Interoperability is one of the industryÝs constant thorny issues. Proprietary CAD formats, like the worldÝs languages, create a virtual Babel and generate barriers to understanding engineering information. Martyn Day examines the latest news from Autodesk and Bentley.
Interoperability is a critical issue for users of design and engineering software. A 2004 study by the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology found that users bear direct costs of almost $16 billion annually from time wasted due to inadequate AEC software interoperability. In news that shocked the industry, Autodesk and Bentley Systems, strong competitors, announced an agreement to expand interoperability between their portfolios of Architectural, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) software. Autodesk and Bentley will exchange software libraries, including Autodesk RealDWG and Bentley DGN, to improve the ability to read and write the companiesÝ respective DWG and DGN formats in mixed environments with greater fidelity. In addition, the two companies agreed to facilitate interoperability between their AEC applications through supporting the reciprocal use of available Application Programming Interfaces (APIs).
In short, this means that Bentley gets to have direct access to DWG via RealDWG and will get API access and technical support for applications developed for AutoCAD, Revit and other Autodesk AEC applications. Bentley users will also be able to benefit from being able to run AutoCAD-based object enablers in the enabled Bentley products. In return, Autodesk gets access to BentleyÝs MicroStation, ProjectWise and other AEC product development tools, and Bentley will develop a ÙRealDGNÝ type of library for Autodesk to include in its products. This will limit reverse engineering and errors and will enable the two companies to develop products for both companiesÝ customers.
Autodesk vs Bentley history
Without a doubt, Autodesk is the biggest CAD software company in the world by volume, having shipped millions of copies of its flagship drafting tool, AutoCAD, all over the globe. While Autodesk sells volume products through resellers, Bentley on the other hand, goes to market largely through its direct sales team and has had a great deal of success supplying vertical solutions of its MicroStation CAD platform to a number of markets that Autodesk has had less impact in, including Plant, Civil/Transport Engineering, and Geospatial. Where Bentley and Autodesk have a long history of competing is in the AEC market, with Autodesk winning on numbers but Bentley being the choice of more signature architects and big architectural practices, with nearly 90 percent of the ENR (Engineering News Record) Top Design Firms being Bentley subscribers.
With Autodesk dominating in numbers, itÝs hardly surprising that the DWG file format of AutoCAD is the de-facto standard in the AEC space. In fact, as vanilla AutoCAD and LT are so widely used in all industries, itÝs pretty hard to find a design space where the DWG format isnÝt popular. This has caused all sorts of data translation issues for Bentley and therefore its customers and the industry at large. Bentley had to constantly reverse engineer the DWG format and try to support it within the context of MicroStation. While working out what the contents of the DWG format is not such a big deal, mapping these elements to MicroStation elements are where the problems really get complicated. The early releases of MicroStation only supported 63 levels or layers, while in AutoCAD you could have as many as you wanted. This was further exacerbated when industry-standard layering conventions defined 256 layers, which MicroStation could obviously not support. So, mapping AutoCAD geometry to MicroStation geometry wasnÝt much fun, if as it would always require translation and that meant some data was lost or compromised.
Year after year, I would attend Bentley events where users would always ask for more software interoperability among all of the vendors in the infrastructure community. And many strategies and mapping tools were delivered with varying degrees of success. It wasnÝt until MicroStation V8 that Bentley really got a grip of the DWG issue with an ingenious solution.
Bentley rarely if ever changes its file format, while Autodesk seems to update DWG every 2-3 years. For the first major change in almost 16 years, Bentley changed DGN with MicroStation V8. Amongst the reasons for the change, was to expand the architecture to better support DWG workflows.The company chose to take AutoCAD elements that were described in DWG and include them as a sub-set of the MicroStation feature set, so the software could be used in AutoCAD clone mode, where you could only create elements that AutoCAD could understand and on import MicroStation didnÝt need to translate the DWG elements as they were supported natively. So, for customers the compatibility situation drastically improved.
In terms of competition, Bentley hasnÝt been a particularly strong blip on its competitive radar, with Autodesk more concerned about Dassault Systemes and SolidWorks I the last few years. That said, Autodesk hasnÝt been complacent in keeping an eye on Bentley. When Bentley acquired technologies it has demonstrated a passion to buy developers that had products for both MicroStation and AutoCAD and so with every developer that Bentley acquired, Autodesk was quick to lock these out of its AutoCAD developer program, generating a fair amount of animosity. BentleyÝs acquisitions have been especially sharp, aiding it to own the Structural and Civil analysis markets. These are technologies that Autodesk would like to have and itÝs widely quoted that Autodesk management think that Bentley should Ùdump MicroStationÝ and become AutodeskÝs biggest third party developer!
However, when one looks at the reinvigoration of software development at Autodesk since Carl Bass took over as CEO, itÝs clear to see that Autodesk wants to play in the areas that Bentley has carved out as core niches ± namely Civil/Transport Engineering, Plant, Infrastructure and Geospatial. This ambition is backed up by AutodeskÝs recent internal development of limited DGN capability for its AutoCAD and Revit software tools. For the first time, Autodesk really feels it needs to gain access to data thatÝs held in DGN. So we have two old competitors that have a need to access each otherÝs formats. Bentley has an array of analysis, document management and vertical solutions that could benefit and Autodesk is looking to move into traditional Bentley markets with new tools and is also developing itÝs own Green building analysis tools.
