Editor’s Note: Please welcome our new columnist, Mark J. Scacco, P.E., who will contribute “Leveraging Technology,” a monthly column for civil engineering leaders that will examine how current and emerging technologies are impacting the business of civil engineering.

What is cloud computing? For several years now, software and Internet companies have been offering various services over the Web to a wide range of industries. These services have many different names, including: hosted services, subscription services, software-as-a-service (SaaS) and so on. Recently, “cloud computing” has emerged as an all-encompassing moniker for these services and more. (The “cloud” in cloud-computing is derived from the cloud-like symbol network administrators and architects use to represent the Internet) Why should you care about this? Because you could be improving your profits or reducing costs by using cloud-based applications and services.

How does it work and what can I do in the cloud?
In the broadest sense, cloud applications and services are Internet-based applications hosted and maintained on the service providers’ servers at their physical location and delivered to customers via the Internet. Many of the applications are designed to replace desktop software that has traditionally been installed on each workstation and maintained by internal IT staff.

Most cloud-based applications initially addressed business tasks, such as email, word processing and spreadsheets. Examples of these services include Google Apps which offers word processing, spreadsheets, presentation software, email, calendar, and more in direct competition to traditional suites like Microsoft Office. Moving beyond these standard tools, more advanced business tools have emerged, including customer relationship management and accounting services from the likes of Salesforce.com and NetSuite.com. These applications offer comprehensive, Web-based solutions to manage customers, accounts, projects, invoicing and payroll. Meeting and collaboration software such as GoToMeeting, Microsoft Live Meeting, and Adobe Connect facilitate meetings, remote learning, and technical support via the cloud.

CAD and 3D Modeling in the Cloud
Most organizations in the AEC industry purchase CAD software and install it on individual workstations. The complexities of these programs demand a high-end computer to crunch through the data and display the results in precise detail. However, just as business applications have migrated to the cloud, so too are CAD and 3D modeling tools. As broadband Internet access has become more widespread, the types of applications that are effectively hosted in the cloud have expanded to include engineering design and visualization tools from several manufacturers.

Autodesk, Inc. has launched experimental versions of cloud-based design and collaboration tools. Project Butterfly is an online tool for editing, reviewing and collaborating on AutoCAD dwg files via a simple web browser. Users do not need to download any software. CAD files can be edited, reviewed and shared with the project team with a simple email link. The latest version of a design file is always available online, as well as previous versions. Group editing features allow for collaborative design meetings and the timeline tracking tool ensures that all changes are documented and tagged by user. Various user permissions let you control who has access to view, edit and or download the dwg files. Since this is still a “technology preview” it is still in the development stage and lacks many of the features included in desktop applications. However, it does point the way to a possible future of cloud based design.

While Butterfly is still gestating in the labs, SITEOPS from BLUERIDGE Analytics is in full flight. This Web-based saas application enables rapid site evaluations and fast "what-if" scenarios related to site layout, grading, and piping. The engineer submits the site layout and some basic design parameters to the SITEOPS servers which then iterate through millions of possible scenarios to optimize the design. The results are the identification of layout improvements and savings in earthwork and grading costs.

Improving the bottom line
So how can cloud-computing help improve profits and cuts costs? First, as a service, users typically only pay for what they need, usually on a subscription basis. As staff fluctuates, subscriptions can be added or removed. Since the software is hosted on the providers’ servers, software updates are their responsibility and often occur automatically, ensuring user access to the latest version. Also, as the service vendor’s servers are providing the computing horsepower, costs of purchasing, maintaining and upgrading in-house workstations plummets. The financial benefits extend beyond the basics of software and hardware purchases too.

The ability to collaborate on CAD or contract document files in real-time online with the project team changes the way meetings and decisions can be made. Intrusive, hard-to-schedule, in-person meetings can be replaced with short online collaboration sessions that can start and end as easily as a telephone call. With cloud-hosted project files within reach of any Internet-connected computer, team members can work from almost anywhere, can download and print only the relevant sections of plan sets and can share field notes and as-built information in nearly real time. Bottom line improvements resulting from cloud-based services are not something that will happen but rather are happening now. Is your organization realizing these benefits? Drop me an email and let me know your thoughts.

Mark J. Scacco, P.E., is the president and founder of Engineered Efficiency Inc., a nationwide BIM and CAD training and consulting firm. He would appreciate your feedback at mark.scacco@eng-eff.com.