Talking technology with SolidWorks VP of R&D Austin O’Malley

I sat down last week with Austin O’Malley, SolidWorks Executive Vice President of Research and Development. Our conversation ranged from guitar amps to the new Macbook Air, but for the most part, we talked about current and future technology, and how it might apply to the next–generation software his team is working on, including online usage.

Matt: We first announced our plans to start releasing cloud-based applications back in February at SolidWorks World. Since then, there’s been a lot of talk about the “cloud” term, and how it can mean many things. From your perspective, what are people talking about when they discuss cloud applications?

Austin: In the simplest terms, cloud computing involves a shift of processing power away from the hardware in front of you to hardware somewhere else, with commands and responses transmitted over the Internet. In other words, your desktop or mobile device essentially becomes a client you use to access data and programs running remotely.

I think a lot of the confusion comes from the buzz words that tend to get thrown around, like “public cloud,”  “private cloud,” or “local cloud.” I tend to think about the different permutations of cloud computing this way.

First, you have what most people think of, which is the “public cloud.” These clouds are at the data centers run by companies like Amazon and Google that many businesses are using these days. Processing power and storage capacity can be easily rented, and you can scale your needs up and down on demand. For example, if you’re running a 30-day free download and you need more bandwidth than your own network can support, you can rent bandwidth from Amazon for that period. There’s no need to buy servers that you’ll only need for a month. These companies also provide great physical and electronic security measures to make sure your data stays safe and is reliably available.

On the other end of the spectrum is what people call “private clouds.” This is a cloud-like infrastructure that you set up behind your firewall. You actually own (or lease) physical hardware. This is great if you need your data to stay in-house, but it still requires an investment in equipment, so it’s not so easy to scale up and down depending on need. But it still gives you centralized computing power and distributed access to data.

There’s a third term referred to as the “local cloud.” This is sort of a hybrid of public and private clouds, where you’re primarily working within a private network, but with the ability to access public cloud resources when you need additional power or bandwidth. This involves caching of public cloud data locally.

Matt: A lot of people think of services like when they think of cloud computing, where applications are hosted and run in a web browser. Is that what you’re looking at in R&D?

Austin: Sure, that’s definitely interesting, but it’s not the only thing we’re considering. The great thing about leveraging online resources is that you can do it in lots of different ways. I think of the cloud as a great place to handle heavy computing and data storage.  The device you use to access it should be your choice, based on what you want to accomplish.  Think of desktop computers, web browsers, and mobile devices as “windows” to your data and applications. By removing the dependency on the desktop, you’re able to create new applications, interfaces and workflows that are more in line with the way people work today. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the desktop—our success was built on bringing 3D CAD to Windows after all, and we’re going to remain committed to that platform.  But there are other viable platforms and interfaces now, and our customers want the ability to leverage them.

Matt: Jon and I discussed the issue of Internet bandwidth last month, and his comment was that it won’t be an issue soon. What’s your take?

Austin: I was recently at a conference where the CTO of AT&T said they will service more WiFi connections in the first week of 2011 than they did in all of 2008. There was also a chart in a recent issue of Wired that showed how video now constitutes 51% of all Internet traffic, with overall global bandwidth increasing exponentially as well. If there’s enough bandwidth to carry all of those YouTube and Netflix videos, I’m confident that the bandwidth will be there in the next 5-10 years to do design work online.

Ten years ago, most homes were connecting to the Internet with a 56k modem, with connection speeds around 40kbps. Today, average connection speed is around 4mbps. That’s a 100x increase over 10 years. In some countries like Korea, the average connection is 14mbps. People are already talking about terabit connections. So, do I think that most businesses have a connection fast enough to do real-time manipulation of 3D data over the Internet right now? Not really, but they will soon. But, most of our customers could leverage their connections for data management and sharing designs right now. We’ll be releasing a product that does this (code-named SolidWorks Connect) into beta soon.  I also think that we can combine the power of the cloud and the desktop to provide a better experience for things like analysis. As you work, analysis could be constantly run using cloud resources, giving you information on the design choices you‘re making on your desktop machine.

Matt: So how do you see new SolidWorks technology working when it’s released in the next few years?

Austin: We’re still working on everything, but I think what you’ll see are applications that rely on a combination of local and remote resources, at least when it comes to design software. We’ll use the power of the desktop or mobile device to give you a great interactive experience, and use cloud resources to give you access to data anywhere and offline computation of complex tasks (like analysis). And, while we may have a browser application in the next few years, it may not be your primary tool, but rather an option you can take advantage of for some operations, like viewing designs from your home, or a client’s office.

I think other real advantages of leveraging online resources will come into play when customers are able to start using purpose-built applications on mobile devices. When you’re able to access your data from anywhere on a device that you can carry in your hands, you can take advantage of workflows that were never possible before. And while current mobile devices aren’t the best for creating designs, they can be fantastic for accessing and experiencing designs. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to use a tablet to review a design and approve a change from a taxi, or create a walkthrough on the fly from the shop floor and share it over a 3G or a 4G network. Perhaps the promise of paperless manufacturing can now be made a reality with inexpensive tablets coming our way allowing us to create a “better” drawing.

Matt: Jeff Ray recently said that the team working on our next-generation tech spent a lot of time looking at gaming technology. What do you think the engineering world can learn from the gaming industry?

Austin: Yes, we’ve looked at both gaming and entertainment thoroughly. I think the gaming software and hardware companies have done a great job at developing interfaces and process flows that mirror the way people really think—a lot better than most enterprise companies. Take something like World of Warcraft, for example. There’s an environment that operates in real time, where time has meaning and things don’t stop just because you log off. It’s easy to join and get up to speed quickly. Compare that to something like WebEx, where a meeting can’t happen if the person organizing hasn’t shown up, or you can’t join in if you lose the meeting invitation, or can’t get the client software to install.

Companies like Nintendo and Microsoft’s Xbox divisions are also doing great work understanding how people physically interact with hardware, and they’re creating new experiences that are more natural and intuitive. SolidWorks probably won’t be developing software that you control by jumping and swinging your arms around, but we can learn a lot about how to improve our own interface.

And I’m speculating a little, but Apple’s rumored cloud-based iTunes service looks to have a lot of possibility. The ability to access your library from anywhere or stream to a brand new iPhone clearly provides a lot more flexibility.

Matt: What else are you finding interesting technologically?

Austin: I think there are a lot of interesting ways that other industries are starting to leverage the Internet. Microsoft recently launched their Office 365 product, which puts the entire Office lineup online. A lot of big cities (like Los Angeles) and towns are contracting out to Google for their email and office applications. The US government even has its own app store.

Higher education is really getting into the Internet business, with real-time online learning now being a real possibility for a lot of people. The medical field is starting to use the Internet to let doctors and surgeons diagnose patients who live in other parts of the world, or in remote areas. It’s even possible to use small, connected devices to take blood samples and connect to remote servers to run complex biometric tests. They’re using the power of Internet connections to have a real, positive impact on people’s lives. I think that’s pretty exciting.

Matthew West

SolidWorks alumnus. I like plate reverb, Rat pedals, Thai curry, New Weird fiction, my kids, Vespas, Jazzmasters, my wife & Raiders of the Lost Ark. Not necessarily in that order.