Why not Sharepoint?

Earlier this week someone asked me about using Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services to create an extranet (apparently, his IT department had proposed this as an alternative to them using an external application service provider, ASP). I expressed some reservations, mainly focused around two areas: first, support for common architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) file formats and for AEC processes, and, second, getting the most appropriate licensing structure.

On the first issue, while I have no doubt that SharePoint could be used quite successfully to help a small workgroup share a body of documents largely created using Microsoft Office products, I wonder if a SharePoint-based extranet could easily manage the numerous CAD files commonly exchanged within construction project teams. Even if access and viewing issues can be overcome, would such an extranet be able to manage AEC-specific workflow-type processes such as requests for information (RFIs), change orders, architect’s instructions, etc.

Compared to the simple single license-per-project approach (no limit on number of users, number of documents, etc) commonly employed by UK providers of web-based construction collaboration technologies, I had concerns about how easy it would be to license a multi-user extranet using SharePoint. My concerns, its seems, were correct. I found a post in Aimless Ramblings from a Blithering Lunatic . . . which describes the license requirements – lots of talk about having enough licenses to cover the expected number of concurrent users, plus licenses for the underlying SQL database.

Permanent link to this article: https://extranetevolution.com/2005/09/why_not_sharepo/

The reputation effect of Wi-Fi

Silicon.com is reporting that London’s Canary Wharf business district is now to be Wi-Fi enabled. I don’t expect to see legions of people heading for the Isle of Dogs for free internet access, since the same article also says the operator, The Cloud, will be offering the service through service providers such as BT Openzone and O2, who often charge fixed monthly fees per end user (international readers should be aware: open Wi-Fi networks are the exception not the rule in the UK).

Contrast this with the US situation where free Wi-Fi access is widely available – something that Silicon.com columnist Peter Cochrane has argued more than once (in one of his articles, he likens using someone’s open Wi-Fi connection to taking refuge under the awning of a shop until the rain stops, or using the light from a shop window to read a map more clearly).

If I have a business meeting and find that my host has an open Wi-Fi connection, I will – if I have the time – take the opportunity to catch up with my email, etc. Perhaps we should regard an open Wi-Fi network as part of the hospitality routinely extended to meeting attendees (after all, most visitors will be given coffee, access to cloakrooms, heating and light, so what is the big deal about a few bytes of bandwidth?). Pedants will argue about security, ‘getting something for nothing’ and so on, but an accommodating approach to visitors, neighbours, passers-by, etc might do wonders for the host’s reputation.

Permanent link to this article: https://extranetevolution.com/2005/09/the_reputation_/

Browser battles

Catching up with Silicon.com, I read that Symantec is suggesting that the Mozilla browser Firefox is less secure than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, though the latter is still more likely to targetted by hackers. Read the original article here.

Mozilla hit back by claiming that its "ability to react, find a solution and put it into the user’s hands is better than Microsoft". Moreover, Microsoft’s "vulnerabilities are more critical ….With Firefox – yeah, you have holes but they’re much less serious. … Which would you prefer, to have a broken finger, or your head ripped off?" Nice analogy.

Permanent link to this article: https://extranetevolution.com/2005/09/browser_battles/

Avanti reality check for extranets

One of the sessions at yesterday’s Constructing Excellence conference was an update on the DTI-funded Avanti programme. I have watched this initiative with some interest, particularly as it has incorporated the PIX Protocol into its outputs. I contributed to the Protocol on BIW’s behalf, but I haven’t (yet) become directly involved with the Avanti project.

Simon Rawlinson of Davis Langdon gave some feedback from some of the initial demonstration projects. He highlighted the perennial problem of measuring the benefits of IT adoption to support collaborative working. Drawing on feedback from the initial projects – none of which involve BIW (Asite and 4projects seem to be the main participants) – he urged a reality check as it appeared the extranets they were employing did not support some key workflow processes. I spoke to Simon after his session; he gave me a contact to follow this up for further information, so I will hopefully be able to post more details in due course.

