CAD Manager-Online Approaches to Archiving1 Oct, 2006 By: Robert Green
Protect data and projects against future loss.
Archiving continues to be an uninspiring topic for most engineering offices using CAD. Though we pay attention to our CAD tools, document management and generalized IT backups, the lowly archive continues to be ignored. Are you using current best practices for archiving and have you made those archives accessible to your users? These are good questions that need to be asked periodically.
In This Article
Before I get into how to deploy your archives, I want to make sure everyone is clear about what archives are and how they differ from backups. The main points I want to make are:
- 1. Backups are not the same as archives.
- 2. IT controls backups, but CAD managers control archives.
- 3. Good archives are your company's searchable history of old projects.
- 4. Good archives protect you from data and labor loss more than backups do.
If you don't agree with these statements, please take the time to read "Document Archiving Strategies" from Cadalyst's October 2005 issue (www.cadalyst.com/1005CADManager/) to get up to speed on archiving terminology. Everything I'll cover in this article assumes that you have a working knowledge of these concepts.
Where Should Your Archives Be?
What a great question! And one that has many answers depending on your company circumstances, size and geographical layout. I'll try to answer all these topics concurrently by giving you options for where archives can be deployed, what technology components are required, what these options cost and what types of circumstances are best for each. In all cases, I'm going to assume that you are cost conscious and not afraid to roll up your sleeves and get the work done. Keep in mind that these are generalized recommendations intended as a starting point for your own independent analysis.
A document management application. If you already have a document management system, your archives really are a subset of all documents in the system. The advantage to this approach is that you're already done because you're constantly building archives as you go along. The downside is that document management systems can be expensive and time consuming to implement, and they can't be cost justified as an archive system. If you already have a document management system, try to administer it in a way that makes it easy to search and find archival documents and you'll be all set! Those who don't have a document management system, keep reading.
Your own network or WAN. The benefits of deploying your archives on your own network are security, speed and elimination of additional expenses for technology components or administration. Because your own network already enjoys the benefits of password protection, firewalls and other security features, you'll be protected from outside hacking and thus won't have to worry about your archives falling into enemy hands. Disadvantages are the lack of Internet access and remote file sharing with anyone outside your own network. These limitations can be onerous, even for small companies.
VPN with your own network. You can extend the reach of your network to the outside world using VPN (virtual private networking). The advantage of using VPN connections to your network is that anybody with a public-domain Internet connection can connect to your network via VPN client. The downside is that VPN clients must be maintained on all remote machines and administered at your server by your IT staff. Setting up a VPN is not something a CAD manager can casually do on a Friday afternoon; it's the IT equivalent of heavy lifting, so use this approach only if your IT staff can support you.
FTP drop boxes or folders. FTP (file transfer protocol) has been around forever and is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to make large volumes of files available to users over the public-domain Internet. Many utilities are available for free or at a very low cost (I personally use WS_FTP for my FTP management tasks), so cost is not a barrier. You can either maintain your own FTP server or use FTP drop boxes from a commercial Web-hosting service. In fact, if you use a hosted FTP site, you'll keep everyone who accesses your archives from hitting your servers and usurping your company's network bandwidth. You even can make your in-house users see an FTP site as a drive-by using the mapped network drive features in your operating system, as Figure 1 shows.
Figure 1. Map your FTP site to a drive letter for user convenience.
The disadvantages of using FTP are that you have to maintain a list of FTP accounts and passwords to protect your data and that externally hosted FTP sites are limited to your Internet connection speed. All in all, FTP deployment of archives via the Internet represents the best value in terms of bang for the buck and number of IT headaches. If you're on a tight budget but need to get your archives online in a hurry, start with FTP.
Third-party Internet sites. By maintaining your archives on a commercially hosted Web site, you no longer have to worry about maintaining your own Web server, backing it up or any of the other hassles that typically go with Web server maintenance or FTP maintenance, for that matter. You'll gain remote access for anyone, anywhere on the public-domain Internet without using your company's server and communications bandwidth. And you get an extra layer of redundancy because your archives are offsite and safe in case of fire, flood or other natural disaster. A disadvantage is that you don't own the remote server; therefore, you take some risk that the hosting company could go out of business. You'll want to work with a company that has a good track record.
Of course, total document management solutions that are delivered via the Internet (think Autodesk's Buzzsaw, for example) are available. For simple storage and retrieval of files on a virtual hard drive, simpler options (such as IBackup.com) offer good functionality for less than $100 per month.
To really get the feel for an Internet-deployed storage solution, try the site out using trial periods, which almost all vendors offer. The reason I find IBackup so usable is its combination of FTP support, Windows Explorer–mapped drive integration, automatic synchronization of archives via its scheduling application and free client software that lets collaborative partners work with you via IBackup at no cost to them.
I admit that I've been extremely skeptical of using third-party Internet file storage, but the declining costs of these services and their increasingly powerful software has won me over in the past year or so. Although these sorts of services cost more than straight FTP systems, you can't beat their ease of use.
The Archival Jigsaw Puzzle
I've given you a lot of technical information, and some of it may be outside your area of technical expertise. I believe strongly that the CAD management position is becoming more IT related and that all CAD managers should have a working knowledge of these sorts of techniques. So if you have to step outside your comfort zone to explore getting your archives online, that's not an entirely bad thing.
I suggest that you start solving the jigsaw puzzle by meeting with your IT department or Internet provider to find out what your options are. I'd also suggest trying some of the products and vendors I've outlined above on a trial basis, just so you can explore the possibilities. You may not buy anything, but you'll gain a lot more knowledge of what's out there and how you can apply it to your specific archival needs.
Putting the Pieces Together
If you're taking charge of your company's archives, you're already on track to provide a great service to your company. I hope this column has given you some ideas and resources for actually delivering your archives to others while solving some key CAD management and business problems at the same time.
Why not take this opportunity to evaluate your current archiving scheme or get started on one? Look at your options and adjust as required now before a data loss crises hits. Trust me when I say a little attention to archiving now will pay big dividends later. Good luck.
Robert Green performs CAD programming and consulting throughout the United States and Canada. Reach him at email@example.com.