Autodesk Evolution part I

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On a visit to Autodesk’s headquarters in downtown San Francisco, we quizzed the company’s AEC development team on near and long-term development plans and got some candid answers.

At a recent investor day in San Francisco Autodesk announced it was ending the ability for customers to upgrade their software without being on Subscription.

This was described by Andrew Anagnost, Autodesk senior vice-president, industry strategy & marketing, as being an expected move having “conditioned” customers to the fact that Autodesk Subscription was the most cost-effective way of owning Autodesk software, together with getting access to additional services. Undoubtedly this will come as a shock to many who, despite the financial incentives of Subscription, have decided to upgrade only when they actually wanted to.

Autodesk’s introduction of time-limited Rental offerings has in some way replaced the need to go through the old upgrade process — the latest version is always available for download and at a lower cost than updating an old release.

From the figures I have seen, perpetually owned software on Subscription (full cost of software plus yearly cost) versus yearly rental takes about three years of ownership to benefit buying a full license over renting.

This option also alters the accounting for engineering tools, capital expenditure versus operational expenditure and may depend on how and when you want to write off your software against future tax liabilities.

Admittedly it does make long term decisions of ‘buy to own’ or ‘rent’ a bit of a complex equation and who knows what the future holds? Autodesk is keen to point out that unlike Adobe, previous and future full license acquisitions of Autodesk software are still perpetually owned — albeit non-upgradable if not on subscription.


Upgrades and business model

Autodesk’s business model has been a constant transition. When AutoCAD was all the company offered, it could be two or three years before a new release came out This moved to yearly releases with Subscription being the cheapest way to stay up to date, with corresponding escalating financial costs to update for those that stayed behind.

In this model the ‘sweeper’ was introduced; which forced those who preferred a longer cycle to upgrade or face buying a whole new copy if they wanted to protect their investment.

In the past four years Autodesk has been steadily moving away from its reliance from this three year upgrade cycle revenue to annual Subscription.

To push Subscriptions more, Autodesk produced ‘Suites’, offering even more software for a relatively small yearly fee.

The final act is the complete removal of ‘Upgrade’ as an option. I suspect this decision will be met with lots of wailing and gnashing of teeth by customers who feel ‘herded’ by Autodesk’s business model but now with ‘rental’ there are other aspects to Autodesk’s offerings which help mitigate this decision.

For Autodesk there is also distinct danger in this move, in that should many customers move to rent their software, they will have much greater freedom to move elsewhere, with less of a conscious historical and ongoing investment to maintain.

The latest release is always there for rent when required and there is no big ‘joining fee’ of buying the software. It will also help keep Autodesk’s development teams focused to deliver useable new functionality and services, which from release to release can be a little hit and miss and only deliver small portions.

Autodesk will be more vocal on these changes in the coming months, and I am sure the devil will be in the detail. For now, with the news that upgrades will be no more as of 2014, every firm should be weighing up the tactical benefit of using Autodesk Rental licenses.

Autodesk’s manufacturing division has a cloud-based design tool in Fusion 360. Its AEC division is also on the same track with technologies like Project Skyscraper, but at the moment less visibly

Autodesk 360

Autodesk has been the key industry pontificator on the benefits of the cloud. The company’s mantra for the last three years has been that the cloud will bring ‘Infinite’ computing to the masses. Instead of requiring expensive desktops, cloud-based applications can perform hard calculations involved in rendering, building analysis and simulation in the blink of an eye.

However the reality is that, with the exception of rendering, online analysis is not being used by many. Infinite computing is a vision that is some way off.

Autodesk’s 360 platform is the source of all this hype. Autodesk 360 is a lot more than just a collaboration portal or a place to get renderings done. It is Autodesk’s own operating system, its very own global network with which to interface with its customers and as it slowly develops will be the backbone of all the company’s products and services for desktop, mobile and cloud.

In the past Autodesk software was exclusively available from dealers through distributors. It arrived on disks then memory sticks. Access codes could take an age to arrive at your dealer from Autodesk’s offices in Switzerland and the whole process was very resource intensive. Soon all you will need to do is to log into Autodesk 360, where every user has an account and every subscription comes with management tools, to allow CAD managers to allocate CAD resources and capabilities through a single portal. Account holders could opt to rent more software or buy more cloud credits to run renders and analysis calculations using Autodesk’s powerful computers.

Autodesk 360 is a place where all the drawings and models can be stored, distributed, accessed and viewed via desktop or mobile. Most Autodesk applications will eventually be available on whatever system you want: tablet, desktop, through a browser, on a Mac. I am told Autodesk already has Revit ‘running on’ an iPad thanks to years of development.

