Share and Share Alike (AEC Insight Column)

30 Nov, 2007 By: Jerry Laiserin

Online plan rooms and project collaboration networks let AEC users access and share a wide range of information.

Access to files, documents, and information located elsewhere is one of the most valuable functions provided by online media such as the Internet. For collaborative industries, such as AEC/O, the ability to exchange, view, and act upon shared information is the lifeblood of business and business processes.

Almost any form of AEC/O information–based activity — document transmission, storage, retrieval, mark up, routing, workflow, review, approval, and so on — that can be performed in the physical world can now be performed by a range of online means and services.

Knowing which type of online service or technology is most appropriate can be a challenge. In this month's "AEC Insight" column, I'll examine many of the alternatives and some of the trade-offs to consider in choosing among them.

From FTP to PCN

As the Internet developed, a file transfer protocol (FTP) evolved to provide convenient virtual locations for dropping off and picking up files. By the mid-1990s, FTP had been largely superseded by what we now know as the World Wide Web, through which anyone can access and view any publicly available file as a Web page or site.

The first project-specific Web site was launched in 1995 with the goal of providing a centrally hosted Web location for invited members of a project team. These types of services quickly became known as extranets — a misnomer, in my opinion. I prefer the term project-collaboration networks (PCNs).

Figure 1 arrays AEC/O collaboration services along a Content axis, which ranges from document-centric to data-centric, and is further divisible into files, messages, and transactions versus a Functionality axis, which ranges from digital as replacement for paper to new/transformed digital methods. Functionality is further divisible into archive/repository, exchange/distribution, and collaboration/workflow.

These two axes define a market space into which the various available services can be placed, each in a position relative to its content and functionality. Where the axes intersect is FTP: a simple and free service that combines the functionality of a bare-bones archive/repository with the content type limited to files.

Figure 1. The gamut of online plan room services and PCNs can be classified by relative functionality (horizontal axis) and range of content types accommodated (vertical axis). Copyrighted image courtesy of Jerry Laiserin.
Figure 1. The gamut of online plan room services and PCNs can be classified by relative functionality (horizontal axis) and range of content types accommodated (vertical axis). Copyrighted image courtesy of Jerry Laiserin.

Diagonally opposite in terms of greater functionality and richer content are PCN services such as Autodesk Constructware, CTSpace, and e-Builder. These services incorporate the full range of functionality and accommodate the full range of content. I reserve a place for OpenText's Livelink ECM above the other leading PCNs because I believe that OpenText's document-management, search, collaboration, and workflow capabilities are a cut above.

Just below this cluster of PCNs is Autodesk Buzzsaw, which offers a bit less in the way of workflow functionality and transaction-based content. However, in place of those characteristics it provides lower price and easier access (the latter facilitated by menu-level integration with Autodesk's design-authoring tools such as Autodesk Architecture).

The Sweet Spot

The middle of the market, where much of the action is today, includes a cluster of online plan rooms. Like physical plan rooms, online plan rooms can serve multiple purposes. Those run by and operated within A/E firms often serve to distribute documents within a project team and are frequently accompanied by messages such as transmittal forms with various instructions, explanations, and annotations. Those run by builders and some building owners often serve to manage the distribution of bid packages as well as the receipt and retransmission of bidding-related information, such as bidder qualifications, addenda, and the bids themselves. As is the case with physical-world plan rooms, many users of online plan rooms outsource their plan room activities to their reprographers (logically so, because reprographic services traditionally have been the origination point for the distribution of documents for both design and bidding).

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No surprise, then, that the cluster occupying the center of figure 1 is dominated by services run by reprographers or networks of reprographic services. These include ARC's PlanWell, Reprographics Services Association's (RSA's) PlanCommand, and Service Point's PlanLink. Although not strictly a reprographic service, I place the paid version of Ideal's PlanRoom (versus the free Cadalyst version, described below) here as well. A distinguishing characteristic of Ideal's service is that, as a scanner manufacturer, Ideal can help integrate paper workflow with digital workflow.

I place the ReproMAX/McGraw-Hill PDM joint offering (powered by technology from Adenium) slightly above the main cluster of repro-centric plan rooms because of the extensive reach of the ReproMAX network and the built-in power of direct linkage to McGraw-Hill information content, such as Sweets catalogs and the FWDodge reporting service.

Plan Rooms for the Rest of Us

Many firms and projects don't need or can't justify the expense and process change of even the repro-centric plan rooms. However, such folks still need more than mere FTP. For this large market segment, Ideal offers a free version of its PlanRoom service (figure 2), capped at 1 GB of online storage. This advertising-supported service is offered in conjunction with Cadalyst as the Cadalyst PlanRoom and can be accessed directly from the Cadalyst Web site. Designers using Graphisoft's ArchiCAD software also might be interested in another free service called Archigate from rendering-software vendor Abvent.

Figure 2. Free plan rooms, such as the Cadalyst PlanRoom, offer extensive functionality for storage, exchange, distribution, and collaboration.
Figure 2. Free plan rooms, such as the Cadalyst PlanRoom, offer extensive functionality for storage, exchange, distribution, and collaboration.

No classification system can capture and pigeonhole every subtlety of a complex market. For example, my scheme has no room for an ad hoc, peer-to-peer document collaboration system such as eZmeeting, which by its peer-to-peer nature has no document repository. Similarly, Adobe Share and Autodesk Design Review offer collaboration, mark-up capability, and workflow without being tied to any fixed Internet location, not even a virtual one. Microsoft Office Sharepoint Services offers another form of document-based collaboration that isn't tied to any specific Web-based service, and HP Remote Printing can deliver much of the repro-centric services' document-distribution functionality without the reprographer.

Building the Future Online

As more AEC/O end users adopt and grow comfortable with plan room technology and methods, many will become more receptive to the higher-level functionality and content of PCNs. It isn't clear at this time if plan room users will migrate to existing PCN services or if the existing plan room services will add PCN-like layers of functionality to serve their users' evolving sophistication. The Content axis likely will expand to encompass BIM-like models, and the Functionality axis might expand to accommodate activities beyond workflow, such as procurement and fabrication.

Emerging standards may accelerate both adoption and migration. United Kingdom–based PCN providers such as 4Projects, Asite, BIW Technologies, and Causeway Technologies have formed the Network for Construction Collaboration Technology Providers (NCCTP) to promote standards for data export and import among the participating providers.

Industry analyst and consultant Jerry Laiserin helps AEC/O businesses — and the technology providers who serve them — build smarter through the integration of technology strategy and business process. E-mail him at

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