Getting it together
There are many ways to manage collaboration, depending on your team
At the simplest level, generic server technology forms the backbone of collaborative working – at least between colleagues within a single office. File server technology, even in its simplest form, facilitates shared access to data, individual read and edit rights control and the use of directories (or folders) allows hierarchical filing systems to be created. Search functions are fairly simple and predominantly restricted to file names.
The complex variety of file types and originating software used in the design arena makes generic file-sharing systems limited in their ability to provide document retrieval by searching either file content or embedded data fields. Within the immediate local team file sharing is flexible enough for users to work together quickly and efficiently. The absence of features is compensated for by the combination of office protocols and person-to-person communication.
File-sharing server systems are generally used within single organisations. Even with access permission controls it isn’t generally considered wise from a security point of view to provide direct access to file servers to wider design teams. This sets up a need for systems to allow the publication and distribution of information.
In many small offices this function falls to email servers. Publishing and distributing data as email attachments has the useful feature that the enclosing email acts as a transaction record – capturing a copy of the sent files, the distribution list and date and time of despatch. Search functions within email clients allow the distribution list, email title and date fields to be searched, however the file names of attachments cannot be interrogated, meaning that the assembly of the transaction history of versions of particular files is reliant on manual collation or strict protocols covering filing of emails in public folders.
This method also suffers from limits to file sizes. Email servers are frequently set to handle a maximum 8MB of attachments. This can easily be adjusted on your own server but there is no guarantee a similar change will have been executed on the recipient’s or any intermediary servers.
Externally hosted project intranets have flourished and matured in the past decade
A common solution is for offices to set up a FTP (file transfer protocol) server. This allows wider team members to remotely access designated folders, or drop box, using a username and password to collect files using either a web browser or a dedicated FTP client software. Hosting this FTP server internally is often convenient but slow internet upload speeds can make it impractical if usage of the system is heavy. In such circumstances remotely hosted FTP server solutions are an essential improvement. While FTP servers can distribute potentially unlimited file sizes, in their basic form they do not log transactions.
The inadequacies of file sharing, email and FTP to provide desired levels of transaction logging and document retrieval have resulted in some practices adopting document management software. As a minimum, a document management system provides a database that sits over the top of or as an alternative to your file server with additional content and data tagging fields providing a higher degree of searchability. Some are specifically targeted towards the types of files used in architects’ offices.
Axomic’s Open-Asset (www. axomic.com) allows previews of images and cad files. This functionality has recently been extended with the launch of OpenAsset Bim which includes the ability to preview Revit assets.
Other products, notably Union Square’s Workspace (www.unionsquaresoftware.com) include a document management system among a wider range of software for management of an architectural practice. Not only does this provide a data-rich alternative to an archive of incoming and outgoing files on a file server, it is also designed to sit alongside the data exchange processes. It can be integrated into an email client to allow filing of emails as an alternative to public folders. It can also provide an email-notified remote file access as an alternative to FTP. Workspace effectively seeks to catalogue all forms of digital assets published to or by external collaborators.
While document management systems address an individual practice’s need for digital document management they do not address the needs of management of information across all project stakeholders. In this area externally hosted project extranets have flourished and matured during the last decade.
Project extranets provide an online repository and database of all issued documents on an individual project, regardless of originator – allowing easy access to information, comments, and status and revision history.
Frequently procurement of project extranets is led and resourced by the client body, contractor or project manager. Architects are frequently not in a position to choose the provider, so may have to be familiar with a wide range of project extranets.
Leading providers include: BIW (www.biwtech.com); 4Projects (www.4projects.com); Asite (www. asite.com); Unit 4 Business Software (www. unit4coll-aboration.com) and Aconex (www.aconex.com).
Despite the maturity of the market, the current solutions still have room for improvement. Paul Wilkinson, an independent commentator on the project extranet industry, recently hosted a guest contribution to his blog (www. extranetevolution.com) highlighting slow upload mechanisms, complicated folder structures, quality assurance issues, inadequate search facilities and lack of user training as the five top areas that extranet providers do not get completely right.
A future challenge comes in the potential for building information modelling (bim) to restructure how information is used collaboratively. While bim can be used as a highly effective generator of published digital documents, there exists the potential for the virtual 3D models at its heart to become the vehicle of collaborative working across design teams.
Bentleys Projectwise (www. bentley.com) is aimed squarely at large infrastructure projects and offices with a global multi-site reach. Combining distributed server and delta file synchronisation technology with a variety of cad and bim software results in a solution that includes distributed collaborative working in real time as well as through the proxies of published output. One can see it as replicating on a project-wide scale the advantages of the simple data-sharing solution enjoyed within a small office. Will technology eventually bring us full circle back to where we started?
Later this month ICT4Construction is holding a one-day conference in central London (www.ict4construction.com/conferenceprogramme.html) With a wide range of vendors and commentators, the use of information technology to facilitate collaboration will certainly get an airing. Let’s hope it stimulates discussion.
Hugh Davies is a co-founder of IT consultant Lomas Davies.