WHEN APPLE UNVEILED THEIR NEW M1 Ultra-based Mac Studio—a version of which features the M1 Max chip—the company showcased Vectorworks software as part of its benchmarking and its developer testimonials at the Apple keynote event. That was a first for the BIM/CAD global leader.
“They had listed us in the fall during their original M1 chip unveiling,” said Steve Johnson, Chief Technology Officer, Vectorworks, “but I don’t recall being featured before. It’s not like we have been chasing this, but it was really nice to get a bit of love there!”
Soon Vectorworks’ customers will feel double love thanks to the work the Maryland-headquartered software firm has put into its Apple Silicon efforts. Johnson characterizes the chip leadership Apple has unveiled as the “gift that keeps on giving.”
He says, “It’s not just Apple Silicon that is the gift that keeps on giving; it really is a meta thing for us here—part of our commitment to leveraging next-generation technologies that serve all customer hardware.”
Indeed, the Nemetschek subsidiary is leading the AEC CAD/BIM industry globally in leveraging foundational technology transformations. As noted in a recent report on semiconductor trends (see: Architosh, “Chip Technology, Geopolitics, and the CAD Industry,” 21 Jan 2022), the chip industry is going through landmark tidal shifts.¹
Apple has primarily caught the computer chip industry by surprise. And the same could be said about the ARM architecture vis-a-vis the Intel X86 architecture. But the team at Vectorworks led by Johnson has found itself at the forefront of this tidal shift due to two critical factors. The first factor is Vectorworks has been in a state of serious re-engineering for well over a decade, beginning with adopting the Parasolid modeling kernel, re-architecting the internal graphics pipeline (known as VGM), to recent re-architecture of its 3D scenes technology. The company is constantly looking far down the road and taking steps to plan for it.
It’s not just Apple Silicon that is the gift that keeps on giving; it really is a meta thing for us here—part of our commitment to leveraging next-generation technologies that serve all customer hardware.
The second factor is that Vectorworks has managed its internal software components strategy very well, picking the suitable third-party software toolkits that are already far down the road to support Apple’s ARM chips. The Parasolid modeling geometry engine is just one case in point.
And this strategy of balancing the long view with more immediate engineering needs has paid off in getting Vectorworks off the blocks faster than anyone else concerning Apple Silicon support. And beyond the Mac, this strategic planning has also benefitted Windows users as new upcoming graphics technology will be equally applicable to Windows users due to DirectX technology.
ARM and SoC Advantages
To be sure, though, Johnson points out that while the company dedicates equal engineering resources to both the Mac and Windows, some advantages are coming to just Apple.
ARM SoC chips are different than separate CPU and GPU chips working together. Apple’s M1 series chips share integrated memory. “There are advantages that are just not there on Windows, despite our efforts with DirectX,” he says. With the Apple Silicon, we don’t have to copy so much data around the memory because of the System on Chip’s integrated memory architecture.”
“More memory means bigger projects,” notes Johnson. “The more memory, the more we can cache; we love it because the caches make these transitions from 3D views to 2D plan views much faster.”
This advantage of integrated memory is non-trivial in the world of BIM. As Johnson says, “As a design program—as a BIM program—we have so many demands on compute. This is where the gift that just keeps on giving comes into play.”
Apple’s M1 series of SoCs offer between 8 – 128 GB of unified memory directly on the chip (shared between all chip resources like GPU and CPU). The memory bandwidth ranges from 200GB/s to 800GB/s. There is no copying of data between, say, the GPU and the CPU when one of those computational units needs data previously used by the other unit. Not to pick on any other chip vendor, but Intel’s own article describes the Theoretical Maximum Memory Bandwidth for Intel Core X-Series Processors at 94GB/s. That is far below what Apple is achieving on its entry-level M1 chip, and M1 Ultra-based systems are pushing data around at over 8x the speed of top Intel systems.
“You can have amazing performance [on these chips],” Johnson says. “You’ll especially enjoy this for large BIM models if you have the memory to support them. That is why 32GB and 64GB with M1 Pro, M1 Max, and now M1 Ultra are so impressive—they can handle even the largest of BIM design files.”
Metal, DirectX, and Threading
While preparing for Apple Silicon is the central point of this article, Rubina Siddiqui, Director of Product Marketing, Vectorworks, also shares Johnson’s point that the engineering and product teams are closely aligned to focus on the opportunities for users.
