COVID-19 Hastens Some Industries Shift to Cloud

on May 15, 2020

There is nothing like a crisis to make people and organizations shift their mindsets on cloud-based technologies from “that’s interesting, but we’d never do it” to “how fast can we turn it on?” Bob O’Donnell’s recent column talked about this shift as it relates to cloud-based apps and devices, and today I’d like to talk about two concrete examples that recently came to my attention.

PTC’s OnShape
During a recent call with PTC’s CEO Jim Heppelmann, he mentioned that his company’s OnShape product had seen a considerable uptick in usage since the COVID-19 pandemic had caused colleges and offices to close. OnShape is essentially a cloud-based Computer-Aided Design (CAD) and Product Data Management (PDM) platform suite.

CAD apps typically run on high-powered workstations that leverage high-end CPUs, specific types of high-dollar graphics cards, huge amounts of RAM, and lots of high-speed I/O. While mobile workstations exist, many organizations still rely on desktop versions that were left behind when states, counties, and cities began issuing stay-at-home orders. At best, users might have access to these systems through VPNs; at worst, they were off-limits entirely. The problem was particularly acute with higher education institutes, where engineering students typically physically go to computer labs to work on their projects. With those labs locked-up tight, it seemed the remainder of the school year would be lost for many.

PTC has a long-running academic program, and OnShape offers a version of its service free to educational institutions. When COVID-19 hit, a ton of them took up on that offer. According to PTC’s Jordan Cox, the company saw a 300% increase in registration for the service in March and a 400% increase in April. He says many universities pivoted to use the app to try to salvage the semester.

OnShape is a very interesting product that lets users access a full-fledged design application typically reserved for use on a high-power computer through any Web browser. This means you can access it from a standard Windows PC, Mac, or Chromebook. It also works through mobile browsers running on Android and iOS smartphones and tablets. And because it is also a PDM platform, it also offers integrated version control and release management, which ensures users are always working on the latest design data. That may not sound particularly revolutionary to those of us who have enjoyed these features in modern office suites, but it is not a trivial upgrade for most CAD users.

Like any platform shift, making such a move can represent some challenges, especially if an organization has a long legacy of using certain apps. But like tearing a bandaid off, once they’ve done it, they begin to see the opportunities inherent in the new technology.

Arch Platform Technologies
I read about this company in a recent Variety story, and this week it officially launched its platform: a cloud-based infrastructure for visual effects companies. The Arch platform lets companies “set up secure workstations, render farms and storage and workflow management without having to rely on machine rooms.”

Arch’s well-timed product launch has drawn the attention of studios that are grappling with the issue of graphics artists stuck working from home. Typically these employees work in studios that house high-end workstations as well as high-cost render farms that utilize a great deal of power and require a ton of cooling. Shifting these workloads to the cloud means an organization can accommodate employees working from anywhere with a good internet connection.

And there are some critical long-term benefits to leveraging a cloud-based system for visual effects, too. Namely, organizations can eliminate the substantial up-front capital expense of buying new hardware to take on a new job, spreading out the cost over time as they pay a per-month service fee. Another added benefit: Studios can put visual effects employees in places where they can maximize tax incentives.

Shifting workloads to the cloud is hardly a new phenomenon, so it is interesting to watch industries and higher education institutions that have dragged their feet on these types of advancements moving so quickly to embrace them in times of need. Now that many have made the shift under duress, I suspect many will be happy to continue using them once the dust settles, which could have notable ramifications for some hardware categories going forward.