take design data from concept, through manufacture and operation, one can only imagine the complexity involved in that. On top of that Autodesk would want to keep its desktop products alive while it moved everything to the cloud. Meanwhile, Autodesk was learning a lot about cloud-based design apps through its Fusion 360 manufacturing design application.

Autodesk Forma is the culmination of this data-centric work and has been years in the making. First openly discussed in 2016, it now looks like we might see it become a reality sometime between 2025 and 2028.

The aim is to have a centralised cloud repository connected to all data consumers in a project – giving them the right tools and latest data in whatever way they need. This breaks down silos of data which are inherent in the industry but, more specifically, between Autodesk’s own applications.

Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost channels his inner wizard during his Autodesk University keynote

From apps to tech stacks

Today, design IT directors and BIM managers define their own technology stacks for the businesses they run. This varies from firm to firm, but in the UK and US, a sizeable chunk may well be the Autodesk AEC Collection for authoring, perhaps BIM360 / Docs as well, but the glue, repositories, Common Data Environments (CDEs), exchange tools, renderers, document management, email etc. will have been tested and pieced together.

With Forma, Autodesk is looking to offer a turnkey tech stack, located in its proprietary cloud, with all Autodesk’s tools, from concept (FormIT) to Digital Twin (Tandem). Through its own in-house developed connectors, non-Autodesk products (Rhino, SketchUp etc.), can be linked to the Forma common database, where the data should seamlessly flow between apps. As Forma is cloud, and other software providers are also moving that way, there will also be API access.

Forma is a cage, but a multi-platform, multi-device gilded cage. There are clear benefits to integrated seamless workflows. For design IT directors, Forma could simplify and single-source a lot of capabilities which are bought in from other vendors. Existing essential apps like Rhino can be integrated and workflows could provide automation of data flow to analysis tools like Spacemaker, collaborative VR tools like The Wild, or clash reports sent to project managers. This will accelerate the death of file-based workflows and users will benefit from a connected world of applications.

Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost introducing Autodesk Forma during his keynote

Questions, questions, questions

If we wake up from the dream of tech stack utopia for one minute, Forma does open up all sorts of questions: how much will it cost, and will you be trapped if you decide you want to leave?

From talking with the Open Letter Group, they estimated only 10% of their Autodesk Collections were ever installed (the core products were AutoCAD, Revit, Navisworks and 3ds Max). What will be the deal with Forma? Will it be a separate server like product in addition to Collections, or as the applications slowly become absorbed into Forma, does it replace Collections? What features will have additional transactional fees paid for with ‘Tokens’? And by using tokens in a contained collaborative supply chain, is it moral to monetise the data the customer owns?

Will all the Autodesk applications and workflows really be best in class? Or will firms still have to build their own mix of tools and workflows with Forma just as a tech stack block?

Do practices actually want to retain control over their own tech stacks with today’s pick and mix approach? Even with the hassle of managing products on different development cycles, different interfaces, integration issues etc?

For many, the path of least resistance may lead them to go with the flow and drift into Autodesk’s cloud utopia. However, others may be more sceptical. Many of the firms we talk to have ongoing trust issues with Autodesk, with fears of escalating costs of ownership, audits, tokens and products which fail to meet expectation or lose product development velocity.

As to cost, it’s hard to imagine Autodesk reducing how much it charges customers today. With Autodesk hoping to show major productivity benefits over old school file-based workflows, Forma could cost more. With this move, lowering data friction, there is a new Return on Investment to be considered.

In a sense, Forma is a play to own and extend the collaborative process of design, as well as the network of all project data. Autodesk wants to be at the very heart of that process within companies.

Autodesk Forma
Autodesk Forma connects all of Autodesk’s existing products through a unified data environment, via connectors and data from other vendor’s applications, including McNeel Rhino and external IFCs can be brought in.

All roads lead to Rome

With Forma, Autodesk now talks of openness and connectors, seemingly with great passion. There are many Common Data Environments (CDEs) from many different developers, but these usually view collated data, search for clashes, reviews etc. Having banned Revizto from this year’s Autodesk University, I get the feeling Autodesk wants its cloud environment to be the one in which all project data is imported for collation, checking, AI analysis / processing and documentation. To do this it needs to be able to suck in data from many other sources and bring it together in a coherent workspace.

To some extent this competes with the Nvidia Omniverse platform, which takes a ‘bring your own app’ approach to sharing geometry into a graphics-accelerated environment. While the system is based on the open USD format, Nvidia is managing to scrape out additional BIM information from the applications it plugs into. Nvidia is also making some headway into getting developers to create AEC tools which sit within Omniverse and utilise Nvidia’s GPUs to process geometry. There is an interesting layer of co-opetition overlap between Autodesk and Nvidia here.

