Software via the internet offers a cost-effective alternative to licensing

Paul Boughton

DOS, Windows and Apple Macintosh software applications used to be distributed on floppy discs then, as technology moved on, CD-Roms. Today, with broadband internet connections becoming commonplace, direct downloads are widely used. But in all three cases, the software is installed on a local computer or a server situated in the same building as the user(s).

Thanks to high-speed internet connections, however, users can now work with software that is hosted remotely and accessed via a web browser. Email is often accessed online in this way, and the word processing, spreadsheet and other applications offered by Google are popular, as they offer many of the same functions as the conventional software packages that are installed locally. This type of remotely hosted software application is known as software as a service (SaaS).

The general concept of remotely hosted software is not new; application service provider (ASP) software started to become popular at one stage, though this was essentially conventional software with a front-end added so it could be hosted by a third-party provider. While this offered some advantages for users, performance was often poor and software updates were no more frequent than conventional ‘shrink-wrapped’ software that is installed locally.

In contrast, today’s generation of SaaS applications are written to be web-native so offer good performance and far better updates. For example, bug fixes and software upgrades can be implemented on a daily basis if necessary.

User benefits

From the user’s point of view, there are a number of additional advantages. One of the most obvious is the pricing structure. Conventional software applications require a heavy investment at the outset and, depending on the application, ongoing payments for maintenance. Even packages such as office software, which do not require maintenance contracts, are not the ‘buy once’ product that they may appear; upgrades to operating systems, and the original software house's withdrawal of support, often mean that users have little option but to upgrade the software or reinvest in an alternative from another supplier. With SaaS, there is just a simple monthly fee to pay, often based on the number of users, but sometimes with additional charges for bandwidth or disk storage space, and maybe a set-up fee as well. Moreover, if a company does decide to switch suppliers, the logistics are easier and there is no large up-front investment required to buy a new set of software licenses (though retraining users will inevitably incur costs).

If the software is hosted remotely, the user’s IT maintenance can be simplified significantly. Upgrades are easier to manage because they do not require any in-house effort, and it is very easy to add more users.

SaaS suppliers today usually implement a multi-tenant architecture in which a single instance of the software is used concurrently by multiple customers, but with customers' data kept separate. To avoid any one customer overwhelming the system, a load-balanced arrangement of multiple instances of the software can be implemented.

While the technology is fully capable of providing the service, some companies have been reluctant to adopt the SaaS model for their IT needs. In the past computer hardware and software have been viewed as part of the corporate strategic advantage, and this attitude can be hard to change. However, most companies now appreciate that bespoke software is seldom used, so the business advantage stems from the use of the software within a broader business process, together with the valuable data that is generated and stored.

Other reasons for being cautious include doubts over the reliability and security of the internet. While the internet is generally very reliable, several instances of damage to subsea cables earlier in 2008 caused severe disruption to services in Egypt, the Middle East and India. Nonetheless, for most companies it is probably a fair assumption that their internet connection will suffer less downtime than their in-house severs. The SSL (secure sockets layer) cryptographic protocol, which is commonly used by SaaS vendors, offers high security and is routinely used for applications such as electronic commerce.

SaaS applications

Office applications have already been mentioned, but there are several other areas where SaaS is becoming popular. Project management, human resources, customer relationship management and supply chain management are just a few examples. But what about applications for engineers?

Product lifecycle management (PLM) and collaboration tools are starting to become available as SaaS applications, plus there are several knowledge management packages to choose from.

PTC offers small and medium-sized businesses its PLM On Demand software, which is based on PTC's Windchill PLM package (Fig. 1), delivering a comprehensive suite of affordable modules over the internet. IBM e-business Hosting is said to provide industry-leading security policies and practices to ensure data security, as well as high-end hardware that would otherwise be beyond the budget of small and medium-sized businesses. Customers can purchase Windchill Projectlink (for collaborative product development and project management), Windchill PDMLink (a data repository for managing all forms of product data and change/configuration management) or both. In all cases there is a fixed set-up fee and monthly per-user fees.