Autodesk has also developed an API for Autodesk 360 so its developer partners can provide additional functionality, should they want to use the processing power of the cloud, or even sit within Autodesk’s own servers, which I presume would also be bought through the 360 platform.

This is very similar to Autodesk’s original business model, which had AutoCAD as the platform with third party developers writing additional functionality through its API. However, Autodesk 360 is so much more for both Autodesk and its customers.

For Autodesk it is the ultimate customer relationship management (CRM) system and direct product fulfillment. For customers it is a one-stop shop for Autodesk products, third-party products, cloud processing services, rental, CAD management administration and document distribution.

One wonders where this would leave dealers. The company is making all the right noises to assure dealers that the channel is still an intrinsic part of its ‘go to’ market; but I feel the role of the dealer is set to change more dramatically over the next three years than it has at any other stage in the last twenty, with more services and less box revenue.

Add the end of upgrades to the universal access that Autodesk 360 offers and the Autodesk offering is rapidly becoming like joining a club.

In the past you subscribed to the next release of AutoCAD; soon it will only be about a range of services, of which CAD software is just one of many things you will be able to get for your yearly fee. Autodesk 360 is an extremely significant development and will impact every line of how Autodesk does business and how designers and engineers do business with Autodesk.

AutoCAD 360

Not to be confused with Autodesk 360, AutoCAD 360 is the cloud version of everyone’s favourite AutoCAD.

Do not worry AutoCAD is still going to be available on your desktop and for a very long time will be the version that has everything in it.

AutoCAD 360 is an in-process development, which will offer AutoCAD functionality through a web browser using HTML5. For now the functionality is perhaps just a tad better than AutoSketch once was but the team will eventually add in all the functionality that makes sense.


So you can have AutoCAD locally on your desktop, or access it through a browser on any machine.

As AutoCAD 360 is cloud based and your data can be stored in the cloud, you can even rock up at one of your clients, log in through the web and launch AutoCAD 360 with all your drawings.

AutoCAD 360 replaces the short lived AutoCAD WS which was Flash based. It will be interesting to see how many other Autodesk apps become available as web-alternatives. I suspect that most will follow suit.

AEC development

So, where is Autodesk going with its AEC development? This year’s Revit update probably saw the least exciting release of new functionality. With the focus on Suites, Autodesk seemed to forget that within these bundles there was always one key product by which users defined the majority of their day to day job.

With its first release in 2000, as code goes, Revit is actually getting quite long in the tooth and is due to be re-written or updated to a next generation product. The software clearly struggles with large models, does not have a contemporary graphics engine (unlike Bentley AECOsim), and fails to make use of modern architectures such as multi core processors — something which Graphisoft’s ArchiCAD does.

I have been led to believe that Revit was being rewritten but Autodesk was, company-wide, investing heavily in getting its software cloud-ready. Some of that infinite computing would go down well in the Revit community, complex BIM models need grunt.

Anthony Hauck, product line manager for Revit/Building Design, explained some of the planned changes with Revit. Mr Hauck agreed that performance was an issue and with each release the team was always looking to make some performance increase to give users more headroom.

Unfortunately, with each increase, it either does not take long for users to eat that up by adding more detail, or users were already pushing beyond the boundries.

It seems likely that Revit will evolve to enable a cloud or server hosted dataset, which intelligently provides the right geometry and information to teams of designers

When it came to multi-core processors the team had looked at the problem, but by splitting up the code to run across multiple cores, they found reassembling it all on the other side gave little, if any, benefit to the performance.

For now Revit can make use of multiple cores when rendering but it seems unlikely that the desktop version will be multi-core any time soon. The solution Mr Hauck said the team is looking at is to defer and localise Revit updates when it refreshes the model to relieve the processor.

Graphics was certainly something that the company was actively looking into and admitted to working with the graphics card community to update Revit’s pipeline to gain the benefit of today’s fantastic GPUs. This could significantly help interaction and manipulation of large models.

While Autodesk is committed to both the desktop and the cloud, the latter is the target destination for next generation platforms. One only has to look at Autodesk Fusion to see the cloud solution the company’s manufacturing division came up with. AEC is also on the same track but at the moment less visibly.

Senior vice-president, platform solutions and emerging business, Amar Hanspal told me about the until now unknown ‘Project Skyscraper’, which is looking to use the cloud, or perhaps local servers, to offload some of the heavy lifting and segregate the Revit database from the front-end.

This would mean that the applications would be light and model data can be streamed to clients, sending only what is needed, based on what the user is doing. This makes a lot of sense as what mainly kills Revit’s performance is the omnipresent nature of all the data, all of the time.

