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Extranet extras

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Extranets can give users a wide range of benefits to help with workflow, so why do so few practices choose to use them?

There is no doubt that extranets deliver measurable benefits to projects for which the entire team is not co-located. Yet the adoption rates of extranets are low. So why do so many practices and projects choose to continue sharing information the hard way?

There are a number of contenders in the market vying for your extranet business, but the functionality and workflow processes vary between them, resulting in fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD). The result lies somewhere between apathy and hesitation, so it is left to others to prove the value of extranets.

What is an extranet?

Essentially, it is a mechanism for storing information, so that anyone with an internet or a Virtual Private Network (VPN) connection can access the data they need, when they need it.

Some extranets do little more than provide an interface to the store, whereas others offer workflow tools to aid management and project tasks.

To highlight the main extranet benefits on offer, I have included a list extracted from a recent white paper by Dr Joel Orr of Cyon Research, a world-renowned expert in extranets.

Simplification of communications - central store; messaging system; all communications are searchable and archived.

Comprehensive tracking of timesensitive processes - RFI; making people accountable for content and timely response.

Common document storage and reference - always working with the current version of any document.

Document management - all data is stored in a single location (as far as the user is concerned).

Audit trail benefits - who sent what, to whom and when?

Document delivery - faster and cheaper than couriers.

Knowledge management - workflows and procedures can be enforced using the system.

Access - easy access through the web.

Faster cycle time - eliminating lag time as information moves more quickly between organisations.

Standardisation - standard file formats and document styles, and the use of common logos increases integration.

The list above outlines the range of features available from many providers. Not all of them will be essential to you, of course. The key to success lies in selecting the right vendor for the initial start-up of the project and having the right partner on board for the long term.

I emailed Dr Orr to ask what he thought made one vendor better than another. His reply had me stumped at first. 'I think it's down to cup holders and Morgans, ' he said.

I read his answer twice before reading on, still none the wiser. As usual, he explained perfectly: 'There came a time in the history of the family automobile when the big question in the selection process was: 'Does this thing have a place for me to put my favourite coffee cup?'

'They all get you from point A to point B. But where are the subtle, seemingly insignificant features that are real comforts and timesavers?

'I had to have my power-steering pump replaced the other day, and the Chrysler dealer (I have a PT Cruiser) gave me a perfectly fine little Toyota Corolla for the day.Only it wasn't perfectly fine. It had manually operated windows and door locks. And it was only after a day of errands about town with my wife that I finally realised how important those two seemingly frivolous doodahs are to me.

'As for the Morgan bit, a threewheeled two-banger in a world of four-wheeled, four-cycle vehicles stands out because of its differences.

Some are just differences, not superiorities; others are true improvements.'

I resolved to speak to a couple of users to find out what their electric door locks and cup holders are.

MacCormac Jamieson Prichard (MJP) has been using ASITE (built around BIW) on the redevelopment of Paternoster Square in the City of London. John Bloomfield is the document controller for the MJP team and is responsible for all issues and receipts of project information.

'Using the system is an integral part of my day, ' he says. 'When I get to work in the morning I log in to see what's new.'

Bloomfield issues sketches in PDF format after scanning the paper copy and CAD drawings in HPGL (Plot files) and SVF (Simple Vector Format) files, which are used to 'comment' or 'redline' on screen.

'You often hear a few choice expressions when the guys are trying to comment on drawings online because the system times out after a given period, ' he says. 'They end up saving every iteration as they go to avoid losing too much work when it kicks them out.'

Many practices still cannot manage to coordinate drawings on screen because of the size and complexity of the graphics. To overcome this, it seems, everyone prints out the files and redlines the paper copy before inputting the comments onto the system for access by others. Although the inconvenience of the time out and the duplicative process is comparable to not having automatic door locks, the 'cup holder', in Bloomfield's view, is his ability to access the history of any one document via the reporting tools.

