Recently I've been spending a lot of time learning more about computer aided design and drafting. I've been using FreeCAD for many of these tasks. FreeCAD happens to be an absolutely brutal piece of software to learn, I'm quite experienced with computer software in general and typically I'm a fast learner when it comes to these things. For many years I used to leverage these skills as a consultant. FreeCAD is very powerful and from a cashflow point of view the lack of licensing fees is very appealing. Despite these upsides FreeCAD is so frustrating that many times I've asked myself if it was worth choosing it over the other alternatives on the market. Today however reminded me of one of the most important reasons why I'm using FreeCAD and why I'm likely to stay with that choice.
Optus, a major internet service provider in Australia, had a major outage. This was the largest phone outage in Australian history with 10 millions customers being out of service. Internet connectivity to many was down as well. Optus landline services were not able to place calls to emergency services. Emergency calls on mobile cellular devices were able to keep working because the cellular systems are able to place emergency calls via other operators. Meanwhile while this catastrophic level telecommunications outage was going on my work was completely unhindered, I only heard about what was happening from someone else a few hours after it started because they were unable to access an internet service that they needed.
What does this have with CAD software you may be asking?
Many of the CAD software options currently on the market are completely cloud based offerings. Some don't even offer local software that you can download at all. Some are like OnShape where the only way you can edit your projects is in the browser and your files are all stored on the cloud too. The lack of ability to install this software is sold as a benefit by the vendor. If you choose software like this, when the internet goes down you suddenly have completely lost your ability to work.
This outage makes the counter party risks of cloud-only software exceedingly clear. Generally speaking the internet infrastructure has been quite solid, even despite the people who put in the work that enables the internet to run being massively underappreciated. Like many critical infrastructure services in the modern world we have got to a point where they run smoothly enough often enough that people forget that there are other people that have to work full time to maintain these services. Think about things like the water supply, there's a lot of people who work tirelessly to ensure that water supply is maintained in various places in the world. Its easy to forget about this effort if someone else does it for you, but as soon as the water stops running out of the taps you get a harsh reminder of why this infrastructure work matters. People in countries like Australia don't think about power outages because the grid here is good enough to not have a lot of outages. Nobody in South Africa would take the availability of electricity for granted because the grid is in such a state of disrepair that outages are common. Society unfortunately is punishing the people who work on critical infrastructure by offering them less money than their work deserves and also by giving them low status. In an increasingly complex and technical world the people who can operate the critical infrastructure are skilled professionals. These people not only have to work hard they often need to be very good at what they are doing. Hard working skilled professionals have multiple options for where they can work, so if society signals that working on infrastructure isn't valued by way of not paying much for infrastructure work we shouldn't be surprised when the best talent stops working on critical infrastructure. In many parts of the world this dynamic is very obviously playing out and infrastructure reliability is getting worse over time as a result.
These days many companies have exposed themselves to massive risks by purchasing cloud only software that is critical to the operations of their businesses. This means that any internet outage will threaten to completely shut down a business. It also means that any outage from the software supplier, for any reason, will also massively impact productivity.
Despite all these risks many companies go with the cloud only software choices anyway due to ignorance, greed or other business reasons. In many cases the reason businesses went with cloud only options was to be able to fire their internal systems administration and operations staff. This might save some money in the short term but if everyone does this we will have no economy left at the end of it all. It is possible to trade off reliability for money in the short term but there comes a tipping point where nothing works anymore. Too often we see short term "wins" in "efficiency" that are really just stealing from the future to cash out in the present. Stealing from the future is unfortunately very much in vogue right now in many business cultures and is often called "optimization". Having some sort of on-premise option is a powerful backup plan. With the rise of things like open source software combined with vastly more powerful computational power per dollar spent these backup plans are often far cheaper to run than they used to be.