Infinite Computing: Bah, Humbug!

At Autodesk University, Autodesk CEO Carl Bass introduced the term “Infinite Computing” in an attempt to define Autodesk’s perspective on “the cloud” from a unique angle. I think the term is a brilliant and effective use of terminology because it focuses an otherwise nebulous concept and it radiates a sense of real and immediate purpose.

Infinite computing is not really infinite, of course, and it’s certainly not infinitely accessible. However the metaphor is apt, because like the physical universe, as long as the virtual universe keeps expanding it is essentially infinite. [I can’t resist having some fun and taking the analogy a little bit further: at some point, Moore’s law will encounter relativistic effects, and we’ll realize that every transistor warps the virtual space-time continuum in proportion to the square of its clock speed.]

So why am I bearish on the prospect of infinite computing?

Let’s say you buy a computer with multiple processors for, say, AutoCAD. Two processors can produce a nice performance boost, because AutoCAD can utilize 100% of one processor while the operating system uses the other. But what happens if you quadruple your capacity to eight processors? Unless you’re running independent programs that can use the extra processors, they offer very little benefit and are essentially wasted.

The moral of the story is this: an infinite computer is ineffective and inefficient unless it has an infinite number of simultaneous tasks to perform. It costs computing power to manage parallel tasks, so the practical limitations of “infinite” computing make it obviously unrealistic for all but highly specialized tasks. Even if we give it a more accurate name like “massively parallel computing“, such a system is hardly “sustainable” (to use another modern term of art) due to the inherent inefficiencies.

A compromise is necessary. There are new ways to look at old problems that enable a more parallel approach to finding solutions, and I have no doubt that many engineering problems can be restated in a way that makes them amenable to parallel processing solutions — but that’s hardly a revolutionary concept, and it certainly does not require an infinite computer for its implementation.

In the final analysis, “the cloud” is going to be about individuals connecting to each other and to their data seamlessly and in a location-agnostic way, and the “infinite computer” will be what they use to do it. Nothing more, nothing less.

Deelip Menezes Predicts a Cloudy Future

I had the good fortune of hearing Deelip Menezes deliver the keynote address at the Bricsys 2010 Conference in person. If you missed it, check out the video now at the Bricsys web site. The question and answer session after the speech is an excellent harbinger of the discussions to come if Deelip is correct in his prediction about CAD on the cloud.

Bricsys 2010 Developer Conference Post Mortem

I am back home after a whirlwind trip to the Bricsys 2010 Conference. I’m very happy to be back to Ohio food and my own bed. It was a great experience and well worth the trouble.

I’ve written before (and here) about the problem with food at conferences, and this one was no different. Unfortunately, there are no Burger Kings in Belgium, so the problem was compounded. I was excited when I saw a restaurant touting “American Food”, unfortunately it was “American Food as Europeans Imagine It”, which is not American food at all.

The hotel was, well, let’s just say you got that genuine experience of living in the past. Not quite the stone age past, but clearly before the age of modern locks and clocks — and well before air conditioning was invented. To make matters worse, housekeeping did not replace the provided shampoo and soap, so I had to make do with no soap on day 2 of the conference. The concert hall where the conference was held was also not air conditioned, which just compounded the problem — and certainly contributed to the dispersement of attendees from initially a small intimate group on day 1 to most of us sitting in the galleries by ourselves by the end of day 2.

The good news is that all the suffering was worthwhile. Bricsys was very accomodating, and it was a pleasure to meet modern day Robin Hood and Bricsys CEO Erik de Keyser and his merry band of men. Deelip Menezes’ keynote address about the future (cloud) of CAD (cloud) was (cloud) excellent, and the discussion that followed turned into a 12 round bout that Deelip played to a draw. Well done, Deelip, well done. I’m sure the fight will continue virtually, so take heed, and stay out of the line of fire.

I learned that Bricsys has made an impressive investment of time and resources into a foundation upon which to build a “DWG CAD” business. This is no longer about who can take on Autodesk. Autodesk conceded the AutoCAD (or “DWG”) market with their push toward subscription (aka “maintenance”), annual release cycles, and artificially high pricing on their platform technologies. There are literally dozens of companies trying to capture that market: products like ZWCAD and GstarCAD from China are hot on the heels of Bricscad. This is about who will emerge to control the market that Autodesk abandoned, and to some extent about how Autodesk will respond.

Bricscad is currently the clear leader among DWG CAD companies in terms of technical capabilities, but at least to date, it’s mostly AutoCAD application developers that recognize this (because of Bricsys’ very successful effort to make their BRX API source code compatible with ObjectARX). The question is whether they can convince consumers that Bricscad is the best choice. I think we will be a long way toward answering that question by this time next year, and of course the answer will be critically important to the DWG CAD market. I think it was shrewd of Bricsys to invite thought leaders like Deelip to this conference, but that is only a first step. Still, the very fact that I am writing and Deelip is blogging and tweeting about Bricscad is an important milestone on the road to respect.

[Full Disclosure: Bricsys paid for all my travel and conference expenses.]

The Software Limbo

Bruce Schneier argues that data is the pollution of the information age, and “just as 100 years ago people ignored pollution in our rush to build the Industrial Age, today we’re ignoring data in our rush to build the Information Age.”

Software is still surfing the wave of technology revolution. In the tug-of-war between producers and consumers, the producers are still pulling the rope and consumers are just hanging on.

Just as the coal mines, steel mills, and sweat shops of the burgeoning industrial age led to organized labor and labor laws, the consumers of the information age will eventually need to come to grips with the predatory practices of greedy software barons through collective bargaining and regulation.

You’ve all heard the old software vs. car argument, right? Is buying software like buying a car? Or is it like leasing a car? Or are cars just a bad analogy, because software isn’t like cars at all?

Is software really different, or have we just been conditioned to believe that it’s different?

The problem is that we’re still coming to terms with software, both legally and morally. Software companies have had a clear advantage in this information age frontier, and they have used their advantage to mold the software model to their liking. The software industry has successfully convinced us that software is licensed, not sold, and that because it is licensed, the old rules don’t apply.

Indeed, it seems like software license agreements have been around forever. We’ve accepted them, adapted to them, and basically ignored them. In the meantime, software companies have added more restrictions to their license agreements, lobbied legislators to create new laws that protect the restrictions, and quietly begun building case law in support of the software license regime.

This is the software limbo. How low can we go? When will the laborers of the information age unite and say “enough is enough”?

Ed Foster: Loss Of A Legend

InfoWorld columnist and legendary consumer advocate Ed Foster died over the weekend. Ed was a tireless crusader for consumer rights in the digital age, and he will certainly be missed. For many years Ed has authored GripeLine, where he called companies and politicians to task for abusive anti-consumer practices.

I’ve written before about how Ed exposed and publicised shamefully lopsided software license agreements, including Autodesk’s and Adobe’s. Recently, Ed commented about the May, 2008 Vernor decision (see my CAD/Court web site for more information about the Vernor case).

It will be no easy task to fill Ed’s shoes. We can be certain, though, that his work must go on.