'I can track each revision of a file, see who has accessed it and when, ' he says. 'Then I can print reports on the relevant files for the team to take to meetings to chase actions.'

Another thing that can frustrate users is speed. If the system is slow, experience proves that people will reject it. Bloomfield claims that ASITE sometimes frustrates him with its lackadaisical approach to serving up new screens of information.

'Sometimes I just set a search going and make a cup of tea, ' he says.

Searches on any system can take time, depending largely on the amount of data stored, but speed of use on an everyday basis is more affected by the way the system is constructed. There are essentially two different types of 'construction' for extranets: the thin client (a browserbased interface), and the dedicated client (a proprietary client application for the extranet).

Typically, the thin client is a javabased interface, which is served up to you every time you access a page.

This invariably means that changing pages regularly as you navigate through the site will try your patience as you wait for the same code to be downloaded to your computer. ASITE uses the 'thin' approach, so it can be slower to move around the site. Another extranet using the same java-based interface is ProjectNet by Citadon.

Squire & Partners used ProjectNet on 111 Strand, an office building in central London. Colin Coutts, IT manager with Squires, has a clear idea what his electric windows would be. 'From an administration point of view, any system that requires serious configuration is inconvenient for me, ' he says. 'With ProjectNet there is minimal effort required in getting the team up and running.'

I put it to him that this administrative effort in the first instance should be compared and contrasted with the speed of access throughout the project lifecycle. In my view, an extranet with a dedicated client tool, providing constant and speedy navigation, is preferable to one that is quick to install but slower on a dayto-day basis.

But Coutts says: 'Even some of the systems using a proprietary client tool that have been around for a long time, such as RSUK or Hummingbird, can feel a bit flaky in use, as a result of having older code behind the interface. They also limit flexibility of use for upgrades.'

He does, however, agree that newer tools such as Buzzsaw by Autodesk, which also uses a proprietary client application, do not suffer in the same way as RSUK or Hummingbird. This is because the core code is much leaner. As a result, Buzzsaw is considerably more robust than the java-based products and some of its aging competitors.

Brandon Boyes, of RPA Consultants, agrees with Coutts regarding proprietary client applications. 'Buzzsaw could be improved by not having to download and install new updates on each computer every time improvements are made to the software, ' he says.

He is happy, though, with other benefits brought by Buzzsaw. 'We save a huge amount of time and money by not having to print drawings with every issue, ' he says. 'And the audit trail linked to each document makes it easy to see who has accessed a file and when they accessed it.'

Another bugbear for Coutts is the regular company personality/name changes he has experienced while using ProjectNet. It was initially provided by Cephren, which changed its name to Citadon, before joining forces with Bidcom in the UK. If these names do not ring a bell then perhaps BlueLine-Online will - it was the original name before Cephren.

'It was confusing that the name changed a lot, and it could have resulted in a loss of confidence, ' says Coutts. That is the nature of the venture capital-backed market, where growth is king and nothing else will do. You can expect to see the market shrink further as more companies merge or fold over the coming years.

The electric window in Coutts' car of collaboration is the time that can be gained for the design team by using a good extranet. 'Our designers can now work right up to the wire before an issue rather than having to put down tools at 2pm to print, copy, collate and issue a drawing package, ' he explains.

Unfortunately, every silver lining has a cloud, and Coutts has already found this one. 'The time is, of course, stolen back from the design team on Monday morning when they come in and have to start printing all the newly posted drawings to place on clips, ' he says.

It is possible, though, to resource the team differently by employing a document controller who can deal with all incoming information from the other team members.

It seems that an extranet will not result in better buildings or faster delivery times for the construction of the building. However, an extranet that is well-configured and used by the entire team will result in improved communication, leading to more informed decisions being taken first time, every time.

For more details on extranets visit: www. extranetnews. com

For products visit:

lwww. asite. com

www. citadon. com

www. buzzsaw. com

www. businesscollaborator. com

www.4projects. co. uk

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