AEC Business Continuity Services: An Idea Whose Time Has Come
Paul Seletsky

The transformation of web-based AEC collaboration sites into affordable business continuity solutions for AEC businesses is an idea whose time has come. Ironically, this opportunity is being squandered by its key developers at precisely the same time that theyíre searching for new revenue sources.

All surviving providers of AEC collaboration have modeled their pricing structure toward a very narrow audience of large corporate firms and have focused their products primarily as collaboration tools for interactive use with project consultants. Leading USA-based examples employing the externally hosted or ASP [application service provider—JL] model include: Autodesk Building Collaboration Services (popularly known as Buzzsaw), Constructware, e-Builder, PrimeContract, ProjectEdge and ProjectTalk, as well as numerous regional and niche players. Properly re-envisioned and restructured to serve a wider community of small- to mid-size firms, a service such as Buzzsaw, for instance, could potentially be transformed into an AEC firmís primary data, communications, delivery, and backup system—in addition to providing all of its current collaborative functions.

Essentially, what Iím referring to here is no less than turning the AEC collaboration model on its head and offering it as a complete outsourcing of an AEC firmís server farm as well as its CAD and other software licensing distribution; repositioning web-based fileservers to a new role of providing access to all manner of building information and project management data. The re-envisioned service I am proposing resolves many current, critical, delivery and maintenance issues:

> It offers single- or multi-office firms the means by which to have their data stored, backed up, and accessed from a single (provider-secured) site, regardless of where the individual firm member desiring such information might be.

> Relying on external access for mission-critical applications and data mandates that such access be via connection to two unrelated internet service providers (ISPs), routed via two different last-mile connections, to ensure redundancy. Given cheap DSL and cable modem access, such redundantly secure connectivity is no longer an unrealistic scenario, and the bandwidth is certainly there. Furthermore, most ASP collaboration services rely heavily upon data-emergency facilities providers, whose sole business purpose is provisioning their clients with a level of security, equipment, and redundant electrical power-generation that no AEC firm could ever match—or afford—on their own.

> The database foundation of the AEC collaboration services, in addition, has now matured in succesfully enabling real-time document check-in and check-out verification—including reference file up/downloading—thus ensuring that data worked on in one location is not simultaneously (or asynchronously) duplicated in another.

> Finally, in the case of collaboration providers that are also design software developers (as is the case with Autodesk and Buzzsaw, as well as with Bentley Systems and its Viecon service) the dual role creates a clear opportunity for them to provide a "Windows Update" type of delivery mechanism—perhaps even a thin-client design software solution where appropriate—thus obviating the need for a (full, fat-client) installation on each user's computer desktop. That alone could save AEC IT managers hundreds of hours in installation or upgrade time and truly bolster the vendors' "value-added" claims for software licensing via online subscription.

Companies such as Centerbeam and Everdream, which offer turnkey leased/outsourced desktop and network infrastructure, already provide this type of service on the more conventional Microsoft Office-application side, through sophisticated software-delivery agents. I firmly believe that given current economic conditions many small, mid-size and large AEC firms would seriously consider migrating their AEC-specific applications to the data-outsourcing solution I am proposing.

As it is now, most AEC firms can barely sustain the expense and technical complexity from the flow of their users' building information and project-management data, intermingled with all of their project-related email correspondence and so forth. Add to that mix the daily, weekly, and "by-phase" tape backups (and retrievals) and the perennial upgrading of hundreds of PCs from one application software version to the next, and youíll readily understand why IT staff are often sleep-deprived.

A modest pricing structure of $5 per gigabyte of data ($2,000/month for 400 Gb worth of storage—as opposed to what might now cost $25,000/month) would unquestionably draw the attention of scores of CIOís (and CFOís) everywhere. To those IT directors still insisting on physical control of their servers, Iíd only ask them to think about the data-disaster scenarios that occured among New York City AEC firms in or near the World Trade Center on 9/11—and then ask themselves again whether having their data stored remotely ultimately doesnít make more sense.

I know the answer from first-hand experience—I went through that same self-examination process after surviving the first WTC attack in 1993. If I learned anything from experiencing and recovering from that first attack, it was that ultimately (data-wise) there had to be a better way.

Paul Seletsky is Director of Technology at Davis Brody Bond (DBB), a 100-person architecture firm in New York City.

Jerry Laiserin comments: Paul Seletsky's modest proposal represents the logical conclusion of an emerging trend toward outsourcing information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure by AEC firms. At DBB, Paul has already outsourced such "standard" in-house systems/services as email and telephony. The resulting benefits include lower costs, greater reliability and service that is both more up-to-date and more easily updatable. Rather than run with a "lean" ICT staff, as erroneously reported elsewhere (DBB's ICT complement of three in a 100-person firm yields a perfectly average total-staff-to-ICT-staff ratio of 33:1), Paul's outsourcing initiatives at DBB allow him and his staff to focus more time and attention on things that directly impact key practice issues—in DBB's case those are architectural design and documentation, not management of telecommunications infrastructure.

Of some 70,000 AEC design firms in the USA (architects, engineers and multi-disciplinary practices), 95% are too small to carry the cost of even a single full-time ICT staff person (similar proportions hold among the roughly 240,000 general contracting firms and 380,000 subcontractors in the USA; firm-size distribution among designers and constructors in other global AEC markets is comparably skewed toward those that are "small" in ICT terms). Since at least as far back as 1992, I've been suggesting that this represents a significant market opportunity for "design office technology in a box." While no vendor has yet stepped up the plate with such an instant-AEC-office bundled offering, strategic practitioners such as Paul Seletsky have been cobbling together various outsourced components on their own. This trend likely will reach a "tipping point" some time in the next two years, after which today's adventurous outsourcing will seem mainstream and today's mainstream in-house approach will appear quaintly outdated.

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