Revit’s Forma future?

In the last issue of AEC Magazine we reported on a second ‘open letter’, this time from the Nordic countries’ architectural associations. Some of Autodesk’s most mature and famous architectural customers complained at the lack of development of Revit. This has led to a planned meeting between Autodesk representatives and the letter writers in Norway next month to discuss the key issues raised.

While there has been no public response from Autodesk to the letter, architect and journalist, Anthony Frausto-Robledo of Architosh covered some of the topics raised in an exclusive interview with Autodesk CEO, Andrew Anagnost.

In the article Anagnost dropped the news about Forma and addressed how this will impact the future of Revit. He doubled down on his statements made two years ago to the original open letter – there is no next generation Revit.

He also admitted that even though current Revit will go on being developed, “Not everything in Revit can be fixed.”

The future of Revit is to be hooked up to Autodesk Forma, where Spacemaker will be used for conceptual design, with data flowing to Revit for detail design and documentation. Over time, Forma will slowly absorb the detail design capabilities which Revit does now but according to Anagnost, it will be “reimagined in terms of an outcome-based, machine-generated paradigm.”

Shockingly, Anagnost then went on to say: “If you want a faster horse, you might not want to work with us because we will not make a faster horse. But we can be that partner and tool provider that supports professionals into the new era of architecture.”

I relayed that statement to several Open Letter writing Revit customers and that message went down like a cup of cold sick. Frustrated Revit users seem to fall into one of two camps: fix what we have or build us a next generation. To those ears, Autodesk’s Forma solution to the BIM issue might sound like we are going to build you an aardvark (insert random animal of choice) instead.

Conceptual design tool Spacemaker will form a key building block of Forma

As to the ‘faster horse’ analogy, it really depends how you unpick it. Personally, I infer that this means Autodesk recognises that Revit as it is, is the ‘horse’, the old technology, while the future is an electric car, not a faster horse. Forma is the electric car, but it’s a long way away. If all the engineering investment will be years of integrating and digesting current Revit into Forma, when can users hope for its design capabilities be expanded? Spacemaker is not Revit.

There is a lot to unpack from the Architosh article.

Revit’s most capable, mature users have run out of runway with the product, and feel that Autodesk, up until now, has been less than explicit on what the future of Revit will be. These firms have heavily invested in skills, hardware and third-party products to base not only their BIM strategies, but also their businesses, on this one core Autodesk product.

Costs of ownership is a major concern and the product development had stalled. When they did complain, development restarted but most of the features they asked for have yet to come out. ‘The needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few’, they were told, as low hanging fruit enhancements appear to have been prioritised. While many of the letter writers started this journey as Revit fan boys, none really wanted to hear that their BIM tool was going to suffer the fate of death by slow absorption, even though they knew no second generation was in the works.

All Autodesk customers are now on an unexpected journey — Autodesk’s quest to deliver the next generation tools via the cloud. Let’s hope they don’t stray into Mordor along the way

At least at AU 2022, Autodesk detailed the company’s tech stack destination and now Anagnost has clearly stated that Revit will be hooked up to Forma, eventually being absorbed on a time scale in years. And for those who want more advanced features, these will be delivered in Forma, as opposed to the current Revit on the desktop.

There are going to be many firms that will be going along and seeing what happens, but given the timescale involved and their urgent need to improve and refine their design processes, some are going to re-evaluate the market. The Open Letter Groups are working on building a specification of what next generation design tools need to be able to do. This will be a handy crib sheet for new and existing software developers to better meet the needs of the industry.

Conclusion

It has been a long time in coming but Autodesk has finally given its users the destination where all this rearchitecting development work has been heading. In all, it seems like this will be a ten-year quest of Autodesk’s, with lots of heavy lifting still to be done before Autodesk reaches its new shire.

Autodesk’s divisions are all at different stages of getting there, with Manufacturing being the most advanced, having had one of its core tools written as a cloud application (Fusion 360).

The AEC division’s journey has been a little more fraught, with its core tools – AutoCAD and Revit – having been mainly in stasis, while Construction Cloud in 2019 was Autodesk’s first cloud service offering. The journey for the design tools seems to have started around 2020, when Autodesk acquired Norwegian developer Spacemaker. The company’s development team and conceptual product seem to have completely enamoured Autodesk’s management. It has taken two years to rewrite Spacemaker and integrate it with Revit, forming a key building block of Forma.

