Microsoft moved to the cloud somewhat grudgingly, but its Office 365 product suite has enabled firms to offer cloud-based Sharepoint for construction collaboration.
A prolonged and unremittingly poor experience with Microsoft SharePoint in the early 2000s probably prejudiced me against any notion of using SharePoint as the basis for a construction collaboration platform. This proposal was something that I occasionally heard from in-house IT teams who were presented with the idea of an externally-hosted project extranet (Why not SharePoint?) – rather than see their empire eroded, they tried to convince their project team colleagues that they could replicate all the necessary functionality on their own servers (such projects were usually rejected or, if they proceeded, simply failed to live up to the IT team’s promises).
However, given the widespread use of Microsoft Server and Office applications, it perhaps wasn’t surprising that software vendors also looked to provide some level of integration with SharePoint. Bentley ProjectWise and Citadon were offering this in 2006 (post) and viewer provider Cimmetry also offered an integration with its AutoVue product (post). In 2008, Sword Group (now Maclaren Software) offered SharePoint integration through its C2Share product, and Wennsoft (rebranded now as Key2Act) was doing something similar. And in 2011, I talked to Cadac’s Gert-Jan de Kieviet about his business’s SharePoint-based Organice product (de Kieviet thinks SharePoint is the future). SaaS construction collaboration vendor Conject (now part of Aconex) was one of several AEC SaaS vendors also offering integration with in-house SharePoint systems.
Clearly, SharePoint would not work straight “out-of-the-box” as a construction collaboration environment. It needed substantial adaptation to emulate even some of the construction-specific functionality of the cloud-based systems which commanded a growing market share during the 2000s, and the folders-based architecture was not always as intuitive to use compared to a platform built on a relational database.
With Google Apps racing ahead in the cloud-computing sphere, Microsoft eventually realised that it could no longer rely on revenues from selling on-premise software and operating systems, and began to explore parallel cloud computing opportunities, trialling a web-based Office product (c. 2008), as part of a “Software plus Services” strategy. This culminated in the launch of Microsoft Office 365 in June 2011, with a range of packages for consumer, education and enterprise customers incorporating various online services including email, SharePoint and Lync, subscription-based access to familiar tools such as Word, Excel, Powerpoint, etc, and cloud-based storage in what is now branded OneCloud. Microsoft’s cloud embrace has also, of course, seen it invest in a global network of data centres to support its Microsoft Azure service – used by, among others, Bentley Systems (2013 post, 2016 post).
This shift from reliance on internally-hosted applications and storage to a more cloud-based architecture has opened up new opportunities for businesses to create SharePoint-based environments. A US business, the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Simplex Group, for example, provides VPO Cloud (‘virtual project office’) to customers wanting (in its words) “The #1 easiest construction management software in the Microsoft Cloud.” The Simplex Group has extensive professional services and project management experience as a Primavera reseller, and developed VPO Cloud to enable its architecture, engineering and construction customers to work more collaboratively with teams outside their organisations by sharing documents and streamlining construction processes like RFIs and submittals.
SharePoint, hosted in the Microsoft Cloud, is at the core of the system. Where a customer company already uses Office 365 as a managed services solution, VPO will be installed in its Office 365 environment. If the customer does not have Office 365, VPO will provide a unique Office 365 environment. For speed, a templated instance of the VPO system is normally deployed with core functionality to support RFIs, submittals, meeting minutes, daily reports, plus bid, document and drawing management capabilities, but the template can be customised to suit customer or project needs. This blog post from CEO Laura Nee, Can you use Microsoft Office 365 for Project Management? gives a flavour of what can be accomplished with VPO Cloud, as does the video below (note, it’s 15 minutes long).
I am not sure how well VPO Cloud will cope with the demands of BIM and creating a common data environment, but given that many organisations are still working predominantly with traditional 2D drawings and other construction deliverables, this platform will support their immediate needs. I did a quick search of the VPO website for “BIM” and returned just a single hit: a post looking at Microsoft’s development of VR tools such as HoloLens. For solution providers still predominantly focused on supporting “electronic paper”, the shift to a data-driven, model-based process is likely to throw up some major challenges.