Permanent link to this article: https://extranetevolution.com/2005/09/avanti_reality_-2/

Do exhibitions work?

Two Asite guys were at the CE conference yesterday and we had a chat over coffee. I learned Asite will be at the PropIT show at London’s Olympia in early October (the second year they have attended the exhibition) – the other vendors from last year (including BIW, 4projects and Aconex) decided the event’s low attendance did not justify a return.

After PropIT 2004, I talked to Duncan Mactear of 4Projects about the value of exhibitions to IT vendors such as BIW and its fellow NCCTP members. On the positive side, we agreed that they could be useful in promoting awareness of, and interest in, construction collaboration technologies, but how useful would depend on the organisers abilities to get the right audience to attend the event and in sufficient numbers to make it worth our while (Last October, unfortunately, my final day memories include people scavenging for whatever freebies were on offer, filling carrier bags with pens, mouse-mats, mugs, key-rings and just about anything else that wasn’t nailed down!).

These days, many more of our sales leads seem to come from personal recommendations and from internet searches. Where events do yield sales leads, they tend to be conference or seminar-type events – where you can perhaps predict more accurately the likely interests of people attending the event.

I hope I am proved wrong. BIW is to be part of an NCCTP stand at the Construction Computing Show at the Barbican in London in November. This will be the first time that NCCTP members – five of them, on this occasion – will have done a joint marketing initiative, and the event (which used to be aimed mainly at CAD users) should attract a lot of AEC IT users. The question remains, though, will these visitors be the kind of people who make decisions about using collaboration technologies? I am a little sceptical, but the event will be an opportunity to promote the NCCTP’s conference the following week (and – who knows – I might even get a few people interested in buying my book!).

Permanent link to this article: https://extranetevolution.com/2005/09/do_exhibitions__1-2/

Constructing Excellence

I attended Constructing Excellence‘s members convention in London yesterday – the first major event for members of the former "Collaborating for the Built Environment" (or BE) organisation since it merged with CE (it is now known as the Building and Estates Forum so at least it retains its BE abbreviation). The event was a joint conference with the Housing Forum (another CE group), and it also marked an even more recent merger: the Construction Clients Group joined CE just a few days ago.

It was an interesting day, with lots of earnest discussion about how CE should expand, move the collaboration agenda forward and continue to represent the views of the more ‘progressive’ businesses within the industry. From some of the debate, it seemed I was not alone in wondering if CE’s expansion might dilute the organisation’s push to improve team integration, etc.

(Amid the calls for collective unity, common change agendas, etc, it was a shame that chairman Peter Rogers used his address to make blatant ‘plug’ for the extranet business of which he is also a director and shareholder – Asite. More than one delegate remarked on this to me afterwards.)

Permanent link to this article: https://extranetevolution.com/2005/09/constructing_ex-3/

Information management policies

Nearly half of UK-based businesses do not have a document and information management strategy despite the explosion in volumes of corporate data being generated and the new pressures imposed by Sarbanes-Oxley, etc, according to the latest research quoted by infoconomy.com

A survey of IT professionals found that although awareness of the importance of effective information management was high, the awareness of legal requirements was still poor.

Nearly half of those interviewed said their company still did not have a document and information strategy in place; over a fifth said company information was still held only as hard paper copies.

According to the research, the top four information management priorities were: retrieving documents quickly; collaboration between departments on joint documents; consolidating information management; and data security.

“Following the adage that knowledge is power, and recognising that knowledge is often derived from information, then enterprises should be smarter and more powerful than ever,” said Forrester analyst Barry Murphy. But the reality is far from it: “Most enterprises are drowning in a sea of unorganised information, unable to leverage its full potential.”

