Lately there’s been alot of talk about the cloud. Apple has the iCloud, Microsoft has a cloud, and everybody seems to be going to the cloud. But what does that mean? And how is it useful to an engineer?
I’ll start with the explanations. Before the widespread use of the internet, I.T. textbooks generally dealt with the local network, and illustrations of networks usually drew the connection to the outside world with a cloud.
This cloud simply represented the internet, and eventually, the internet became known as the cloud. It’s really that simple. The cloud is just the internet. And it didn’t take long before I.T. people began looking at the cloud in their illustrations and figuring out how to make it work for them.
You see, when your browser requests a web site it receives some text and images in a form called hypertext markup language (HTML). But the browser can also send information with the request (like a username and password) and the server can respond by customizing the HTML. This takes place with a server side scripting language. Taking this to an advanced level, any software of any kind can be re-programmed to run inside a web browser, by simply pointing the browser to a specific address.
Therefore, cloud based software is internet based and runs inside your web browser. You don’t go to a store to buy it, rather it’s available on the internet at a certain web site address, usually for a monthly fee. The technology for this has always existed (since the Netscape Navigator browser in the late ‘90’s) but the time it took for programmers to get good at it, companies to invest in developing for it, and users to adopt it has taken us until now.
The major software products are now cloud based. Several years ago, Google introduced “Google Docs” which is similar to Microsoft Office but in the cloud (accessible from docs.google.com). Microsoft responded with Office 365 which they advertised worldwide with their familiar “to the cloud” ads. With Office 365, Microsoft has actually taken the entire Office product line and made it run inside your browser.
So what does the cloud mean for you, the average professional engineer?
You can sign up for Google Docs or Microsoft Office 365, but specialty software is generally not found in the cloud yet apart from some early groundbreakers. However, you should keep your eyes open for the software that you use as it might be migrating to the cloud soon. The benefits are vast, and particularly striking for specialty software.
- It’s always there, always on, and always accessible. If you’ve gone to a conference, or are using someone else’s computer, or want to load it up on your smart phone or tablet, you can do it anytime. (Do you go to jobsites, or clients?)
- There are no license issues to deal with. Your username and password apply to you, and you can run the software anytime, from anywhere. We know how onerous license agreements are for specialty software.
- You always get the latest version.
- You can pay by the unit, and only for what you need. For example, cloud based project management software can allow you to pay by the project, thus saving money over traditional project management software if you only have a few projects.
- For managers, there are effectively no more I.T. costs involved with managing software. I’m not asking you to fire the I.T. guy that manages your software, but you probably could if all your software was in the cloud.
Do you enjoy dealing with salespeople and having monthly or yearly subscription agreements handed to you before you can get your software? This is the unfortunate reality with engineering software, but the cloud is threatening to get rid of this vendor-centric practice.
Normally, you sign up on the internet and use the product right away, with no subscription agreement or obligation to spend any more money in any one month or twelve month period (unless you sign up for a monthly plan, which you can cancel anytime). This is a fantastic benefit, as most engineering software requires hours of consideration by several managers before spending the money. Thus the cloud can bring software purchases back into the hands of the engineers who use it, where it should be.
The cloud is revolutionizing engineering software. Although currently the domain of the early adopters, it is catching on quickly and you should be aware of the trend. ProjectEngineer (www.projectengineer.net) is an engineering project management software product from Rivergreen Software, with features like file storage, photo galleries, project forums, and more.