Tag Archives: network

Finding a simpler way of sharing

j0415858The following was written for Building Design Magazine by myself and published on 20th October 2006.  Though 3 years old, the principles of collaboration remained the same for Broadway Malyan and they continue to use Buzzsaw to this day.  The use of Redsky’s software remains were it’s strengths are – that of strong financial management and analysis.  The desire to move to lower cost, secure file sharing remained, but other projects (such as the practices gloablisation into the Middle East and Asia) took the time and budget required to implement and focussed it elsewhere.

Broadway Malyan has long been a happy user of Autodesk’s Buzzsaw project collaboration tool. But now the practice is migrating to a rival product, explains the practice’s IT director Simon Johns

Our use of extranets began five years ago when the need to be able to shift large amounts of project-related data to our clients and significant others in ever shorter time frames became an absolute necessity.

Email can be a great tool, but its use today has become somewhat of chore. It is able to move files about, but there are limits. It is not secure. It is not guaranteed. It does not handle files well — especially large ones associated with cad or graphics. Email is a common vector for viruses, spam, Trojans, phishing and a host of other nasties associated with modern living. In short, it is not suited for the secure, commercial, timely transmission of data.

Project extranets offer many features that enable the movement of files around the internet. With built-in file viewers, “anytime, anyplace” access to these files is possible. While there are many, many extranets-in-a-box to choose from, we chose Buzzsaw from Autodesk. To us, this seemed the obvious choice we had an existing investment in Autodesk’s Architectural Desktop and Buzzsaw integrates into this well.

Our file transmission is secure and guaranteed. Buzzsaw uses FTP to upload and download files. It is available as an application and also as a browser-based version, enabling access from anywhere. The application is easily installed and updated without any special permissions. When files are uploaded the project team is notified, and a link in the email can take you straight to the new files, which can then be viewed or downloaded for further modification. This feature has worked to Broadway Malyan’s advantage where project teams work in offices across Europe and with associate offices internationally. All have access to the same data in the knowledge that changes can be seen quickly and cheaply.

File access is recorded, with user, time and date information. This is often useful when one party forgets that they have reviewed drawings already and have had access to the information for quite a while.

The files in Buzzsaw are stored across the globe data is mirrored between sites in the US and Europe. This feature is something most architects (and, let’s face it, the larger practices are only really small to medium enterprises) could never afford out of their IT budgets. So the ability to buy web space in a cutting-edge project extranet, and buy into all features such as these, is almost a dream come true.

Buzzsaw offers many features that are useful to the construction process — there are many project management tools which are easily customised. But we at Broadway Malyan only use it for the storage of project files and a few other choice items. These project files could be AutoCAD drawings, and Buzzsaw’s ability to link in reference files automatically is a great time-saving feature and one of the reasons why we chose it. These could be large, print-ready PDF or JPG files for transmission to the printers or a repro house, thereby saving time and effort in burning CDs and biking, and allowing for documents to be worked on right up to the wire.

Our IT team also uses Buzzsaw for the delivery of new software packages, using higher bandwidth internet lines rather than dedicated quality lines. In this way they can move gigabytes of data to other office servers for local installation. We have rolled out our main cad package, Architectural Desktop, in this manner as well as many multi-CD graphics packages.

The management of Buzzsaw is simple and this simplicity is of great benefit to architects big and small, as it speeds up the publication process — which is, after all, why we are using it. But it also allows for precise publication to the correct people. This layer of integrity is easy to set up and no real understanding of computer security is needed.

So what is the future for Buzzsaw at Broadway Malyan? We have benefited greatly from its use, but we touch only the edge of the product and have no need for its more complicated features. With this in mind, over the coming months we will be migrating our projects and data to another system which will allow greater flexibility in the way we can operate our extranet. Unlike Buzzsaw, the new licensing model will no longer limit us to the amount of gigabytes stored on a foreign server or number of users able to access the site. We will be free to publish what we want to whom without having to think about the financial implications. This is not without its issues, but they become internalised and can be dealt with far more effectively. We already have the infrastructure; as a multi-national practice we have large network connections and the necessary security.

The software we will use is a spin-off from RedSky IT project portal Informate, which was purchased to give job leaders and directors better financial information in running their jobs. By switching on extra modules, Informate will be capable of replacing Buzzsaw, making the whole exercise sterling neutral (that is, the cost of buying Informate will be cancelled out by migrating away from Buzzsaw). There are many other features of this portal we will aim to exploit in future, but this one gives us dividends that make the project pay for itself.

