Manufacturing

PLM Strategies - Availl Declassified

1 Jun, 2006 By: Kenneth Wong

Big Joe keeps its data in sync without a PDM/PLM system.


I'm ashamed to admit I've become too class-oriented. No, I'm not claiming certain social privileges as my birthright. I'm referring to the convenient product classification system I've been using to determine my monthly coverage. Whenever someone pitches me a product, I immediate relegate it to one of the market domains: PLM (product lifecycle management), PDM (product data management), cPDM (collaborative product definition management), ERP (enterprise resource management) and so on. Once in a while, I run into something that doesn't quite fit snugly anywhere in my scheme. When that occurs, despite the product's apparent merits, I might dismiss it as something irrelevant to my concerns. I came quite close to making that mistake with Availl.

Not Your Average Joe

Andy Zuhlke, the network administrator for Big Joe Manufacturing, likes to quip that his employer is "not your average Joe." (In fact, the company offers souvenirs—Polo shirts and baseball jackets—imprinted with that very slogan.) The next time you go into your local Sears or Best Buy, take a closer look at the manual forklift machines the staff is using to stack and retrieve heavy appliances. You might be looking at a Big Joe product, designed to lift as much as 6,000lb as high as 17'. With headquarters in Chicago and two production houses in Wisconsin, Big Joe remains a strictly domestic company—not so average in this age of overseas outsourcing.

 A diagram of Availl s WAFS (wide-area file system), a solution with built-in data synchronization and protection features.
A diagram of Availl s WAFS (wide-area file system), a solution with built-in data synchronization and protection features.

In 2004, Big Joe broke ground for its second production facility, a short drive from the first one. Soon, engineers began complaining about traffic. Not local traffic—network traffic. At least in one case, notwithstanding the T1 connection linking the two facilities, opening a 5MB SolidWorks assembly file took a whopping 10 minutes, more than enough time to brew a pot of coffee. Zuhlke explained, "It's because we were opening files in one location that were pulling up subassemblies in another location." Some managers approached Zuhlke with what seemed like a good solution: "Why can't we just copy the files over here, work on them, then copy them back over there?" He had to explain to them the importance of preserving assembly hierarchies.

"All we wanted to do was continue working the way we had been," said Zuhlke. While scanning the market for possible solutions, he met with several PDM providers. After hearing their price quotes, he felt a full-blown PDM system would be overkill for what he was trying to address. "We have a manual PDM system," he explained. "I keep a Microsoft Access database to track and manage the different versions and revisions of drawings." This homegrown system is reinforced with in-house authorization discipline. The method is not perfect, Zuhlke acknowledged, but it accomplishes what's necessary. So he skipped all the PDM vendors asking him to shell out big money and went with Availl's WAFS (wide-area file system), a solution with a unique approach to data synchronization and protection.

Bridging the Differences

Joel Orr, vice-president and chief visionary at Cyon Research, took note of Availl's technology. "What they do is, they send only the difference. If I make a change on a file, only the difference is sent to you [to keep both files synchronized]. That happens in the background, without having an effect on the overall performance. That circumvents any issues of compression. It automatically makes the transfer secure, because if these differences are intercepted, people can't do anything with them."

Availl users download and install a small agent onto existing Windows servers. Using its patented byte-level–differencing technology, Avail keeps desktop and server files in synchronization with one another over the Internet. Changes made to files are immediately updated or mirrored on all other servers. This continuous bidirectional, multisite update occurs 24/7 in real time behind the scenes, according to Availl. At first glance, this setup seems like a blatant violation of the long-established PDM principle: only one user can modify a file at a time. The thought of CAD files continuously overwriting one another sounds like a rambunctious classroom with no adult supervision. Availl assures its clients that its WAFS operates in real time with an application's native file and data lock status. Only one user at a time can open a file in read-write mode; the rest may open the file in read-only mode while it's in use. In that case, the updates continue, but they'll be flowing one way only (from the read-write copy to the rest), not two ways.

Zuhlke explained, "A common scenario for us is that engineers will be working on different assemblies that share some common parts—wheels, for example. Neither one of them is making changes to the wheel, but they need it for their assembly, so having read-only access for that subassembly is not a problem."

