Professional-quality, completely cloud-based creative apps will be a reality in 2014. We speak to Adobe, AMD, Autodesk, Nvidia – and creatives – to discover if the tools will live up to the hype.

Chances are you already rely on cloud-based services for a notable amount of your professional work, but your creative applications live firmly on your computer. However, this might be about to change as a new generation of tools let you run your favourite apps remotely.

Cloud-based services are firmly part of our day-to-day lives. Many of us use Dropbox (or similar services) for simple sharing or Evernote for organising notes, sketches and musings and – depending on the scale of our workplaces – everything from online invoicing services to cloud-based render farms to hosting our own services on Amazon S3 environments.

But our creative applications are purely that. The current common thinking is that the level of complexity to the tasks that you’re trying to achieve with them means that your apps have to live on your desktop. It may be called the Creative Cloud , but all you’re sharing, storing and accessing in the cloud are your settings, fonts and a backup of your project files.

However due to the efforts of software vendors, GPU manufacturers and independent developers last year, 2014 might see cloud-based graphics services go mainstream. The idea being that if Sony can stream the PS3 version of The Last of Us direct to your TV as you play, creative firms should be able to ‘stream’ Photoshop’s interface as you create. Or Maya’s. Or Nuke’s.

Autodesk’s Nick Manning certainly thinks so. He reveals that CAD customers have already submitted millions of cloud renderings of AutoCAD projects via the browser-based Autodesk 360 tool, since the official launch last January.

“This year cloud adoption is set to soar even higher, with CG artists, animators and design professionals looking to update their offering and tap into the benefits that cloud technology offers,” he adds.

Autodesk in the cloud

Nick points out Autodesk's Project Pinocchio character generator, which provides users with a 'web-based laboratory' where they can create fully-rigged custom 3D characters, or 123D Catch, a free app for iOS and Android , which allows users to take photos of an object from all angles, have them meshed together into a 3D model. Both can then be downloaded for use in workstation tools like Maya or 3ds Max.

“The power of the cloud means users can upload their creations to a community, discuss hints and tips with other users and access their designs from any location across a range of devices,” he says. “Also, using the cloud for rendering means designers can take advantage of virtually infinite computing power to create high-resolution images in a fraction of the time it would take on a desktop, freeing up valuable resources.”

One such creative is David Houston from Soluis.

“As a 3D artist it is necessary to have a large render farm at my resource for animation production, but as a small business the setup costs for this would be unfeasible,” he says.“Cloud rendering removes the heavy costs and maintenance fees, making my workflow very streamlined and in most cases painless.”

Some companies have tried a more hybrid path. As well as the web, mobile and (limited, for now) desktop sync capabilities of its Creative Cloud tools, Adobe offers the Anywhere for Video 'on-premise' cloud service, which takes a slightly different path from browser-based solutions like Autodesk 360. Anywhere uses desktop-based interfaces that access server-based media and processing, which is designed to offer the best of both desktop apps and cloud services – plus the interfaces work just like the desktop applications whose function they replicate.

Adobe’s Bill Roberts explains that “the Anywhere server runs identical code to the desktop versions of Premiere Pro, After Effects and Prelude and looks identical to the user. We’ve seen that if the architecture that does the editing in the cloud is not identical to the desktop experience, you end up with a subset of functions only available to users of the desktop system, and you are faced with a re-education challenge for users of the 'web tools’."

This doesn’t prevent new tools from being developed that do different things to the standard apps we’re used to though.

“We can also expose new UI experiences for new users, such as our iPad version for non-creative review without any preparation,” says Bill.

Photoshop in the browser

Some companies see these hybrid desktop/cloud apps as just a stepping stone, and want to offer full creative toolsets through the browser

The Mainframe2 project, demonstrated late last year, is powered by Nvidia's GRID technology and Amazon Web Services and offers to host full versions of tools like Photoshop on its servers, but running in your HTML5-enabled browser. It will offer native clients on Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android, while users can access Dropbox or other cloud storage as a 'hard drive’.

