Wide-Area CAD Management (CAD Manager Column)

31 Jul, 2007 By: Robert Green

How to win the battle with WAN.

Over the past several years, I've noticed a trend toward companies covering greater geographic distances with multiple offices. And as companies add more offices in more places, they inevitably connect those offices using wide-area networks (WANs). Of course, this all means that CAD managers must do business over WANs as well. In this installment of "CAD Manager," I hope to shine some light on the differences between managing CAD in a single office versus a wide-area environment and to give you some pointers.

What Won't Change

Before I explain everything that changes when managing CAD over wide areas, let me first state that a few things won't change.

  • 1. Your CAD programs will operate as they always have.
  • 2. Your users will still ask you questions.
  • 3. You'll still be expected to make your users smarter and more productive.
  • 4. You'll still need to facilitate the timely completion of projects.
  • 5. You'll still be under pressure to get it all done.

The good news is that the CAD programs you manage will continue to behave themselves. The bad news is that you won't get any sympathy for having to do business over a WAN. From your project and senior management's perspectives, they'll think that CAD management is the same as it ever was.

What Will Change

Given that you'll still have to meet the expectations above, let's talk about the new issues you'll have to face in a WAN environment — and why these changes can be problematic for CAD managers.

CAD speed will slow down. Reference files that used to resolve in 5 seconds will take 1 minute via a WAN. Big files that used to resolve in minutes will be so slow that users simply won't tolerate the delays and will resort to copying files to their local machines to gain speed.

CAD files will propagate over the WAN. As users copy files (to gain speed), nobody will bother to track where the latest copy of anything is unless you do so. Furthermore, if you don't acknowledge and address this problem, your company will lose track of who's working on what, and a full-scale file-control meltdown will ensue.

Answering user questions gets harder. Think supporting users is hard when you can swing by their desk and see what their problem is? You haven't lived until you've had to debug a user problem on a computer that's 4,000 miles away and that you can't see. Sprinkle in a different language and 8 hours of time-zone difference and you begin to understand how hard it is to support people over WANs. Even 3 hours of time difference in the same language is hard enough!

Coordinating and enforcing standards gets tricky. Just like user support, it's hard to keep your eyes on how users are following standards when you can't actually see what they're doing. Therefore, when you do ferret out standards problems, you'll tend to find them later, when they're harder to fix.

It's All about IT

What I find most interesting about managing CAD in wide-area environments is that the problems I deal with most frequently are caused by slow network speeds and lack of proximity to the user's computer. If I could have people stationed all over the globe with connection speeds as fast as local-area networks and the ability to see their computers in real time as I spoke to them, then managing CAD in wide areas would be a piece of cake!

In a very real sense, wide-area CAD management isn't a CAD management problem so much as it is an IT and communications problem. And every day that you spend failing to address these two root causes of your problems is a day that you'll get further behind at WAN CAD management. If you don't know much about IT, be prepared to start learning because your survival depends on it.

A Proactive Agenda

Now that we understand the actual problems that confound us in WAN CAD environments, we need to do something about them, right? What can we do to address the IT and proximity issues we've identified, and how can we get our IT and senior management staffs to help us to win the wide-area battle? Good questions — I'll answer them by addressing the key problems.

Synchronizing files to deal with reduced speed. The key here is to get your IT department involved and make it understand how painful it is to work with big CAD files on a slow network. After everyone understands the problem and sees why users find the situation unacceptable, you can move toward an intelligent method of synchronizing files. You can use various methods to keep a master set of files synchronized to a remote user's workstation with hardware and software solutions. The key to successful file synchronization work is that the hardware/software tool keeps the files in sync so users don't have to. It is crucial that your IT and senior management understand that losing control of data synchronization will cost great amounts of time and money to fix the inevitable errors that will result. The sidebar "Tools to Assist CAD Management via WAN" lists a couple of file synchronization products I've personally used.

Eliminating file propagation. Because users start copying files to achieve workable speed, you can eliminate this problem only by giving users the speed they need to work productively. If you take concrete steps to achieve file synchronization (as outlined above), you can convince your users that you're bringing them speed — but that they must play by the rules and not copy files. When users see the speed that synchronization can produce, they'll usually be willing to help you gain control of the filing mess. Because, ultimately, it's in their best interest.

Tools to Assist CAD Managers Working in Wide-Area Networks
Tools to Assist CAD Managers Working in Wide-Area Networks

Coordinating and enforcing standards. The good news here is that after you've tackled the data synchronization and file propagation issues you should be able to manage your CAD standards just as you did on a local-area network. Set up your CAD tools to pull template drawings, plotter configurations, custom programs, and standards documentation from a central network location and let your data synchronization tools deliver the files to remote users. When your users see that they can follow standards without taking a performance hit, they'll be as willing to follow standards as someone at the desk next to you is — however willing that may be.

Answering user questions. Good user support is paramount in getting work done, so you'll need a wide-area contingency plan for providing that support. At minimum, you'll want some way to see the users' screens so that you can actually help support them. If your IT department allows you to have remote access to user machines, great! If not, you'll need to pursue some sort of remote desktop visualization using a third-party provider such as WebEx or GoToMeeting or even a video-capture utility such as Camtasia (see sidebar). And while real-time viewing of the computer certainly is best, I've done a lot of support using video-capture tools with good results. The bottom line is that if you can see what a user is doing, no matter the method, you have a much better chance of resolving his or her problem quickly.

CAD in a WAN World

I hope I've been able to raise your awareness of the IT issues you'll face within a WAN CAD environment. I also hope you'll take the time to investigate some of the tools I've brought to your attention. I've found that when I consider the speed with which users can operate and my ease of communication with those users as my top priorities, I've done well managing CAD over WANs.

Robert Green performs CAD programming and consulting throughout the United States and Canada. Reach him via his Web site at

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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