In the context of the UK construction industry, I, of course, believe that web-based collaboration tools have great potential to assist organisations in “leveraging the full potential” of their information. They can break down the ‘silo mentality’ that often prevents information being shared, making information and processes more transparent. And, of course, by committing all information to an electronic repository, all four of the above-mentioned priorities can be met: information can be found more quickly, there is more timely, detailed and context-sensitive collaboration on documents and drawings, instead of multiple ‘islands of information’ one single, consolidated source of data needs to be managed, and – assuming the provider has all the relevant resilience built-in to its hosting environment, backed up service level agreements, etc – data is managed more securely.

Permanent link to this article: https://extranetevolution.com/2005/09/information_man/

Broadband growth

I was updating some stats recently regarding uptake of broadband in the UK. According to Ofcom’s 2005 UK communications market overview:

  • There were over 6 million broadband homes in the UK by the end of 2004 – over 90% more than at the end of 2003 – and over 7.5 million by May 2005
  • There are now more broadband than dial-up internet subscribers
  • By the end of 2005, 99.6% of UK homes will be connected to a broadband-enabled exchange
  • Broadband prices are falling, and speeds are increasing – both of which are helping drive demand and new applications
  • Two points occur to me.

    First, given the fragmentation of the UK construction industry and its domination by small or medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), often sole-traders or small family businesses, such growth in broadband use will remove at least one argument against using web-based technologies (ie: that their comms links are too slow or too expensive).

    Second, broadband access will almost certainly encourage individual users of construction collaboration technologies to log-in to the solutions from home as well as the workplace. I know several industry customers (eg: BT) encourage home-working (believing this fits with individuals’ needs for more flexible working); web-based solutions fit very neatly with such policies.

    I frequently work from home and can log-in to BIW’s solution at a time that suits me – sometimes after the children have gone to bed in the evening, for example. Increased home-working underlines the need for providers to ensure their applications are always available, 24/7. Nothing could be more frustrating than putting some time aside to catch up with some work, only to find that the system is not online when you need it due to system maintenance or some other problem.

    Permanent link to this article: https://extranetevolution.com/2005/09/broadband_growt/

    Real-time collaboration

    Through silicon.com, I found an interesting white paper from Web-Ex.

    While not focused on construction collaboration or extranet technologies, it had some interesting points to make about employing an externally hosted solution.

    In passing, I was struck by a new abbreviation. The paper quotes research by the Service and Support Professionals Association and Tech Strategy Partners, which found that, of total IT budget, on average 47% goes towards the total cost of support and management (what Web-Ex abbreviates to TCSM – an interesting, and more specific, variation or sub-set of total cost of ownership, TCO). In other words, almost half of an organisation’s IT budget is spent just keeping current systems running – highlighting the need for organisations to manage their chosen systems as efficiently as possible.

    Web-Ex’s white paper looks at most of the familiar criteria used to compare the suitability of web-hosted v. in-house solutions: affordability, availability, scalability, performance, supportability, manageability, compatibility, specialised needs, security, compliance and vendor viability. It concludes:

    Most enterprises that have investigated this trade-off have agreed with IDC’s conclusion from its Executive Brief entitled Conferencing through Service Providers for Low Cost and Reliability: “[Real-time collaboration] should drive productivity, not inhibit it. Because running multimedia communications services is not a core competency for most companies, many will find that entrusting this responsibility to someone else is the best way to make sure conferencing features are useful and that business objectives are met. Service providers offer expertise and economies of scale that are not typically available internally.

    I have argued much the same kind of thing in my book. Indeed, replace IDC’s references to conferencing with ‘construction collaboration technologies’ and you’d have my argument in a nutshell.

    Permanent link to this article: https://extranetevolution.com/2005/09/realtime_collab/

    The “Software as a service” Age

    I notice Bill Gates is reported as saying the "software as a service" age is here. Nothing new in such an announcement from Microsoft. Some of their products have now moved forward a bit, of course, but also Microsoft is looking over its shoulder at ASP businesses such as salesforce.com. If you’re interested in knowing more about the virtues of SaaS, this March 2005 article from aspnews.com gives a good overview of the advantages and potential benefits.

    Permanent link to this article: https://extranetevolution.com/2005/09/the_software_as/

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