For those that feel trapped in the proprietary file formats and tools of Autodesk, I am not sure how they will look upon Forma. It’s a lot more Autodesk, not less. Autodesk needs to prove that their openness talk is not ‘openwash’ and that connectors give good file output in both directions. Connectors need to be two way and there needs to be a clear way to get your data out should you want to leave.

It’s interesting to look at other industries like media and entertainment where the popularity of open formats such as USD has meant there is a bridge for the geometry and materials information to flow between all the various software developer’s applications. The need for a ‘single platform to rule them all’ is much less valid. Vendors have to compete on capabilities, not on being the proprietary format which holds all the data. The work being done by Greg Schleusner at HOK is looking for an open bridge format that
can do the same for AEC. Watch his talk from AEC Magazine’s NXT BLD 2022.

Pricing will always be an issue, as will in-app purchases with tokens as well as control of licences. Here, Autodesk’s long-term relationships with customers and their historic experiences will be key. Any past moves which have damaged trust or invoked fear of non-compliance fines may make it difficult to persuade the company has changed. Given desktop applications will continue for years into the future, alongside these cloud platforms, I don’t think non-compliance and audits are going away anytime soon.

As to Revit, we now know it will be eventually absorbed into Forma and we will see individual applications appear, probably based on discipline. I assume these will still be branded Revit. The biggest performance update to come before that happens will be the introduction of Autodesk’s One Graphics System – which we will report on in a future issue. Revit is what it is and you either accept it, together with the roadmap of what’s coming or you don’t and start looking around for an alternative. I am sure Autodesk in the coming months and years will flesh out Forma’s value offerings, but I am now expecting parallel development with Revit for an extended period of time.

It’s still too early to know what new capabilities Forma will offer architectural designers. Spacemaker is being highlighted for now but also new levels of process automation and AI.

From this year’s AU, all Autodesk customers are now on an unexpected journey — Autodesk’s quest to deliver the next generation tools via the cloud. Let’s hope they don’t stray into Mordor along the way.


The Cloud utopia

Initially the cloud was sold to us as ‘Infinite Computing’ and that it would mean cheaper access to applications. The reality is that subscriptions increase the cost of ownership and infinite computing isn’t cheap – after all, you are paying to use someone else’s computer.

At the time, talking with Autodesk’s then CEO, Carl Bass, he explained how in computing, whenever there was a change in platform, software companies’ fortunes would rise and fall.

If a software firm dominated on DOS, it didn’t mean it would necessarily do the same in Windows. Anyone still got a copy of Wordstar?

The same was true of RISC processors to Intel. Looking ahead the industry has mutually decided that this next hurdle was going to be cloud. Autodesk was certainly amongst the first in CAD to switch around its development to a cloud first mentality but, unlike previous platform changes, this one seems to be taking place a lot slower than was originally thought.

The trouble was that not all applications lent themselves to cloud-architectures and the technology that was available in those early days was too immature to handle graphics performant tasks. However, technology is in a constant state of development and the kinks are being ironed out.

Autodesk has maintained its desktop design applications and augmented them with cloud services. It created its first pure cloud design application Fusion 360, which was aimed to take on the aging solid modelling tool Solidworks. Despite breakneck development, an extraordinary sales push and a price of $50 a month, Fusion 360 has failed to make a significant dent on sales of Solidworks, or other competitors. The cloud was not going to be reason enough for users to desert their desktop applications overnight. Just because something was on the cloud was not a compelling feature in, and of, itself. The real power of the cloud comes with seamless collaboration, the removal of files and interconnectivity, not so much the design tool.

Autodesk has suffered from having multiple applications which have been acquired or internally developed with many user interfaces, file formats and workflows. The variety within the AEC collection is testament to that. Forma presents Autodesk with the opportunity to harmonise the data formats and user interfaces. So, this is a giant opportunity to deliver coherence at last.

Autodesk sees that its Platform solutions will serve to connect people, process and data, with the possibility to automate processes and extend data to other business critical systems. Using open APIs there is a chance to work alongside other vendors’ products and cloud services.

Beyond connectivity, a granular unified database (generally called an ECS – Entity Component System) can, at the core, finally remove the limitations and danger of relying on files and the real-time nature of connection means there will be improvement in collaboration. Many of today’s codified standards by which industries work hark back to the days of pen and paper which defined the limitations of submission stages. These best practices do not apply well to modern cloud-based teams.

Additionally, Autodesk highlights the resilience and security of hosting its code and customers’ data on Amazon Web Services, potentially taking the load off your in-house IT.

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