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V for Victory

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Computing: MicroStation V8's ability to link with AutoCAD should be the answer to every architect's dreams. So is it?

Collaboration is our great hope for improving the design and construction process, a hope that has always been hampered by not being able to share and reuse data easily. In a previous column I wrote about project hosting as a vehicle for accessing collaborative data, but having access to the data is only one part of the problem facing designers. Being able to read the data is another problem altogether. Although 15 of the top 20 architects in the UK use MicroStation, as a whole the industry favours AutoCAD, largely due to its expansive installed base.

I polled a number of practices that use MicroStation, AutoCAD or both and asked them for their most common concerns when using MicroStation or when using AutoCAD and working with MicroStation users. Not surprisingly, they all voiced similar concerns about the translation of data between systems.

All the hype about V8 has focused on its DWG read-write circus act.

Following my straw poll, I can see why. It is what every user of MicroStation lists as their top priority; but is that all that V8 is about? I asked Keith Bentley, chief technical officer of Bentley Systems: 'Is V8 jumping on the DWG bandwagon?'

He explained that V8 is much more than just another DWG file editor. With MicroStation Version 8, Bentley is changing the DGN file format for the first time since the introduction of MicroStation. This was a big decision because changing file formats makes upgrading older versions more onerous. Furthermore, users have historically been slower to upgrade their tools when the file format changes, preferring to wait for others to bug-test the new tool. (V8 has, incidentally, enjoyed the longest Beta-test period of any Bentley tool. ) 'OK, so there is a new file format, but what is that going to do for easing translation headaches?' I asked. The answer is highly technical. Called a 'structured data store', the new file format follows the now well-trodden path set by Microsoft, which means that the V8 file is essentially segmented into many separate compartments for storing information.

Think of it as similar to Windows, where we save files inside folders that in turn sit inside other folders - except that in the case of V8 there are folders inside the V8 file.

'OK, so the new file format is a structured data store, but what does that mean for me?'

Well, it means that the file format is unlikely to need to change again for another 20 years because of the flexibility of the file structure. It also means Bentley can make quantum leaps in developing complementary tools for MicroStation.

To understand why this is of value, we need to look back. Bentley Systems has a reputation for pioneering ideas in the AEC software industry but not always delivering them as anticipated. In the early '90s we were given a glimpse of Objective MicroStation, a fully linked objectmodelling tool (almost a decade before the birth of Revit). In the mid'90s, we witnessed the birth of Bentley's database-driven ModelServer products and later that decade Bentley gave us ProjectBank, a tool that takes a DGN file and breaks it down into tiny components so that the data can be accessed concurrently by more than one person.

However, deployment of the new technology was hampered and, in some cases, strangled by the restrictive file format of DGN. As a result, some of the projects never reached fruition.With the new DGN file format, these issues have been addressed, resulting in a file format with enormous scalability and accommodation for ideas yet to be dreamed of.

'OK, so the new file format is bigger than American cars, but doesn't that mean the file size is colossal?'

No it does not. In fact, while the maximum file size has been increased from 32MB to a colossal 4GB (a limitation imposed only by the Windows operating system), during testing the V8 DGN files were approximately 20 per cent smaller than their V7 counterparts.

'OK, so the new file format produces smaller files with data that is easier to access by different means, but what is V8 going to do for me?'

Well, other limitations have also been removed from the file format.

You now get an unlimited number of levels (layers) - well, a couple of million anyway. The cell (block) size has also increased from a paltry 65k to 4GB, as has the length of the cell name. Furthermore, a MicroStation cell can now be stored in a separate file just like AutoCAD's WBLOCK.

And both MicroStation and the Windows operating system now handle the fonts so that, at last, True Type fonts are native in V8.

'OK, so there is a new file format, producing smaller files, with more flexible data access. We have more levels, bigger cells and proper fonts, but what is V8 going to do for me in a collaborative situation?'

Well, first of all you can read and write DWG. . .

Joe Croser can be contacted by e-mail at joec@adrem-dcx. com or tel 07973 263360

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