There is another dynamic to this move. Autodesk has it in for the Open Design Alliance (ODA), a company that funded by its competitors (PTC, SolidWorks, Bentley, Dassault etc.) to constantly reverse engineer the DWG file format and create libraries they can use in their CAD products. While the ODA says they invited Autodesk to join, Autodesk CEO Carl Bass told me that the deal was never a fair one, as they would have to Ùtell all about DWGÝ to join but none of the other vendors were willing to open up their formats and give Autodesk equal access. Since Bass took over, AutodeskÝs litigation and technology moves made against the ODA have been accelerating, while simultaneously Autodesk has been picking off ODA members by signing direct deals for format library swaps, removing their need on the ODA. The list of vendors is small but significant, both PTC and now Bentley have taken Autodesk up on their offer of library swaps.
Autodesk has now engineered the DWG file format so that it incorporates a small piece of encrypted code that contains a sentence which is copyrighted, itÝs a clever watermark. When AutoCAD opens up a DWG that isnÝt from an official Autodesk product, it would see that there is no watermark and automatically warns the user that they are opening a file not generated by AutoCAD and therefore may be corrupt. By definition the ODA could not reverse engineer this otherwise it would break copyright. However it did and Autodesk sued.
At this yearÝs Bentley BE conference in Baltimore the cat was almost let out of the bag when a PR slip up meant the press saw that Autodesk CEO Carl Bass was due to appear by satellite link, and even that didnÝt happen. ItÝs now obvious that this was as the deal was still in progress and not ready for announcement. It took three-four weeks longer to be made public. I have heard that the delay was over Bentley wanting the API access.
What will Bentley get out of it?
In some ways, Bentley had circumnavigated the DWG issue by incorporating the DWG elements in the DGN. However, BentleyÝs CTO, Keith Bentley talks about the confidence factor of having official libraries and not having to wait for the ODA to reverse engineer and bypasses the watermark issue introduced recently by Autodesk. With API tools Bentley also gets access to all the ÙobjectÝ intelligence with the AutoCAD verticals and being a pseudo-official developer will open up new markets for them.
BentleyÝs problem here is that it doesnÝt have a broad volume channel, so while it may be able to produce products that could be sold to AutoCAD and Revit customers, you do have to wonder how demand will be driven and fulfilled. I am pretty sure the deal doesnÝt include BentleyÝs access to AutodeskÝ global resellers and therefore AuodeskÝs installed-base. However, It will help Bentley sell more to customers that run a mixed environment and will make it easier for the company to get some foothold into big AutoCAD-dominant projects.
What will Autodesk get?
From its own efforts at great cost, the DGN developed at Autodesk was only 2D and now they can have the confidence of having reciprocal 2D and 3D access. DGN access is the key for new markets for Autodesk and they will undoubtedly be after MicroStationÝs markets ± a risk which Bentley has obviously weighed up and accepted the trade off.
However, as AutoCAD doesnÝt support or understand some concepts that are core to MicroStationÝs DGN format, while it will be able open, display and query documents, hybrid DWG/DGN files will require translation and therefore imperfect results. To get the most out of the deal AutoCAD would need to match the element types that are in DGN. Here, Bentley has a distinct advantage to get off the blocks quicker than AutodeskÝs DGN inclusion.
Autodesk also continues to turn up the pressure on the ODA. Another key member pacified and Bentley was a significant supporter. The ODA also produces DGN libraries and Bentley will continue to provide the documentation and technical support to the ODA for the libraries the ODA creates. However, Bentley is under no obligation, and does not have any intention to deliver the new Bentley DGN Toolkit to or through the ODA What will customers get? This has yet to be really stated but one can say this is a massive win for all customers and the industry as a whole. Interoperability issues wonÝt vanish but they will be greatly reduced. It will not mean that DGN and DWG are interchangeable and that there will be no differences. Bentley is very vigorous about explaining the richness of DGN and the capabilities of MicroStation over AutoCAD. I dare say Autodesk would have a contrary opinion to this. ItÝs one marketing war over, a new one starts.
This agreement is really co-opetition, making life easier for everyone all-round. ItÝs the most significant and positive move in the history of Computer Aided Design in the AEC space. If the agreement continues and both parties play fair then there will be significant advantages in the coming years for the industry as a whole.
ItÝs clear to me that Bentley has struck a great deal with Autodesk, certainly in the short-term. RealDWG and AutoCAD, Revit and other AEC application API access, together with V8 compatibility will mean that Bentley can be quick off the blocks to make some impact with this. Bentley has loads of existing products that either sell or could sell into AutoCAD workflows, like the analysis tools or ProjectWise.
To me it seems that Autodesk is on a long play here. It wants to get into BentleyÝs traditional markets and the company doesnÝt seem to like to spend much on reverse engineering formats. Carl Bass has told me many times that he doesnÝt have any issues in swapping APIs or DWG and competing on application capabilities and he is doing more than just talking about it. AutodeskÝs two target areas are Bentley and PTCÝs core markets, now they have open access to both data formats. While the technology may not be as quickly deployed in shipping products, Autodesk has plenty of time, money and sales-breadth to leverage increasing competitive format knowledge.
There has been talk of Autodesk acquiring PTC and/or Bentley. On analysis this isnÝt too far off plausible. As PTC would complete the Mechanical DivisionÝs technology suite and Bentley would give Autodesk a massive boost in all the AEC areas it has recently jumped into (especially Plant and Civils). By letting these firms build-in native AutoCAD DWG capability, an acquisition would face less of a technological upheaval, as there would be at least some degree of official compatibility. One also has to look at AutodeskÝs market capitalisation which puts them in a good place to make some major acquisitions in the coming years, so long as the USAÝs FTC (Federal Trade Commission) doesnÝt think thereÝs a monopolistic situation in an acquisition of either. If this is a Ùcome into the parlour said the spider to the flyÝ type of situation, itÝs not going to be immediately obvious or rapidly chased but Autodesk is working to a very broad strategic plan. We donÝt know who is on the menu but there is certainly a cooking smell emanating from AutodeskÝs HQ in California.
Conjecture aside. ItÝs a time to rejoice.