To Vault or Not to Vault, That Is the Question, Part 1 (Solutions from Synergis Tutorial)

31 Jan, 2008 By: Bill Frederick

AutoCAD Civil 3D provides many ways to share project data in an efficient manner.

The decisions involved in sharing project data vary by company. If your company is struggling with collaboration on projects, you should consider consulting an expert to help determine the proper solution for your organization. Many experts have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly on this topic. I recently gave a presentation at Autodesk University 2007 about this issue, and the response was so positive that I decided I would share the information with the masses.

Many myths surround the implementation of AutoCAD Civil 3D. One of the most complex issues is how to use the application in a collaborative environment. The possibilities with Civil 3D range from the simple to more intuitive and complex methods. The sharing of project data is essential to complete projects in the most efficient manner.

The multiple methods available to share data amongst users include

  • one drawing and all data resides in the drawing file

  • multiple drawings and usingexternal references (xrefs) to share data amongst users

  • multiple drawings and using data shortcuts to share data amongst users

  • multiple drawings and using Autodesk Vault to share data amongst users

A combination of tools will provide the best scenario for your projects.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of the previous methods?


The use of xrefs is probably the most common way users like to work with AutoCAD Civil 3D in a collaborative environment. The tools and capabilities are similar to the current workflow and processes most organizations have employed in the past when using Autodesk Land Desktop. You

The familiar Xref palette.
will need to use this method regardless of the other methods you may employ. The simple fact is that there are holes in the collaboration tools provided with AutoCAD Civil 3D.

There are several reasons to use xrefs in a project. The ability to separate the data involved with a project is crucial. The separation of files allows more users to be involved with completion of plan production drawings. Another consideration is the size and manageability of the drawing files and disaster recovery. If all your data is in one file, that file gets corrupted or overwritten; you will be burning the midnight oil to recreate you drawing or searching through the tapes to recover your file. Hopefully you have a good backup plan in place.

Consider the source file and the data it contains. If the data is a static format and does not require any editing capabilities, you could consider an xref as a valid option.

A common practice is to separate files into data-specific drawings. Some data-specific drawings could include existing conditions (contours, topographic features), proposed geometry (alignments, parcels), proposed utilities (storm, sanitary, and water), grading (final contours), etc.

For example, you may create a surface with a particular style and annotations. This file is then inserted into any file that would require the display of this information. If the base file is edited, the user will receive a notification the file has changed and needs to be reloaded. In addition, a user has the tools available for an xref such as the xref clip.

You will need to use xrefs in conjunction with the Data Shortcuts and Vault methods to support areas that AutoCAD Civil 3D lacks in functionality (for example, parcels).

Because xrefs are somewhat static when it comes to Civil 3D functionality, you will not be able to changes styles or properties associated with the objects with an xref edit-in-place function. Unfortunately the display will reflect the information in the xref file, so What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG). The basic rule: use xrefs for Civil 3D objects you do not want to manipulate within the referenced file.

Users should consider selecting the relative path with xrefs. This function is best suited for users who share the same network environment.

Data Shortcuts
The use of data shortcuts is probably the quickest and easiest method to get you up and running in a collaborative environment. This option is a viable tool to take advantage of Civil 3D's built-in project management capabilities. No additional hardware or software applications need to be loaded, configured, or manage. Though there may not be additional software or hardware, users must create a project structure and process to follow so all projects conform to the best practices of workflow. Workflows change from company to company, but some basic rules apply.

The data shortcut was originally introduced in Civil 3D 2005 in a limited capacity and was fully operational in the 2006 release. Data shortcuts were removed from the application when Vault was released in 2007. Because of the lack of knowledge and additional resources required to run and manage Vault, data shortcuts were rereleased in late 2007 to appease users. More functionality was added to the data shortcuts in the 2008 release.

The Data Shortcut vista is basically a mechanism that creates an XML file that maps objects located in source drawings to objects in reference drawings. A user will then create a data shortcut or data reference. There are two main stages to the creation of data shortcuts. The first stage creates the XML file (pointer) from the source drawing, which includes the object data and the associated file path. The second stage creates a data reference using the XML file in a user drawing. After the reference has been established, the object is linked to the original source drawing.

The Data Shortcut vista.

Source drawings contain the original definition of the object. The object was created and is stored here. Users should not move source drawings after they have been linked. Reference drawings are linked to the data supplied in the source drawing. The object data displayed in the reference drawing is read-only mode, thus adding a level of protection to the original design data. Users can apply a particular object styles and label styles to multiple drawings.

Data shortcut functionality only works with select Civil 3D objects. The list is limited, but it does provide a good base. The Civil 3D objects available for use with data shortcuts include surfaces, alignments, profiles, pipe networks, and view frame groups. View frame groups are new in 2008 and give users the ability to create plan production drawings.

Because Civil 3D only works with the previously mentioned objects, xrefs and Vault could fill the gaps. Vault works similar to data shortcuts, but posses other powerful features.

You can use data shortcuts in different ways based on the amount of data and process of creation. Care should be taken when organizing and naming the XML files. User should place them in a designated area within the project folder structure.

The defined methods include:

1. Create one XML for the project; for example, MYPROJECT.XML. This option has some downfalls because multiple objects are contained in one file. The process clutters the interface to create data shortcuts and data references. If your XML files gets misplaced or corrupted, you will have to recreate or edit the file to a usable state. XML files potentially could be overwritten.

2. Create one XML per object type; for example, MYPROJECT-ALIGNMENTS.XML. This option allows for more flexibility with the object data and security of the XML file. Though multiple objects are contained in one file, the probability of having broken links or other problems is reduced. It can be an easier way to organize your project data.

3. Create one XML per object; for example, MYPROJECT-WALNUT STREET.XML. This option allows for the most flexibility and sharing capabilities. The XML file created contains information pertinent to a single object.

In this example, the files are stored in the XML Files (Shortcuts) folder within the project directory structure. Each XML file is named to represent the name of the object and associated shortcuts created.

The Data Shortcut Import dialog box.

The proper naming of the files enables users to know what the file contains with respect to the object. You can never have too much detail when it comes to file maintenance.

You will use four main tools when working with data shortcuts. They include:

Import XML: Imports a data shortcut that has been saved in XML format

Export XML: Exports the selected data shortcut to an XML file

Create shortcut: Creates a new data shortcut and prompts you to select an object in the drawing. After the object is selected, it is displayed in the appropriate object type collection in the tree list.

Create reference: Creates a reference to a data shortcut. The reference is created in the currently active drawing. Note that this button is disabled if a data shortcut is not selected in the tree view.

The source file has full control over Civil 3D objects. The definition of the EG surface is available for manipulation. On the other hand the reference file has symbology depicting the data shortcut. There is no definition available, rendering the object read-only with respect to the geometry. As you can see, different styles are applied to each drawing.

Examples of the Prospector views and the source files.

Overall I think you will find these methods will play a major role in the grand scheme of your new workflows. However, the solutions don't always provide the full capabilities needed. In Part 2 of this column, I will explain Vault's architecture and functionality and how it can work within your CAD environment.

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