“GRID-based workflows enable our customers to have the content centralised in one place while providing the user with the graphics performance they require,” says Greg Estes from Nvidia. “Obviously some work – for example doing colour correction on 8K files – is best done with high-end professional workstations on-premises, but other workflows will increasingly rely on desktop virtualisation technologies to provide employees with anytime access to computing resources. This has only been possible in the last year.”

Nvidia's GRID technology is designed to push processing power from workstations back to servers

AMD’s Robert Jamieson says the current online access to cloud-based professional tools has democratised digital content and media production across all content creators. “Access is universal, 24/7 and for as long or short as the user wants,” he says. “The flexibility and freedom of not being held captive by physical media, a clock or location is very liberating.”

Nick Manning points out that Autodesk announced late last year its work with Nvidia and Amazon towards providing designers with 3D design tools in a browser.

“We're giving access to powerful 3D modelling from anywhere, anytime, and any device,” he explains. This means they will be able to work flexibly without compromising on power, performance or functionality.”

Cloud of suspicion

However many designers we asked had no intention of exploring the cloud yet, so they might take some convincing.

“It's not something we've really delved into,” says Damien Smith of content design and development studio ISO. “No doubt it's the future, but getting stuff pushed around the studio fast enough via a dedicated fibre network and rendering to a monster SAN is normally painful enough. The thought of trying to do it all remotely would give me cold sweats.”

Other concerns from ISO are based on data security and the fact that network infrastructure is often less than perfect outside of major cities like London.

David Houston is in the opposite camp.

“The benefits of cloud computing for me heavily outweigh any form of negative press it has received as a practical utility,” he says. “Cloud computing is here to stay and in terms of a customisable workflow there is no going back.The ability to use any piece of software, anywhere in the world, from almost any machine is unparalleled, not to mention a saving in cost with the introduction of pay as you go options.”  

However he adds: “I think the only drawback of cloud computing is the awareness that not all systems are 100 percent stable. If something goes wrong in your own studio you have the ability to solve the problem. If it happens on a cloud, it is completely out of your control.”

AMD's Rob is aware of the fears. “The catch to all of this can be in the cost, quality and choice of the tools,” he says. “As the cloud-based provider landscape grows, knowing what and who is behind the creative cloud offering becomes critical.”

Visual effects supervisor and director Hasraf Dulull sees both sides of the argument.  

“I love the idea of a cloud-based workflow,” he says. “I'm already doing that with Adobe Creative Cloud, where I'm not locked to one machine to run my Adobe CC tools – it even saves my layout and preferences to the cloud. I use things like Dropbox to sync to ensure version control is up to date when working with assets created by teams globally.

“But I also feel we still haven’t caught up with high speed internet connections to allow this to be as realtime as possible, which at the end of the day is important when working in a client environment where results need to be on screen fast.”

How realistic are pro-grade creative cloud services?

Mainframe2 has mightily impressed users of its demo and claims the response time for its application service will never exceed a latency of 50ms, while a 3Mps connection will deliver 60 frames per second. The company also claims that everything gets backed up all the time.

Adobe's Anywhere system aims to address the bandwidth issue by generating an optimised viewing stream matched in quality to your connection speed, when scrubbing or reviewing video.

Though Anywhere is being aimed at large-scale facilities, Adobe’s Bill reveals that Adobe is currently looking at scaling the solution to to meet the demand from smaller agencies and post facilities. He also feels that for cloud services in general, there will be less focus going forward on where the services are hosted, whether that's on-premise, on Amazon or elsewhere, and more of a focus on what they do.

“Public and private cloud-based services can now offer capabilities simply not possible even six months ago” says Greg Estes. “The creative community has never had more power and flexibility available to them.  That’s very exciting for large studios, small shops and independent artists alike.”