CAD Manager's Newsletter #116 (October 14, 2004)

13 Oct, 2004 By: Robert Green

Controlling CAD Files, Part IV

CAD Manager's Survey Update
Since the last issue of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, I've wrapped up the data-gathering stage of my CAD Manager's 2004 survey. I received a new record of 698 responses, including participants from every continent. Thanks very much to everyone who participated.

The results of the survey will be published in my CAD Manager column in the November and December issues of Cadalyst magazine.

The URL for the survey,, will now switch to a static display of the survey questions. I will update it with results when they are ready to publish, so check back in November!

Document Management Continued
In the past three issues of the CAD Manager's Newsletter (click here for archives), I continued my overview of EDM (electronic document management) by outlining the general expectations for any type of EDM system and how to determine your EDM needs. If you haven't had a chance to read the past three issues, I recommend you do so now so you'll have proper context for this issue.

I continued my overview of EDM (electronic document management) by outlining the general expectations for any type of EDM system and how to determine your EDM needs. If you haven't had a chance to read the past three issues, I recommend you do so now so you'll have proper context for this issue.

I had planned for this issue to be the beginning of some product summaries of commonly used CAD-specific EDM systems. However, I've received some user e-mail regarding system options that leads me to believe you might like a little more guidance regarding what sorts of systems are out there. Therefore, I'll postpone my product summaries until the next issue and answer some user questions in this issue.

Here goes.

Should My Documents Go to the Net?
Two of the most profound areas of change in EDM lately have been the move toward managing a wide range of documents throughout a company and the need, at least for some companies, to manage documents via the Internet. Predictably, most EDM systems now function as generic document-management platforms that handle not just CAD files but related documents, scanned images, and even e-mail messages. Internet connectivity runs the gamut from those systems that have active server page deployment to systems that provide an Internet publish-only solution. Buyers must be alert to which system architectures actually meet their needs.

The logic behind these industry trends is clear and compelling: Document management isn't just for CAD anymore, and documents must be accessible from a variety of locations other than our office. Of course, getting your company online includes all sorts of technical hurdles, such as new servers, routers, high-speed data lines, and Internet firewalls to keep the outside world from preying on your confidential data -- but these are known costs for big companies. The move toward universal access to information via the Internet is simply the norm for EDM vendors now that customers expect Internet-enabled software.

A person could argue that there are still small companies that don't have Web servers and likely won't in the foreseeable future. These companies can still be well served by lower-end systems that work solely on the company's internal network system. They don't need to pay for all the added features that Internet-ready systems bring to bear.

Do I Need Workgroup or Enterprise?
You can think of workgroup-level EDM as a system that serves a small group of users in a way that makes sense to them. This workgroup-level approach is still very popular in CAD-centric environments where engineering control is both required and appreciated even if the rest of the company couldn't care less. Workgroup solutions are typically easier to implement because fewer parties participate in the design of the system, and workgroup products tend to be less expensive to purchase and set up.

As enterprisewide database connections via platforms such as SQL Server or Oracle have made it practical to put the whole company on a central data server, the enterprise philosophy of EDM has taken root. The enterprisewide EDM solution is becoming more common for larger companies that need more powerful databases and require Internet access to allow vendors or remote users to participate in the system.

Though the workgroup approach is still viable and alive, the need to have open EDM systems with Internet integration is making the move to enterprise level tools happen much more quickly than would otherwise be true. The plummeting prices of computer and network hardware have also helped make the case as well.

Client Interface Software: Browser or Not?
As little as two years ago it was uncommon to see an EDM product that used an Internet browser as its primary user or "client" interface. Even systems that did have Internet publishing capability typically used a proprietary client interface that the user had to learn like any other new piece of software. What has happened since is that the lowly, free Internet browser has become universally accepted and used. More importantly, because people already know how to use an Internet browser, training costs for an Internet solution are much lower than for a proprietary client. Software vendors have thus changed their thinking from "We'll design an interface the user will learn" to "We'd better make our interface run inside a browser and be point-and-click simple." This change is a boon to users, but has caused software developers to go back to the drawing board for their interface design.

The logic of using Internet client software is sound — that is: Most software users have grown accustomed to the idea of getting on the Internet to perform work duties, so why should document management be any different? The Internet revolution has, most importantly, planted the idea that users should be able to perform any task they'd like at any time, anywhere they can connect to the Internet. Furthermore, they should be able to do all this using a free piece of browser software that they already know how to use. So even though the proprietary client software concept is still alive, the industry trend is unmistakably toward Internet browser interfaces if for no other reason than to support industry standards.

Which Data, Which Format?
Because a document-management system stores both documents and data fields (or properties) that relate to the documents, an EDM system is by definition a database. Databases need to reside somewhere on the network and must use some sort of database structure. EDM vendors have wrestled with which format to use for storing data and where to store it since the birth of modern EDM systems, and in recent years this appears to be the area of least change.

Database formats still embrace the simple DBF flat file standard on the low end of the spectrum and extend up to enterprise-level database engines like Microsoft's SQL Server or Oracle on the high end. The middle range of data formats is populated by a variety of lesser-known proprietary databases, such as Hypertrieve, that bring more functionality than do the lower-end data engines at much lower costs than the high-end enterprise engines. In this area, document management hasn't changed much because EDM systems must still connect to other databases and industry standards are the only plausible way to provide those connections. In the end, your IT/IS department will most likely dictate what data format it is willing to support!

Integrated vs. Modular?
As we've already seen, document-management systems can support a number of different client, database, and access models. It is now common for high-end systems to support proprietary, Explorer, and Internet browser clients while working with proprietary, Microsoft, or Oracle database engines. Add to this mix support for active server pages using an IIS (Internet Information Server), and you can see that EDM software developers must support a variety of possible configurations. Of course, most customers won't need all these options and therefore won't want to pay for them all, either. To keep costs down, EDM software vendors have adopted a modular approach in which you buy the components you need in the quantities you need.

At first glance, the modular approach seems like a great idea because you buy only what you need. The modular approach has a potential down side, though: What if one module is buggy and causes another module to malfunction? Will updating one module require updates of other modules? Modular systems might be a better deal initially, but configuration issues and long-term cost considerations are more complex than for integrated systems.

Contrast the high-end modular systems with the integrated approach of the smaller systems where one size fits all. Integrated systems have no configuration or pricing vagaries because the system is a single component. For smaller companies that want not just low pricing but ease of installation and support, the integrated software systems offer compelling advantages, even if they are somewhat less powerful than their big, modular counterparts.

Wrapping Up
I hope you now feel well equipped to consider the kinds of EDM technology that exist and which variables to consider when shopping for a system. I realize the terms may be overwhelming at first, but given a little investigation and careful reading, you should now be able to decipher most EDM vendor literature.

In the next issue of the CAD Manager's Newsletter, I'll begin summarizing features from various commercially available EDM systems by looking at some Web-focused document-management systems and delving into Autodesk's VAULT technology.

Until next time.