Cadalyst Labs Review: Bentley Systems MicroStation V8 XM

31 Oct, 2006 By: Randall S. Newton

New interface promises to triple user efficiency on routine tasks

Bentley Systems has worked hard over the years to position itself as the enterprise-class provider of design software in the AEC and geospatial fields. It seeks to distinguish itself from its much larger competitor Autodesk by catering to the industry's largest firms. More than a dozen acquisitions in recent years have expanded the Bentley portfolio to more than 120 products, allowing it to be a one-stop shop for its customers. The foundation for all these products is MicroStation, Bentley's 2D/3D CAD platform.

The latest version of MicroStation is officially called MicroStation V8 XM edition, but most users are calling it XM, which doesn't stand for anything in particular. It was introduced with much fanfare at the 2005 BE (Bentley Empowered) Conference, but did not ship until July 2006. Bentley never commits to a specific release date. The long period between its first public preview and its general availability is attributed to the need to ensure a tight fit with Bentley's wide portfolio of applications for architecture, civil engineering, plant design and geospatial users (figure 1).

 MicroStation V8 XM
MicroStation V8 XM

When Bentley released the first iteration of MicroStation V8 in 2001, the company told users that its vision for the product was larger than its ability to deliver at one time. Key deliverables in that first release were a new file format (only the second time in 20 years that Bentley had changed the DGN format) and the ability to choose an optional AutoCAD-like user interface with Autodesk DWG as a second native file format. It was a tacit acknowledgment, much appreciated by MicroStation users, that full DWG compatibility was too important to leave to the file-translation approach to interoperability. To this day, Bentley tells its users that if they can't open or use a DWG drawing in MicroStation, the company considers it a bug that it needs to address immediately.

Figure 1. A rendering of a dock site created with MicroStation XM.
Figure 1. A rendering of a dock site created with MicroStation XM.

Bentley updated V8 in 2004. Improvements included a new print engine, support for digital signatures, revision control, standards management, support for Visual Basic and nested references (the AutoCAD equivalent is xrefs). Bentley also broke ground by being the first major CAD platform to embrace Adobe PDF as a key publishing format.

MicroStation XM builds on these and many more features with a complete overhaul of the graphics subsystem, a modernization of the user interface, compatibility with Google Earth and Google SketchUp, distributed file access and many more under-the-hood improvements.

Cozying up to Microsoft

In the late 1990s, Bentley made a detour toward Java that co-founder Keith Bentley has since regretted publicly. It wasn't uncommon in those days for Bentley employees to belittle the foundational support provided by Microsoft. Today, Bentley seems to have done a 180° turn with enthusiastic support for Microsoft products and services.

XM will be Vista ready whenever that next version of Windows ships, but that's just the warm-up. Previous versions of MicroStation, including the two previous V8 editions, used OpenGL as the graphics display technology. In XM, Bentley drops OpenGL in favor of DirectX, the gaming industry's preferred display technology. The immediate benefit to users is a significant speed increase in 2D and 3D redraw, navigation and geometry creation.

Moving to DirectX made possible much of the work required to modernize the user interface. Of the major CAD programs, MicroStation was the last to leave behind a look and feel more at home with DOS than Windows. MicroStation XM features modern tool palettes, element transparency, 24-bit color and support for Pantone and RAL color systems (figure 2). Bentley claims the new interface can improve user performance of some routine tasks by as much as 300%. Such increases will require learning how the new tools work, something old-time MicroStation users will no doubt grouse about at first. The software gives users the option of using a classic MicroStation interface, but the wise CAD manager will put that possibility out of bounds as soon as possible.

Figure 2. MicroStation XM features a new graphical user interface that meets contemporary expectations.
Figure 2. MicroStation XM features a new graphical user interface that meets contemporary expectations.

DirectX requires a close working relationship with a computer's graphics card and software drivers. Bentley provides a utility with XM that analyzes and diagnoses the system for best compatibility.

The tight relationship with Microsoft technology doesn't end with the visuals. New in XM is ProjectWise StartPoint, an entry-level CAD management and collaboration tool that is one part Bentley ProjectWise and one part Microsoft Office SharePoint (figure 3). StartPoint can be used to find, manage and share CAD and geospatial content stored in DGN and DWG files. Bentley is big on managed environments as keys to productivity and touts StartPoint as a entry-level tool that will help firms that currently lack a management platform. StartPoint works with two new XM features: Link Sets and Element Templates. Think of Link Sets as custom hyperlinks that connect objects to manage relationships within multiple files. Saved views, references or any element type in CAD, PDF and Microsoft Office files can be linked. Element Templates allow users to apply CAD standards to specific MicroStation Tasks to control production workflows. All these new management features require forethought up front—the payoff comes in the ability for teams to apply and stick to corporate or project standards.