Another SaaS PLM system is Arena PLM, which has been designed as a single-instance, multi-tenant application for delivery as a service over the internet. The on-demand technology enables extended product teams to interact transparently regardless of any geographic or organisational boundaries. Arena PLM is described as a complete product lifecycle management system that centralises product information, automates key collaboration processes such as change and request management, and provides analytical tools for instant visibility of product, project and compliance status. The company gives a guarantee of 99.5 per cent system availability and it says its security track record is flawless. One of Arena's recent customers is the Zenn Motor Company, a Canadian developer, manufacturer and supplier of innovative zero-emission electric vehicles (Fig. 2). Zenn has adopted Arena PLM to help it leap-frog traditional automotive company competition; the company uses Arena PLM to manage its entire product record, control engineering changes, manage industry regulatory compliance, and improve collaboration with the supply chain.

The Datastay PLM suite is another option for organisations seeking PLM SaaS. Datastay says its PLM offering is flexible enough to meet the needs of any size of manufacturing operation and comprehensive enough to support their diverse and growing needs; it can be tailored to suit customers’ requirements and rapidly deployed in a cost-effective manner.

Away from PLM, another SaaS application of interest to engineers will be Mindjet Connect, a SaaS platform that provides access to the company's Mindmanager mind mapping software. Mindjet Connect delivers three levels of functionality: the core Mindmanager mind mapping application; secure online workspaces where teams can co-create and edit maps simultaneously, as well as store and edit any file type; and communications tools such as instant meetings, messaging and whiteboards. Collaborating on mind maps in real time helps teams to streamline work processes and communications, and avoids the problems that result from files being emailed back and forth. English and German versions of Mindjet Connect are already available, with French and Japanese versions due later in 2008. There is a minimum requirement of three users per account, and three service levels, but prices start from around €10 per person per month.

Offsite storage of backups has been part of many companies’ data security and disaster recovery policies for decades, but for smaller companies this has often involved employees taking backup tapes or disks home. Symantec now offers secure, reliable, online backup and data storage as a SaaS offering. As well as avoiding the risks associated with data being taken offsite in relatively insecure formats, the Symantec service enables users to browse data files, manage their protection settings and restore data via a web browser anywhere on the internet.

CAD on demand

In terms of SaaS for core design activities, Solidworks is offering its Drawings Now system via its Solidworks Labs facility that enables users of Solidworks CAD software to upload drawing files. These can then be accessed by anyone via a web browser, and the viewer can rotate, zoom or pan the drawing. Another development from Solidworks Labs is Cosmosexpress Now (Fig. 3), which enables a user to upload a CAD file, follow a series of steps presented on screen and then view the results of a first-pass finite element analysis within the web browser. However, the most exciting tool currently in the Solidworks Labs is Blueprint Now. This is a free online DWG editor that enables anyone with an internet connection and a PC enhanced by Microsoft Silverlight to create drawings online. These can be saved to a secure server and accessed by anyone to whom the originator emails a link. Of course, these other users can potentially review the drawings and make changes in a web-based collaboration.

Another company experimenting with online tools for sharing CAD files is Autodesk. Available via the Autodesk Labs, Autodesk Freewheel is a free web service for sharing and viewing 2D and 3D designs without the need to download or install any software (Fig. 4). For creating vector drawings via a web browser, Autodesk Labs has recently published Project Draw. It can be used to create network diagrams, user interface mock-ups, simple component designs, electronic circuit diagrams and more. Files can be saved in a variety of formats (including DWF, DWFx, PDF, JPG, PNG and SVG) on the Autodesk server or the user’s choice of location.

Half way between the viewing and drafting SaaS offerings from both Solidworks and Autodesk above, Aftercad Online (ACO) enables users to pan, zoom, rotate and, importantly, annotate models (Fig. 5). Furthermore, Aftercad Software, has also published a beta version of its Aftercad Realworld software that additionally allows full interaction with objects in a 3D scene. Models will be securely stored and served from Aftercad server farms.

In early 2008 the only SaaS CAD software that was identified was Zdesign On-Demand, which is just one tool in the Zweave Collaborative Design Studios suite of on-demand products aimed at the fashion industry. This has since been joined by Solidworks’ Blueprint Now and Autodesk’s Project Draw, both of which are still in the early stages of development. Of course, there may be suppliers of other SaaS applications for CAD, finite element analysis, mechanism simulation and engineering-related tasks, but they are certainly not yet serious competitors to the established vendors of licensed software in this sector. Within a few years, however, the situation may well change, with ever-increasing processor power and bandwidth paving the way for CAD software to be supplied over the internet as a cost-effective service.