David Harrison’s latest StressFree blog posting talks about BIMserver and the potential of server-side BIM. It is a fascinating post, describing how the University of Eindhoven-based BIMserver.org project combines building information modelling (BIM) software and open source server technologies, rather than being reliant upon workstation-based CAD software. And this is no blue-sky project – it is, David says, “(almost) ready for production deployment within AEC organisations”.
However, deployment is unlikely – at least in the short-term. Currently, most AEC design organisations are dependent upon standalone workstations, and only enable collaboration on a model by locking-down or checking-out the relevant area so that a single user can work on it. And, to date, BIM centralisation in a client-server environment has just proven too complex.
However, the open source approach adopted by BIMserver offers a (potentially less expensive) alternative to the closed source licenses and high per-user licensing costs typical of current AEC BIM software. The code is written in everyday Java making it more accessible to businesses and casual programmers, with ample operating systems and server products to support it. Moreover, these technologies, as David points out, are:
“all vibrant, open source projects, allowing the BIMserver team to effectively ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’. This makes the tasks of development and support simpler because there exists an extensive knowledge base around the server’s fundamental components. Also from a business standpoint it is reassuring that if BIMserver or one of its dependent projects should cease to exist, the organisation can continue to operate and extend upon the existing open source code.”
But this is no guarantee of success unless one or more of the major BIM vendors decides to support the BIMserver approach. This would then allow users of that vendor’s BIM products to adopt the centralised model-sharing approach without having to significantly change the tools they currently use – assuming, of course, that they’ve even begun to make the transition to BIM!
Right technology, right time?
I met with Vedran Zerjav, a researcher from Croatia, last week and, among other things, we debated the impact of the recession on BIM technology investment in AEC design practices. Broadly, we felt there might be two mindsets – one pessimistic and short-termist, the other more optimistic and long-term in perspective – dictated by their experiences and resources during this construction downturn. Firms with dwindling workloads and who may be laying off staff may be reluctant to invest in new technology, while others, if cash reserves, etc, allow, may take the view that now is exactly the right time to invest so that they will be ready when the recovery comes (Vedran and I also discussed issues relating to people and processes, including intellectual property and contracts – BIM, as I’ve said before, is not simply about a technological change). And with the major software vendors facing shrinking revenues as AEC demand for the existing products dwindles, there may never be a better time to bag a BIM bargain (or to lobby a BIM vendor to back BIMserver and create a new differentiator)!
Like David, I think the open source BIMserver approach has the potential to revolutionise collaboration and BIM in the AEC industry, but it probably needs product support from at least one major BIM vendor (if BIMserver integration proved a powerful competitive edge, others would either need to do the same or develop competing BIM server products of their own). Industry professionals also need to be aware that there is an alternative to mainstream workstation-centric approaches that would enable improved collaboration among the fragmented, dispersed teams typical of AEC projects.
I hope the open source software community realises what an opportunity it has to overhaul software practice in a major sector of the economy.
I also think there is potential for existing Software-as-a-Service collaboration software developers to add their expertise. After all, they have extensive experience of managing server-based environments, with full redundancy and back-up capacity, etc, and of providing secure web-based access to users spread across multiple organisations. Their business models are also based on hosting software applications (and therefore shouldering the risks that would otherwise be borne by in-house IT departments) and spreading their substantial fixed infrastructure costs by charging subscriptions across multiple customers. With support from forward-looking investors, they may also be more prepared to take the risk of developing such a new product/service as they will not be cannibalising license revenues from selling conventional on-premise systems. (Yes, BIMaaS again).