The future of our project extranet can now be branded exactly as we wish, and who knows where it will end — maybe it will contain streaming movies of fly-throughs and other media-rich applications.

Buzzsaw is a great product which, in our opinion, is better than many of its competitors because it is simple to use. At the end of the day, what more could we want? But that very simplicity for us is its downfall when we can use another product to achieve the same aims at no cost.

l Buzzsaw details are available at www.autodesk.com/buzzsaw

l Information on RedSky IT (formerly Ramesys Construction Services) can be found by visiting www.redskyit.com

A faster, less clumsy way of file-sharing

Many pieces of software exist that enable file-sharing and collaboration, but it is worthwhile looking at wide area file services (WAFS).

WAFS work well over poor lines and allow separate offices to share files, both large and small, in real time. It can be a piece of software, but is generally is sold as a “black-box solution” — a piece of hardware with pre-loaded software.

WAFS works by caching copies of files — saving them on a small, quickly-accessible memory —from the primary site with the secondary site, that is, from head office with a site office. The caching can be “seeded” so that it can be performed on a local area network at high speed, before distributing to the remote site. This cuts down on the initial time to synchronise.

Once at the remote site, users access data and files as a normal file-share. Anything that has been cached already will be immediately available for work. Anything that it is not cached will take a little time to transfer to the remote site.

When a file is opened, it is locked at both ends so that only one person may access a file at a given time. When the file is saved, only the changes to the file are saved back across the network, not the whole file itself. This saves time and network bandwidth, further facilitating collaboration.

The fact that the file is in two places at once, in perfect synchronisation, means it need only be backed up in one place, for example, at the head office. This minimises the potential for error at the remote site, which usually has no IT staff. This serves business continuity strategies well.

Because files are cached, if the network goes down, the remote site can carry on working — if the remote site was working directly off the server in head office, then disaster would have struck. The files automatically synchronise when the network returns.

The better WAFS devices are also print servers, and provide Active Directory, DNS, DHCP and so on. In fact, they provide everything a remote site needs in order to function, and replace the need for any other server.

Anything this good has a downside, and that is price. A typical site can cost up to £10,000, but the main site needs a box too, so that cost can effectively be doubled.

However, weigh that cost against the price of a server, a back-up device, support and maintenance, and things begin to look a little better. Now add the benefits of real-time collaboration for your distributed team. You may just be onto a winner for all sizes of practice finding it difficult to operate at distance.

Many firms offer different flavours of WAFS, including Cicso, Blue Coat and River Bed.

Get the best out of your BlackBerry

There must be more to this BlackBerry malarkey than just email and a few other features of Microsoft’s Outlook such as the Calendar and Contacts. Isn’t there?

There is, in fact, a plethora of useful applications and gizmos which can extend the use of your BlackBerry beyond the irritation of those around you. For example, Impatica (www.impatica.com) produces a way to convert your PowerPoints into a format that can be shown on the BlackBerry. This is useful for both intimate presentations over a cup of coffee, and also for reviewing on the train home. It also produces a handy piece of kit that sits on the back of a projector and connects using the BlackBerry’s Bluetooth to present direct from the BlackBerry. The BlackBerry itself becomes the means of delivering the presentation, and because of its size it is a natural pointing device and becomes the means of scrolling through the slides.

Idokorro makes a number of handy pieces of software useful for both architect and IT manager alike. This Canadian company produces Mobile File Manager, which lets you browse and manage files on your network shares and intranet. You can even email files to yourself for editing and forwarding on.

“Impatica can convert your PowerPoints into a format that can be shown on a BlackBerry”

Idokorro also produces a client for Citrix — this will allow you to connect to your practice’s Citrix server to access applications that have been published there. Obviously some applications will work better than others such as office productivity tools, where screen size is not so important. Some will not such as cad or graphics tools, but it may be useful to get a feel for what is going on, like a quick review of a concept. Other tools, for example PDF writers, can be used this way, extending options for working away from the office.

Finally Idokorro also produces a Mobile Desktop client which can use either virtual network computing (VNC) or the connectivity found in Windows XP and Windows 2003 Server, called remote desktop protocol. The VNC cannot use encryption, but this is tempered by the fact that you are accessing PCs while effectively being inside your network. Remote Desktop is a lot smoother, and both have features to allow easy scrolling of a desktop on a small screen. This is a very useful tool for those who work in IT or other support functions as it allows the management of servers, as well as other important PCs.