Do cloud-based simulation services mean you can ditch that expensive workstation?

People use computers for all kinds of purposes. The computer you have at home can do several things. You can surf the web, play video games and (unfortunately) get some work done. The kind of work most of us do comes down to typing documents or maybe fiddling with a few Excel spreadsheets. You can even create a bit of content like video editing.

The average modern home computer can do all of these things to some degree. Then there are dedicated workstation computers. Professional devices used for everything from professional sound recording to advanced scientific and engineering simulations.

On the high end, these desktop workstations can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Of course, they eventually pay for themselves through the work they do, but it can take a while – with significant upfront costs.

But there may now be an alternative way to access serious computing power: cloud computing.

What is cloud-based simulation?

Most of us already use cloud-based computing services on a daily basis. If you use gmailDropBox or Office 365, you can access remote compute resources. This form of cloud computing is known as: SaaS or Software as a service.

That’s one way cloud computing is offered. You can also rent time on the huge array of powerful computers that make up the cloud data centers. Then run the desired software.

Cloud-based simulations are available as SaaS offerings. Think of these as cloud versions of the software you may have been running on a high-performance engineering or scientific workstation. You can use a normal computer or mobile device to access the interface of that software.

You program your simulation or upload your data and then hundreds of processors spring into action for a short time to crack the numbers. Seconds or maybe minutes later the results of your simulation are available.

Examples of cloud-based simulations

Cloud-based simulation services are booming and it seems we hear about a new service every few months. While which service may be right for you is beyond the scope of this article, there are a few excellent examples that well demonstrate the variety and breadth of this new technology application.

SimScale, pictured above, is used by engineers, scientists, and designers. From a virtual wind tunnel to fluid dynamics and mechanical stress tests. You can do it all from a tablet, with their server farms doing all the heavy lifting.

AutoDesk offers cloud-based versions of its industry standard CAD software† CAD workstations are an important category of professional computers, but with a cloud solution, you don’t have to worry about an expensive workstation GPU, for example.

Both Ansys and rescale Offer HPC (high-performance computing) services via the cloud. It’s like renting your own supercomputer, as long as you need it for a specific task.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of the incredible computing power that could soon be available to almost everyone.

The benefits of a local workstation

Using a cloud-based simulation solution instead of your own local professional computer is not yet the best idea for everyone. Indeed, right now it’s actually best for just a few key types of professional users to make the leap to the cloud.

So why would you want to stick to a local workstation? The first major advantage of this approach is data privacy. If you use a third-party computer facility, your data has fallen out of your hands. So when working on something very sensitive, you need to be 100% sure that the security measures and privacy policy of the service provider are in place.

The other major advantage of the local workstation option is that you can run a vast selection of software on it. Workstations have been the dominant solution for decades. So most of the support is still there. The fact is that your niche professional software package may not be in the cloud yet.

The benefits of cloud simulation

When it comes to going the cloud simulation route, there’s a lot to be said for this new new method of solving tough problems with hot computer hardware.

For starters, cloud-based simulation doesn’t have a high upfront cost. You only pay for what you use or a fixed subscription that includes a certain consumption. Either way, costs can be minimized. Think of it as electricity. You flip a switch and are billed for the power you use.

When using local compute, you have to pay for all hardware, maintenance and upgrades while most of the time you don’t use the machine 100% and may need to deliver more than 100% at critical times.

Mobility is another big factor. Virtually any device with an internet connection and a modern web browser can use a cloud-based service. This means you don’t have to lug around a large workstation-class laptop or portable desktop solution. It’s pretty amazing that a technician on site can pull out an iPad and run simulations at will.

The cloud is not for everyone

There are of course also disadvantages. For example, the reliability of the service is completely in the hands of the service provider, which means that good service level agreements are essential. For individual users, this means that you have to take into account the inevitable outages. Even if a service has 99% uptime, it is shall go down at some point.

You also need some pretty solid internet bandwidth to move that data and trust that once in their hands the company will protect it. If you don’t mind this, it might be time to sign up on the dotted line instead of upgrading those workstations.

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