Cloud computing is pretty ubiquitous for a technology that’s still being touted as the Next Big Thing. Every time you check your account on Gmail, stream a movie over Netflix, or feed your cows on FarmVille, you are tasking cloud-computing infrastructure—essentially using your PC or mobile device as a terminal that is linked to more powerful computers that in turn allow it to access and manipulate data stored remotely.

In theory, cloud computing offers an unbeatable value proposition for businesses that rely on computing technology—access to high-powered processing on a subscription or pay-as-you-go basis, without the bother of maintaining a network of servers and the staff and capital expense that goes with it.

Yet it’s not clear what the actual appetite is among small- and medium-sized businesses for investing in cloud-computing infrastructure. At times, it appears to be more resignation than real enthusiasm. A Forrester Research report published last April found that just 36 percent of small- and medium-sized businesses cited “desktop virtualization” as a critical or high priority. But IBM’s 2011 Tech Trends Report registered that 75 percent of its survey group says that within two years their organizations will be designing for the cloud.

Given the mixed signals from industry, marketers of enterprise software have been slow to move to the cloud. But the exceptions test the rule: Autodesk is going all in. And one company that’s already there, Google, may be making further inroads into the design community.

Based in San Rafael, Calif., Autodesk produces AutoCAD and a suite of other software programs, products that have become ubiquitous in design environments ranging from architecture and engineering to industrial design and computer animation. Several recent acquisitions, including Pixlr, Instructables, and Horizontal Systems, have focused on expanding Autodesk’s online sharing and cloud platforms. Last September, Autodesk announced the launch of Autodesk Cloud, a build-out of its popular software-subscription service. An Autodesk spokesman told Bloomberg that the company expects that “all of our major products will be available in the cloud within the next three years.” Since the service launched in October, 1.6 million new Autodesk Cloud subscribers have signed up.

Still, when Autodesk Cloud was announced, there was speculation that the move was a strategy for riding out the recession—just as Autodesk’s core clientele of design and engineering firms had been forced to retrench during the economic downturn. The company had scaled back its research and development (R&D) budget sharply, from $576.1 million for the fiscal year ending January 2009 to $457.5 million in 2010. R&D spending rebounded somewhat in fiscal 2011 to $496.2 million, and R&D spending as a percentage of net revenue remained stable throughout the economic downturn.

Forrester analyst James Staten, however, never saw the cloud as a sign of gloom. In a gushing blog post published the day Autodesk Cloud was released, Staten wrote that cloud-based rendering was itself an innovation that promised to “change the way architects, engineers and designers get their jobs done and dramatically improve how they interact with clients.”

Autodesk Cloud offers access to powerful computing infrastructure, says Shanna Tellerman, Autodesk product-line manager for the cloud platform. Instead of doing 3D renderings on their own network, architects can “push that out to the cloud, saving a tremendous amount of time.” The renderings can be pushed out to clients, who can access and edit documents via AutoCAD WS, a free Web-based and mobile application product that comes with 1GB of cloud storage space for non-subscription customers. These extended pieces, Tellerman says, “change the way customers are working and interacting with their network of design professionals.”

These are relatively prosaic business solutions. But listening to Autodesk’s technologists talk about the cloud, one senses that these are just early steps. Words such as “democratization” and “ecosystem” come up frequently. A tool called Autodesk Revit Conceptual Energy Analysis allows for virtual testing of energy optimization using cloud-computing tools, which have access to more than 1.5 million GPS-linked weather datasets from around the world. Another virtual performance tool, Autodesk Inventor optimization, allows designers to simulate how a designed object will perform under a variety of conditions. This means, from a business standpoint, that Autodesk customers will be able to use their cloud space as a repository of design plans, virtually reconciling infrastructure with notes and metadata embedded by users over time. This information can be used for maintenance, rebuilding, retrofitting, and renovation.

While most of the promise of cloud applications to Autodesk’s design software is about design in the digital space, Autodesk’s Gonzalo Martinez brings up the possibility of going from the physical world to the virtual world. Martinez is director of the strategic research office of the CTO at Autodesk. Martinez takes the example of a 30-year-old building for which no blueprints exist, or for which existing blueprints are obsolete due to renovations. With a laser scanner, SLR, or camera phone, a user could potentially take a series of scans or pictures of a building and use those to reconstruct its design plans. With the kind of application Martinez describes, such physical-to-digital virtualizations can be rendered in the cloud and subjected to the same suite of performance and energy tests available to Autodesk subscribers.

Beyond these ambitious conceptual plans, there are other signs that Autodesk is expanding its user base beyond the traditional core of design and engineering professionals. Sketchbook Pro, an Autodesk app for Apple products, targets the consumer market. Ranging from free (for mobile devices) to $59 (for computers), Sketchbook Pro is one of a suite of Autodesk products for the App Store that has racked up 2.2 million downloads.

This expanding market is ground that is also occupied by Google, a forerunner of cloud-computing technology. Google’s prosumer design tool, SketchUp, boasts about 2 million active, seven-day users, according to SketchUp project manager John Bacus. At $495, SketchUp Pro costs far less than the enterprise software packages from Autodesk, Adobe, and others. “I think for that reason,” Bacus says, “SketchUp has changed the usage patterns a bit inside the profession. Rather than have the one guy in the office who uses the $10,000 package, everyone can have a seat of SketchUp.”

But Google isn’t Autodesk’s problem. “The challenge this year is to help our customers understand what the cloud is—basic-level questions,” Tellerman says. To that end, Autodesk is giving limited cloud access to both subscription and non-subscription customers.

A more substantial hurdle is convincing subscribers that the cloud is safe for data. For large firms that do work for government clients, full adoption could have to wait until the federal government releases cloud-computing security and data-protection guidelines for contractors. IT infrastructure modernization is an Obama administration priority, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology did offer a set of suggested guidelines for cloud computing in January. But until there are hard and fast policies, Tellerman notes, “some kinds of clients are not going to be comfortable publishing sensitive material and data into the cloud.”

Even at the digital frontier, developers are measuring anticipation with caution. At Google, Bacus—who has degrees in architecture and worked on SketchUp with @Last Software before its 2006 acquisition by Google—is not convinced that cloud-based rendering farms are the most practical use of outsourced computing for design. “The most useful cloud-based tool for architects,” he says, “might be Gmail.”

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