"Availl's technology takes a very simple concept, which is very difficult to implement, and implements it very well," observed Orr. "Some backup systems use the differencing technology, but I've never seen it done very well. The concept makes so much sense. It seems to me it's a no-brainer for anyone who's seen it to want to buy it." At Big Joe, this approach translates to huge productivity gain, because engineers no longer need to load the entire assembly, along with off-site subassemblies, every time they open a file.

Communication is a Two-Way Street

Availl's continuous update has other unforeseen advantages. Take, for example, the previous versions that Zuhlke is frequently asked to restore because of computer crashes or other technical problems. "I might have someone who'd worked until lunch time, then encountered a problem right before they went to lunch. They say, 'I have to get the file back to where I was at 11:30 A.M. today, not at 4:30 P.M. yesterday.' And I say, 'No problem.'" It would have been a problem if he were still using the tape backup system, because the only saved version available would be the version from the previous day.

Currently, when something goes wrong with the server at one location, Big Joe's engineers can race to the second location and continue working, with the assurance that the files they're accessing are the exact replicas of what they were working on. Zuhlke is considering deploying a second server, a failover unit, at each location. The second servers would make the 45-minute commute between the two facilities unnecessary when a server goes down.

"You test it out, buy it and once you have it in place, you don't have to do anything with it," Zuhlke said. "And if, at some point in the future, I decide to back out of it, I hit the stop button, Availl turns off and the data is exactly how it should be. There's no file mangling, like with some PDM systems."

The One that Came Before

It was only three months ago that Dassault Systemes, one of the three PLM titans, swallowed up MatrixOne, a smaller vendor in the same market. Many analysts saw the acquisition as a harbinger—one in a series—of industry consolidation. Cyon's Orr observed, "I think when you reach the neighborhood of a billion dollars a year [in revenue], you have to grow by acquisition. When you consider build vs. buy, the risk of building something new is too great."

The transaction went ahead, despite MatrixOne's lackluster financial performance. (See "Dissecting Dassault's Bid for MatrixOne: Part I and II," Cadalyst Daily e-mail newsletter, March 9 [http://manufacturing.cadalyst.com/0309Dassault] and 10 [http://manufacturing.cadalyst.com/0310Dassault]). In contrast, Availl reported two consecutive profitable years. And it has consistently averaged greater than 35% quarter-to-quarter growth, doubling its customer base in 2006, according to the company's PR representative Mary Kae Marinac. So, I can't help thinking industry goliaths are keeping a close eye on Availl for possible acquisition. Cyon Research's Orr said, "I would think [they are], because it would provide a major competitive differentiator. I do not know of any PLM or PDM system that uses similar differencing technology."

Craig Randall, Availl's vice president of operations, responded, "We're aware that our technology would make a great complement to products from major CAD vendors. It definitely brings a unique competitive advantage to any customer base that has distributed offices. We have a pretty unique product; if controlled by one CAD vendor, it would seriously impact its market share."

I eventually came to realize that I was having a hard time placing Availl into my product classification system not because it doesn't fit anywhere, but because it fits nearly everywhere. Data synchronization is a fundamental computing concern, not confined to PDM or PLM. For this reason, Availl's Randall is convinced some of the biggest names in the computing industry are watching his company.

Availl's product offerings include Availl WAFS, Availl Continuous File Backup (for file server backup and failover), Avail Continuous Database Backup (for database backup and fail-over) and Avail Enterprise (which includes all three previously mentioned products). Availl WAFS is priced starting at $3,995 for the first two servers. Availl Continuous Backup for files costs $2,495 for a hub and the first server, with subsequent servers added at $995 each. Availl Continuous Backup for databases is the same price. The technology is well within the reach of average Joes. But what will happen if one of Availl's bigger competitors gobbles it up? This class-conscious columnist worries that it might become a solution restricted to industry royalties.

Kenneth Wong is a former editor of Cadence magazine. He explores innovative usage of technology as a freelance writer. E-mail him at Kennethwongsf@earthlink.net.


About the Author: Kenneth Wong


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