Figure 3. ProjectWise StartPoint, an entry-level CAD management and collaboration tool based on Microsoft Office SharePoint, ships with MicroStation XM.
Figure 3. ProjectWise StartPoint, an entry-level CAD management and collaboration tool based on Microsoft Office SharePoint, ships with MicroStation XM.

Support for De Facto Standards

In addition to stronger ties to Microsoft technology, MicroStation XM also shows Bentley's interest in working with de facto industry standards. Bentley was the first CAD company to demonstrate publishing in 3D to Adobe PDF. In XM, PDF files can be used as references within a DWG model (figure 4). A 2D PDF shows up like a flat sheet, complete with any existing markups. The reference link is dynamic—any subsequent changes to the PDF will appear in the XM reference.

Figure 4. PDF files can be attached to MicroStation XM models as references.
Figure 4. PDF files can be attached to MicroStation XM models as references.

2006 seems to have become the Year of Google in AEC and GIS, with Google SketchUp and Google Earth capturing attention far beyond what competing products receive. Bentley wasted no time supporting Google Earth with a KML file exporter that allows project models be viewed in their intended settings. XM also lets MicroStation animation paths to be applied to the model within Google Earth (figure 5). MicroStation XM also imports Google SketchUp files, which means any model in Google's 3D warehouse is now fair game for MicroStation users.

Figure 5. MicroStation XM can import Google Earth imagery for use in models.
Figure 5. MicroStation XM can import Google Earth imagery for use in models.

Distributed Access

In the pre-V8 era, Bentley introduced ProjectBank, a technology that attempted to provide simultaneous file access to multiple users. ProjectBank required both MicroStation and ProjectWise, Bentley's CAD management solution. The technical challenges were complex, and when Bentley made the decision to overhaul MicroStation, ProjectBank was too closely tied to the old technology to bring forward. But multiuser file access always has been a dream of company co-founder Bentley, who calls XM's soon-to be released Distributed DGN technology his favorite improvement. As scheduled to be implemented (I was unable to test it), several users can work on the same DGN file at the same time, each creating and editing independently. ProjectWise (required) then sorts out all the changes and merges them into one DGN for approval. For large projects and dispersed design teams, Distributed DGN likely will be one of the first features to be implemented when available.

Power Keyboard and Programmable Mouse

Bentley got a patent on the new Keyboard Position Assignments feature of XM. Part of the user interface update, it links toolboxes and specific tools to user-assigned keystrokes. Letters and numbers are assigned to various tools and toolbars; the numbers are visible on the tools. Accessing a tool becomes a one- or two-keystroke experience. Power users who have cursed the dawn of the mouse era will be overjoyed. More passive users who like the guidance of a mouse-based interface will warm more slowly to this feature. These users may prefer the new MicroStation Tasks feature, which allows users to combine specific tools into custom toolbars. A programmable mouse functionality lets users further specialize their CAD experience.

Final Look

Bentley claims that MicroStation XM will work well with users' existing computer hardware. My tests on a clearly inferior CAD computer (1GHz processor, 256MB RAM, motherboard-based graphics) confirm its claim. I was surprised by the program's overall speed. But running MicroStation XM on older hardware is like driving your Ferrari two blocks to the grocery store. Try to schedule your upgrade to MicroStation XM to match hardware upgrades. Large amounts of system RAM and a PCI Express graphic processing unit with at least 256MB of dedicated RAM are more important to MicroStation XM performance than a dual-core CPU. Go for dual-core only if you need to run multiple applications simultaneously, because MicroStation doesn't recognize more than one CPU.

Bentley is still working on support for AutoCAD 2007 DWG. The official line is that it will be available in the first quarter of 2007.

MicroStation users often work on large multiyear projects and won't upgrade their CAD software in the middle of a project. Administrators may want to rethink that policy in regard to MicroStation XM. This upgrade carries a big upside in immediate productivity improvements. Highly Recommended.

Randall S. Newton is editor-in-chief and publisher of AECnews, and editor-in-chief of and Engineering Automation Report. He was editor of MicroStation Manager Magazine from 1997 to 2002 and has written seven books about CAD.

About the Author: Randall S. Newton