Could AEC SaaS collaboration vendors deliver zero-wait web experiences to their end customers on any device and over any type of network?
Last week at Bentley Systems‘ Year in Infrastructure conference in London (see previous posts), I listened to a couple of case studies about the use of its collaboration suite ProjectWise – for example, in the delivery by US contractor DPR Construction of a major hospital in San Francisco. One speaker flagged up web performance issues as a factor in successful deployment, and this got me thinking about how vendors can deliver a satisfactory user experience via the cloud.
From local hosting to SaaS
As some readers will know, ProjectWise has been a staple part of the Bentley software portfolio since the late 1990s. Previously known as TeamMate, it was rebranded as ProjectWise in December 1998, and, as project teams sought to enable collaboration via a standard web-browser, it grew a loyal user-base, particularly among users of other Bentley tools such as Microstation. I first encountered the product in 1999 when I wrote a case study for the IT Construction Best Practice Programme (now long gone) on ProjectWise use by London firm, DLG Architects. ProjectWise enabled them to distribute and share design information with other companies in their project teams by offering a web-browser ‘window’ into the data held on their or a contractor’s server.
In the face of competition from pure cloud-based, Software-as-a-Service firms, such local hosting has been pretty much the norm for ProjectWise; it is still primarily presented as a range of server products, supported by various content publishing and design review tools, and many construction organisations and major industry clients remain insistent on hosting the software and associated data in-house. However, the 2012 launch of Bentley’s CONNECT services (post) extended its reach as a cloud-based service, and last week’s announcement of Bentley’s partnership with Microsoft to offer Bentley CONNECT MANAGEservices via the Microsoft Azure Platform-as-a-Service and Infrastructure-as-a-Service will provide even further options.
Incidentally, the alignment is not surprising: Microsoft’s Windows operating systems and its Office suite are used by the vast majority of construction-related businesses. I recall ‘Software-plus-services’ was Microsoft’s declared strategy in 2008 – and it’s a simple description that could be applied to Bentley Systems’ approach (among others).
The expansion of cloud-based capability is a necessity. Globalisation, growth in flexible and mobile working, and the emergence of building information modelling (with, in the UK at least, an increasingly imminent need to share BIM information via a web-based Common Data Environment, CDE) are making knowledge workers more reliant on instant access to accurate, up-to-date information (‘a single version of the truth’) wherever they happen to be.
This is a growing IT challenge for businesses which host their own collaboration platforms. Design files are increasingly large (and BIM is adding to that pressure), stretching the capacity of many corporate telecommunications networks, and firms are often resorting to local caching to speed up the sharing of frequently requested large files – in the afore-mentioned hospital case study, DPR’s Atul Khanzode highlighted the need to regularly update caches across the team, for example. ‘Differencing’ technologies – such as that offered when ArchiCAD 13 was launched in 2009 (post) – can also be deployed to reduce the bandwidth congestion, along with web acceleration solutions such as Akamai‘s routing optimization and advanced caching (deployed by construction SaaS vendors Aconex and Asite). And HP showed off video compression and WAN optimisation for their screen-sharing remote graphics software yesterday.
Instart Logic targets SaaS providers
The latest to enter the web acceleration market is California-based Instart Logic, which has just announced a new vertical product line focused on SaaS providers wanting to deliver premium, zero-wait web experiences to their end customers on any device and over any type of network. Instart Logic argues existing content delivery networks (CDNs) cannot effectively serve highly dynamic web applications or deliver the level of personalisation and data freshness required by SaaS customers. Its product is based on two technology offerings (the news release talks fluent ‘techie’ about a new Inter Proxy Transfer Protocol, framing and multiplexing dynamic transfers, and using Google’s protobuf technology): “Taken together, Global Network Accelerator and Dynamic HTML Streaming combine to provide a substantial boost in performance for dynamic web-based SaaS applications.”
I understand the service is especially useful for those SaaS applications using large amounts of personalised dynamic content or that deliver their service to a dispersed user base (both are the core services for all construction collaboration technology providers, of course). Instart Logic’s HTML streaming technology is able to distinguish between unique and non-unique HTML code. The solution automatically sends non-unique portions to a user first from the closest available server so that they are able to get into the application faster.
Agile project manager provider VersionOne is an early adopter; CTO Ian Cullen says:
“We provide an entirely web-based system to over 50,000 agile development teams worldwide building mission critical code with our agile project management software. Our customers are largely developers. They are extremely intolerant of poor application performance. So we need to make sure that our own application performs at the highest level no matter where our customers are. Instart Logic’s innovative services give VersionOne users fast, fresh updates from constantly-changing projects and improved our performance by 50%.”
As the construction collaboration specialists add further nodes to their SaaS networks, and as BIM use expands CDE demand, such technologies could potentially be invaluable.
Clearly Bentley’s partnership with Microsoft Azure to deliver its CONNECT MANAGEservices will see it substantially expand its global network. And – given that some ProjectWise users are clearly reliant on existing local caching technologies to overcome broadband bottlenecks – it will need to ensure that its customers’ SaaS experience is as least as good if not better than their locally-hosted experiences.
Autodesk is also building its own ecosystem of software-plus-services to support the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) market, though it doesn’t seem to have promoted its own SaaS collaboration solution, Buzzsaw, which was launched soon after ProjectWise, with anything like the same vigour as Bentley has maintained for ProjectWise (when I visited Autodesk’s Sheffield office earlier this year, we focused much more on Navisworks, Revit and the newer offerings of Autodesk BIM 360 Glue and BIM 360 Field, and Buzzsaw was hardly mentioned). Nonetheless, the various Autodesk 360 cloud-based offerings will increase demands on users’ existing network resources.
Aconex already has several hosting centres and its use of Akamai shows it is aware of the potential speed and user experience issues in delivering SaaS, and other vendors with global aspirations (4Projects, Asite, Conject, RIB, etc) will doubtless be considering the geopolitical as well as technological challenges of hosting data in multiple centres (in August Viewpoint opened a new US hosting centre to support its 4Projects acquisition – post).