Asking Rubina about what users are sharing with the company, she notes, “It’s comprehensive feedback, touching on multiple areas of the software and the workflows they have.” She notes that a lot of user feedback is of a general performance nature. This makes sense because the industry is so busy with its workflows that they neither have the inclination nor the time to analyze and pinpoint performance bottlenecks that are non-obvious.
That is why 32GB and 64GB with M1 Pro, M1 Max, and now M1 Ultra are so impressive—they can handle even the largest of BIM design files.
“The ability to navigate directly in the 3D model, which is always on our radar, which we are constantly improving, is important,” Johnson says. He notes that Apple Metal utilizes more cores on the GPU side of the chip, so as bigger M-series chips arrive, they arrive with vastly more cores. “That increases frame rates.”
“Regarding the CPU side of things, with regards to more cores,” he adds, “we are currently working on the section updates. Sectioning through a BIM model is a very compute-intensive process.” He shares that the first goal is to get it off the main thread and into multi-threads.
While Metal has completely replaced OpenGL on Mac, ongoing work on leveraging Microsoft DirectX on Windows persists. Johnson notes those are parallel programming opportunities and mostly platform-specific. Rubina Siddiqui says that the company is focused on prioritizing customer workflows that customers use most often.
And in terms of performance optimization work, she adds, “A big part of that is targeting the model creation process because it is all done in the 3D environment,” she notes. “That’s where the users are building up the model.”
“The other part of it is regeneration,” she adds, “directly leading to drawing creation. Whether that is creating viewports, updating viewports, or even just navigating between them—and these are not specific tools in the software but part of the overall process—these are really at the top of our list.”
Vectorworks’ re-engineering efforts, therefore, leverage multi-threading opportunities in items such as how the user constructs the BIM models, how views like sections get calculated by the chip, and at the system-to-display level target and take advantage of more cores through the Metal and DirectX APIs.
A New Apple Darling?
So will Vectorworks be a new Apple Darling, much like Adobe Photoshop, DaVinci Resolve, and Cinema 4D? With this leading-edge development progress, it just might be.
Rubina Siddiqui, Director of Product Marketing, Vectorworks, was part of the Apple testimonial film (“Changing the Game”) shown at the Apple keynote introducing the new Mac Studio computer. “We have been working towards this for quite some time,” referring to the engineering work for Apple Silicon support, “and it was a nice gesture from Apple to give us the platform to talk about the work Steve and his team have accomplished over the past year.”
Getting in early on Apple Silicon means our customers will keep benefiting.
“The model we used in the Apple promo was a really giant model,” she says, “and on the old Intel machines, just to turn on those shadows you see in the promo would take you anywhere between 20-40 seconds of delay. But with the M1 machines, turning on the shadows in OpenGL (which is now entirely replaced by Metal on the Mac) is instant.”
While this story is primarily centered on Apple Silicon, Windows, and Mac Vectorworks users, will gain a common new feature in the future release of Vectorworks 2023 arriving this fall.
The general shaded rendering mode, common when working in 3D views, will be upgraded. It will feature more realism and more options than the old OpenGL shaded rendering settings. The good news is that this added rendering mode for real-time BIM 3D work will not come at any performance cost.
Johnson makes the point to note that this isn’t meant to compete with the real-time renders that now link with Vectorworks, like Twinmotion, Lumion, or Enscape. It is an upgraded version of the standard OpenGL shaded mode that most folks work in when working in 3D.
And in addition to the “gift that just keeps on giving”—a reference to what we have already discussed above—the next generation of Maxon’s CineRender will also be enhanced. It will be fully integrated into the Vectorworks code base rather than sit on top of it like an application.
“Getting in early on Apple Silicon means our customers will keep benefiting,” says Johnson. And with rumors of the M2 and the future Mac Pros holding a terabyte of integrated memory, Vectorworks’ BIM platform is suddenly looking not just like an Apple Darling but a favorite for ultra-high performance Big BIM.
These days feel reminiscent of Apple’s early PowerPC days when suddenly Apple’s performance advantage over Intel ignited the world of engineering software’s imagination. It must feel really good to the longtime folks at Vectorworks who have been along for that ride.
1 – Our report titled “Chip Technology, Geopolitics, and the CAD Industry,” was originally published in the September (the Semiconductor) issue of the Architosh Xpresso newsletter. It was then published on Architosh early this year. The influential web publication Engineer.com then asked to republish the article with a postscript update on the latest chip updates. This final publication version was published on Engineer.com on 27 April 2022 here.
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Title image credit: Harmonic+Mason & Associé + Vectorworks, Inc. / Architosh. All rights reserved.