Friday, July 27, 2007

System Updates -- Is Frequent Better than Infrequent? (01mar97)

From March 1, 1997

Later this year, many A-E-C Automation Newsletter readers are going to be faced with an upgrade challenge as Autodesk moves from AutoCAD Release 13 to Release 14. Hopefully, this change will be a lot smoother than was the move from Release 12 to Release 13. In fact, more than two years later, a surprising number of people are still using Release 12, or even earlier versions of AutoCAD.

As many users can painfully testify, the move from 12 to 13 was complicated by a number of complex issues:

  • The basic data structure of AutoCAD changed, making new files incompatible with earlier versions of the software.
  • There were significant functional changes, some of which simply replaced an existing way of doing something with a new, and hopefully better, way of doing the same task.
  • Few third-party applications ran with 13 when it initially came out. Even most Autodesk packages and extensions such as ADE were not compatible.
  • Although not required, Autodesk strongly encouraged users to move from DOS to Windows at the same time they made the software upgrade.
  • In many cases, new hardware was needed to support the enhanced capabilities of 13, especially if the user also moved to Windows 3.1 and subsequently to Windows 95 or NT.

All of this was complicated by an excessive number of software errors, device incompatibilities and changes in product packaging and distribution. It took Autodesk four point releases and who knows how many patches to get it right. Today, AutoCAD Release 13c4 is a solid product and we hear far fewer complaints today than 12 to 18 months ago. The question is, do want to go through all this again or is there a better way?

From what we know today, Release 14 will not be as massive a change from Release 13 as 13 was from 12. But it is still a significant upgrade. Users will need to concern themselves with assurances that the new software is compatible with the particular operating system version they are using, that third-party and Autodesk applications will work with it, that other software, particularly Internet-related programs, are compatible, and how well Release 14 will exchange data with Release 13.

Short Product Cycles Vs. Long Product Cycles

In recent years, Autodesk has released new versions of AutoCAD on a fairly long cycle. This one will end up being two-and-a half years. Other application software vendors such as Parametric Technology and Intergraph work off of a firm six-month cycle, while Bentley Systems is moving toward updating software on a nearly continuous basis. Operating system upgrades are less predictable, especially in the case of Microsoft. We know Windows/97 is expected later this year, but when will there be a significant update to NT?

Our basic concern is whether long product update cycles or short cycles are better? Long cycles are usually more traumatic because more compatibility and training issues are involved. As a consequence, many users schedule these upgrades between projects. If they are deep into a major project, they will stick with an older version of the software until the project is complete. This is probably preferable to changing in mid-stream, particularly if a problem with the new software forces you to return to the older version.

Long cycle upgrades require careful planning, particularly if application software and operating systems are going to be changed at the same time. But once it is done, it is over with for a year or more, assuming that there are no lingering problems.

Short cycles break the pain up into smaller chunks that are often more bearable. Unfortunately, compatibility issues still need to be looked at each time you install new software. Sometimes, these problems are incredibly subtle and are not recognized until a program generates bad data. Other times it hits you right between the eyes and an application you depend upon, just does not work with a new operating system release or a new graphics system. Generally, the number of problems you will run into will be fewer and more manageable in a short cycle than in a long cycle.

New Techniques To Keep Users Up-To-Date

The newest move is for software vendors to simply post changes on a Website and enable authorized users to download them at their convenience. Autodesk has being doing this for some time as has Bentley Systems. Major changes still need to go through a formal verification process, but minor changes can be made available to users soon after they are completed.

Another approach, which is growing in popularity, is to distribute software maintenance information, technical support information, new training materials and even previews of new software on CD-ROM, usually on a quarterly basis. Bentley does this as part of its SELECT support program and Autodesk has just introduced a similar service called Autodesk VIP Subscription Program. Currently available on an annual subscription basis in the United States and Canada, the latter service initially covers AutoCAD and AutoCAD Map with prices starting at $295 per user for AutoCAD.

Some day, we may even see a situation where a vendor e-mails changes to customers and the software can be automatically installed on each desktop with little effort on the part of the user organization. This could be the next extension of current work being done to support plug-and-play hardware and software components. However, such software would have to be absolutely bullet-proof. This being the case, we are probably a few years away.

What’s Best Today?

Instinctively, at A-E-C Automation Newsletter, we like the concept of continuous software enhancements, but realize that any software change, no matter how trivial it appears on the surface, needs to be thoroughly tested before it is posted on the vendor’s Website. We also feel that continuous availability of software changes works best where the user organization is large enough that someone can be assigned the job of downloading the changes, testing them and then distributing the changes to all the people needing them in the design office.

Hopefully, Autodesk has learned from its Release 13 experience and will produce a more reliable and more thoroughly integrated solution this time around. Instead of c1, c2, etc. patches, we expect to see a more structured series of Release 14 enhancements distributed on a regular interval, one that users can plan around. The new VIP Subscription Service is a step in the right direction.