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Collaborative strength

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With colossal amounts of data, Wilkinson Eyre needed a pretty impressive management system, and seems to have found it

One of the strange things about architecture, says Chris Poulton, Wilkinson Eyre's CAD and IT boss, 'is that, although staff numbers are typically quite small, the amount of information they use is astronomical. With a staff of less than 100, we are currently running a bit less than a terabyte of data. So in conventional computing terms, it's serious stuff.' A terabyte is a thousand gigabytes, or, if you prefer, a trillion bytes.

Managing this involves quite serious software and, since the practice almost always issues drawings via email, it has to have a serious internet connection. As it happens, its internet service provider is just round the corner from the office and the two are connected by a dedicated, leased fibre-optic cable running at 2Mbps, with burst speeds of up to 10Mbps.

Almost all contractors and consultants have broadband these days, and there have been only a few small contracts in the past couple of years for which the practice has had to print out and courier drawings.

Wilkinson Eyre stores its near-terabyte of files on a fault-tolerant RAID (redundant array of independent [or inexpensive] disks) subsystem, which, given the current low price of quite big hard drives, is less dramatic than it sounds and makes a back-up system with a similar capacity readily affordable. Poulton has looked at the possibilities of storing the data on an external host, but he says: 'It's quite expensive, especially when you need, as you do, a high-speed connection - hosting is probably not appropriate for a practice of our size.' Although the size of the information whizzing around the practice electronically is what you inevitably get when you deal with CAD files, it still needs heavy-duty management, and Wilkinson Eyre has installed the Oracle Collaboration Suite. Poulton says: 'At the time we were buying, the only alternative was Microsoft Exchange, and Oracle charged a oneoff fee of £40 per user - we bought 100 licences.' The main downside, apart from early teething problems, has been that Oracle is a very specialised system and needs outside support - from T19 which, however, is excellent and is on call 24 hours a day. But, in practice, there have been few problems.

'We had a rogue email that went into a loop and bounced around the system for a bit, but apart from that it has been pretty stable, ' Poulton says. But the thing about Collaboration is that its parent Oracle is a database organisation: size is not an issue because Collaboration is based on a sophisticated database.

The Collaboration Suite provides email, voicemail, conferencing and a calendar, all of which can be accessed from anywhere in the world - they have tested it from China. It stores files intelligently and has a fast search engine. The practice uses MicroStation, so its operating system is Windows. A small application on each desktop talks to Oracle, which then takes control of the whole office computing environment seamlessly - and invisibly. There are very close functional similarities between complex databases and operating systems.

Collaboration talks to the database and the email clients and the web server, which deals with http access in and out of the office.

It sounds a bit convoluted, but Poulton insists that it's not difficult to set up. The practice has two main servers. The Oracle operations run from a Linux-based server and, for historical and 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' reasons, there is a second CAD file network based on Windows, which Poulton may change to Linux when the licence runs out.

So far the practice has been working calmly through Collaboration's communications sections. Poulton says: 'The Oracle system has its own internal email system - accessible from outside - which to the staff looks exactly like a Wilkinson Eyre internet service provider. It also does a calendar, so that if a PA wants to book a meeting for somebody, they can do it from anywhere - even from mobile phones.' And there is capacity for the system to store voicemails, although that has yet to be implemented.

Currently Poulton is opening up an intranet - so far only for members of staff, especially those who need to work from home or who are on site in another city. And in the next incarnation of the applications, due out soon, it will be simple to take the load off email and set up an exchange from which people can access material remotely.

Although Poulton uses Linux for one of the servers, he is not likely to implement it for the desktop. 'We are tied in to Windows because we use MicroStation - just as other practices are tied in to Windows because they use AutoCAD. And we have to stick with Microsoft Word and Excel, and have to use Explorer because quite a lot of the extranets we hook into during projects are set up to use only Explorer.' There is also the disincentive of familiarisation and retraining - which the practice had to go through when it abandoned Macs. But the main sticking point about moving to open source working is CAD's current Windows base.

Poulton is very security conscious.

There is a wireless section in the office network for communication with laptops. But Poulton ensures that data passed between the network and individual portables is encrypted - and staff have accounts that they need to access before gaining access to the main data. His concern is not particularly about outsiders stealing drawings or maliciously altering either text or drawing data - although he does not want hackers looking at financial data. The new intranet will pose problems in terms of how far and in what way outsiders should be allowed to penetrate into the databank. But he is confident that Collaboration will enable him to cope - and to improve the quality of the practice's lives as more and more of the system's features are revealed.

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