Alex Bausk on engineering and unrelated learnings

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Project Storm, dry Storm

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This September, Autodesk (namely, its experimental development division called Autodesk Labs) presented a new cloud-based tool for the structural analysis discipline, called Project Storm.

Project Storm is described as a web-based service application that plugs into Revit Structure, Autodesk’s flagship structural modeling package, and implements sending the software-generated model for analysis on a remote server. Results then can be viewed both via web report and also imported directly into the Revit model.

This is, by now, as close as we can get to cloud computing in structural engineering. Any materials available online related to Project Storm are limited to this video where the tool’s features are described. It couldn’t go without some BIM hype on “informed decision making earlier in the process”. The usual “decision making” that FE analysis is able to facilitate is plain and simple: specifying the structure’s stressed state in order to do code checks and other postprocessing.

In this video, a member of the Autodesk’s Polish team (the one that supports Autodesk’s structural analysis product, Robot), Tamas Fudala, explains apparent features of Project Storm, including the now seemingly mandatory hype lexicon on BIM workflow integration and “informed decision-making at early design stages”.

I am not aware of any “informed decision-making” that has anything to do with design model analysis, though. Structural design does.

Now a whole pack of Autodesk-affiliated or otherwise enthusiastic bloggers have joined the Storm development news, most of them working within BIM modeling. Not a very far cry from structural analysis (an instrument of which Project Storm is meant to be), but still.

BIM & Beam: Project Storm for Revit Structure – available now on Labs!

Reviteer: Project Storm for Revit Structure

BIM Apps: Project Storm Kick-Starts Structural Analysis in the Cloud

Let me take my own humble view at Project Storm.

1. Setup.

Project Storm setup unpacks smoothly from a single executable archive pretty much like any other Autodesk software.

Since the product is, for reasons unknown, available only in selected countries, I had to use some workarounds to get the distributive.

2. Look and feel.

Storm installs into Revit Structure environment as an additional button in the Structural Analysis tab.

Storm middleware also hangs out in the system tray, entertaining the user with utterly meaningless popups.

Since no tracs of Storm installed files were found on hard drive, I got curious about its actual contents. Unpacking the MSI install file revealed the internal package structure like this:

All the interesting stuff is in the dynamic libraries folder.

What do we see here? Lots of ready-to-go modular interfaces that include Amazon (Cloud?) stuff, archiving and logging libraries and the Project Storm’s core: the Stratus cloud engine developed by Stepheson&Turner  for Autodesk.

The Stratus engine interface is essentially the main part of Project Storm. How it is used anyway, since Storm is supposed to do structural analysis over a cloud service, and what is the back-end analysis engine? This is where things get funny and sad both at the same time.

3. Storm’s Internal Mechanics

I hit the Analysis button and this laconic form ensues. Options for analysis settings are, to put it short, appalling. The only interesting thing here is Robot Structural Analysis being mentioned. This is basically the only time that the Robot software was ever mentioned in any of the Project Storm promotion materials.

Every numeric structural analysis requires a tested and reliable solver as its middle-mount engine between pre-processing (putting up the structural model) and post-processing (deriving meaningful results from the stress-strain field and evaluating performance criteria). Good tools of these type vary from humble works of single individuals to proprietary monsters like NASTRAN or ANSYS.

Project Storm has nothing to do with any of these. As the analysis form has been shy to admit, the real software behind the Project Storm interface is another Autodesk product, Robot Structural Analysis (aka ARSA). Anyone with rudimentary ARSA experience will immediately recognize it behind this example Storm output, formatted in HTML:

Pictured: Results report that Autodesk Storm produces as it concludes the analysis. The image and analysis data is essentially a typical, re-formatted ARSA results report.

This actually concludes my analysis of Project Storm capabilities. Project Storm is nothing more than a web envelope for our good old ARSA package. It is basically the same “Robot link” that reviteers have already had for quite a long time but without the need to have Robot Structural Analysis installation handy, and without the need to know anything about the real structural analysis and its many peculiarities whatsoever. All it does is it makes use of the ready-made cloud interface to upload the structural model to an application server that has an instance of ARSA running under default settings. ARSA does all the real work and bounces the results back to be presented as a HTML report or plotted over the Revit model. No need to mention the actual engine in any of the news. Neat and tidy.

4. Practicality.

Of course it was fun to explore the largest AEC software vendor’s cloud plans using the example of Project Storm. But the software’s practical use is extremely tiny, to the point of no use at all. You may surely forfeit all hope to do anything with it that would even remotely be relevant to all the “cloud analysis” hype in videos, intros and announcements.

I was unable to make any use of Storm with the sample models that come packed with Revit Structure and Robot Structural Analysis. To feed these default, Autodesk-made models to Storm, some really disruptive editing had to be made that involved deleting whole parts of the model, rendering it practically useless, only able to demonstrate how the process is meant to work.

Analysis speed, to a surprise, isn’t looking any good compared to desktop. The Storm’s cloud web analysis is extremely slow, likely because the server would yield a tiny fraction of its resources to your particular task. And with Storm, we are not getting to do any dynamics tasks where all the real big resource spending is.

In other words, the cloud speed and resource claim in case of Project Storm is no more than a standard cloud computing mantra.

(Pictured: cloud calculations took around four minutes for this simple model, compared to fraction of a second using desktop. )

(Pictured: in case of Project Storm and cloud analysis, you won’t get any close to the immense amounts of information that are emdemic to structural analysis.)

5. Conclusion.

Is put short.