As Autodesk moves to offering BIM to the complete building lifecycle, that amount of detail is only expected to increase.

So, for those wondering if Revit was in maintenance mode while the next generation cloud version was in development can rest easy that the team is still actively working on enhancing the desktop version. What seems likely is that the product will evolve to enable a cloud or server hosted dataset, which intelligently provides the right geometry and information to teams of designers.

Autodesk Pier 9

With Autodesk growing and now preferring to be based at One Market in San Francisco, the company has been expanding to take over more floors of the main building together with investing in other spaces and facilities.

Pier 9, one of the historical piers jutting out into San Francisco bay, is just a ten minute walk from One Market.

Here, Autodesk has created what can only be described as the ‘ultimate man cave’ for its employees. With cost estimates between $5 million and $7 million, Autodesk has created a modern space filled with the latest digital fabrication tools: 3D printers, bio/nano lab, laser and water cutters, CNC machines, a woodworking and metalworking shop, an electronics workshop, a commercial test kitchen, and an industrial sewing centre as well as smaller specialty project areas.

This is very much along the lines of Techshop or the emerging hackspaces — providing a place for employees to learn new skills and test out the company’s software.

Pier 9 is also the office space for Autodesk’s ‘Instructables’ website team, who edit and create thousands of ‘How to’ posts, from cooking recipes to robots and rockets.

Walking around the workshops it is clear to see that Autodesk has invested heavily in some very big machines, which cover typical CNC devices that their customers may also use, as well as the high-end five and six axis machines.

It is a giant lab for Autodesk employees and they are already using it to refine their applications and help hardware manufacturers. A case in point was the giant metal-cutting water jet, which will only run off AutoCAD DXF files but it did not like Autodesk’s DXF output!

At this facility, Autodesk also has temporary ‘artists in residence’, who get access to all this fantastic hardware to work on agreed projects and push the design and manufacturing technologies, however weird they may be, such as a drum kit linked to servers and driven by an Arduino device, or a fire-breathing ‘Zoltan’ mechanical fortune teller.

Civil and infrastructure

For the last two years Autodesk has largely ignored promotion of AutoCAD Civil3D concentrating instead on Autodesk Infrastructure Modeller, which then tuned into InfraWorks and is now called InfraWorks 360 Pro. As if the name changes are not confusing enough, Rich Humphrey, senior director for Autodesk InfraWorks 360, reassured that Civil3D is still the go to product for detailed design, documentation for Civil infrastructure projects but Autodesk admits that the product is now pretty mature.

The excitement in the company is now based around InfraWorks 360 Pro because it wants to drive BIM for Infrastructure and a new platform that pulls together disparate datasets required to meet the needs of lifecycle assets. When documentation is required, Civil3D still needs to generate the detailed drawings but over time the data model will probably merge.

Mr Humphrey explained that InfraWorks 360 is a new codebase that came from the company’s experiences in creating LandXplorer, Map, MapGuide and Civil3D. Customers were asking for a database driven unified data model for infrastructure models in one platform, as opposed to point solutions.

The innovation is not just at the back-end. The front end is almost game-like, making it easy to use. Simply sketching a line will generate a rules-based 3D model of a highway. The company thinks it is a game changer.

For now Autodesk has 30-40 big companies that are using the software and the product has yet to be properly positioned.


Before now the ‘Infinite computing’ mantra seemed pretty meaningless. But having seen just how much development Autodesk is doing, fundamentally changing the way the products and the company will interface with customers and the new options that this opens up to the way customers can work, I see that it is not only meaningless but totally underestimates the change that is coming to the way we all use software and computing.

The computing industry is changing and Windows — in fact all operating systems — are being replaced with cloud platforms, which can deliver what you need, where you want it, with a powerful back end.

While all this work is going on there will be serious challenges in streaming this functionality to firms with low bandwidth connections, or many users.

This is why product mixes of the future will be whatever makes sense — desktop, mobile or HTML5.

Autodesk is clearly looking to offer a wide breadth of applications to suit all needs, so, there’s no need to worry. It is not going to take away your beloved desktop application anytime soon; in fact the number of tools and possibilities will just increase.

With the Autodesk 360 backbone and Subscription and Rental priced to please customers, Autodesk’s change in business model starts to make more sense. The value proposition changes from how much AutoCAD ‘improvement’ do I get for my yearly fee to what services and level of access to tools do I get from Autodesk for the cost?

Coming up…

CLICK HERE to read the second part of this article where we look at Autodesk’s vision for ‘Big Data’, Reality capture and Building Analysis — areas where it is making major advances with products such as Recap Pro and Project Memento.



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