Project Storm is, as it comes out, a technology demo only. It would be unwise to expect it to be able to do any real work.

And the Autodesk Labs site should have had the guts to admit that this is just a web port of the Revit-to-Robot link that would not allow to do any preprocessing and parameters settings of the structural analysis process, not to mention the “increased productivity” hype

On the other hand, the good thing is that this tools allows Revit users who do not possess any analysis experience to exploit the immense capabilities of a FEA solver engine. Oh wait… is it really a good thing, giving an immensely complex tool that is meant to solve strength, stability and structural performance issues, which are often issues of life and death, to untrained folks and make it seem like something easy? Perphaps I’d use the word “profanation” instead. Or “sacrilege”, depending on how hell-bent you are on structural engineering.

What about the further developments prospects, can we make any speculations about this?

Some guys from Poland (where Autodesk Robot Structural Analysis is developed and has been very popular) are celebrating ARSA’s success in getting into this Project Storm stuff, using words like “how tables have turned, it’s clear who is now the leader in Autodesk AEC”. I think they are experiencing an onset of dangerous furor. As you see, the “Analysis” button in Revit is now reserved not for ARSA, but for the cloud:

Autodesk’s cloud initiative is not promoting ARSA in any way. It is the other way round: using the cloud layer as virtualization tool, they will try to incorporate Robot functions into Revit. With Autodesk apparently increased cloud financing, the cloud computing will use ARSA capabilities without the need to promote ARSA brand.

In this scenario, the separate workplace for Autodesk Robot Structural Analysis package will have all the chances to be expelled from users’ desktops, simultaneously opening a way for unqualified Revit modelers and designers to use it without appropriate expertise.

Consequences for the structural analysis discipline are hardly positive.''

Written by Alexander Bausk

November 4, 2011 at 1:38 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

11 Responses

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  1. Thank you for your comments. Feedback is the reason we conduct technology previews.

    Scott Sheppard

    November 4, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    • Hi Scott,
      I have a long history of constructive flaming with our local Autodesk branch, so you really are welcome, and thanks for reading.

      Your software is usually positively awesome and there is no need to reiterate it: that is PR’s job.
      But the current trend in BIM and especially structures (read Robot) is disturbing. There are so many possibilitites to screw up. And the last 3 versions of Robot raise many questions. I think I will try to elaborate on this topic constructively.

      Alexander Bausk

      November 4, 2011 at 4:32 pm

  2. This is another example of Autodesk’s dangerous road to allowing “anyone” do FEA-type analysis. As has been stated by others elsewhere, structural analysis belongs in the hand of experts; as a former engineer, I shudder to think about collapsing buildings designed by “anyone.” There is just too much liability at stake, something Autodesk does not fathom through its “we cannot be held responsible for anything our software might do or not do” license terms.

    ralphg

    November 4, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    • Ralph,

      my issue with Autodesk structural policies is that I am a full-time Robot user and I see that a lot is being done in the fields of BIM, marketing, and integration (latter really exacerbating vendor lock-in), but nothing in improving the FEA solver. For instance, a grave error in response spectra calculations has persisted in a major release (2012 and then on through SP1 and SP2) despite being registered in bug tracker.

      Again, no offense intended. I personally think that supporting science-intensive software is within Autodesk’s current R&D capabilities. But it is not receiving any attention on the strategical level. It other words, they don’t want to dispatch any real resources to it.

      Alexander Bausk

      November 5, 2011 at 10:30 am

  3. Great article, thank you.
    I think there are two different issues here: the first is the inflated hype surrounding cloud solutions for BIM (aka BIM Cloud Wash)….Sadly, we’ll all have to endure their limitations (and countless inflated promises by developers/resellers) for a while before cloud solutions can actually deliver new efficiencies and functionalities (as they are just starting to do for PLM).

    The second is how these ‘solvers’ lower the bar of experience needed to perform specialized analysis. This is not a problem in itself and we shouldn’t be too nervous about it. These solvers cannot replace the knowledge and experience of engineers but are more likely to make their job a bit less tedious.

    Bilal Succar

    November 8, 2011 at 4:23 am

    • Great article Alex, nice to know about these features from an experienced engineer and software user. And I totally agree with Bilal in its 2nd paragraph. The approach of analysis to unexperienced professionals does not mean a lack of security but an increasing of discomfort in engineer’s work.

      Anonymous

      December 29, 2011 at 11:29 am

      • +1. Increasing discomfort, plus, you simply cannot replace the wider minded/understanding of the experienced engineer. That goes for whatever field really.

        Andrew

        July 23, 2013 at 3:15 pm

  4. [...] potential appears to lie. Fortunately, Alex Bausk is qualified, so it was interesting to read his review of Autodesk’s Project Storm [...]

  5. [...] Project Storm, dry Storm (bausk.wordpress.com) Share this:EmailTwitterFacebookTumblrPrintDiggLinkedInStumbleUponRedditLike this:BeğenBe the first to like this post. Etiketler:Arkadaş, özet, dünya, genç, iğrenç, Kaos, karman çorman, kelime, kpps, Mal, rencide Comments RSS feed [...]

  6. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Great article on current issues with Robot

    tonton2730

    January 11, 2013 at 12:56 am

  7. [...] releasing and trialing beta versions of software that can perform analysis from cloud servers (see this post).  The problem is that – as eluded to in the linked blog – without adequate [...]

    Engineering Blues, part 4 |

    January 13, 2013 at 4:19 pm


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