Autodesk Dragonfly emerges from its larvae

Project Dragonfly is an Autodesk Labs technology preview of a web-based, simple to use architectural planning tool. It represents a step towards a future where CAD and BIM model editors are not considered bloated, complex, or desktop-bound. Whilst the current functionality of the tool is limited, it is technically impressive, and the underlying concept hints that Autodesk’s broader web strategy (as discussed in ‘Autodesk Beyond Desktop CAD & BIM’) is proceeding at a slow, but steady pace.

BIMserver and the potential of server-side BIM

We are now at a stage where a computer's speed and network connection are no longer significant process bottlenecks in digital architectural design. As a consequence the need for efficient digital collaboration tools within the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry is a growing requirement. The BIMserver project from TNO and the University of Eindhoven is exploring how collaborative design can be improved through the combination of Building Information Model (BIM) and open source server technologies. Unlike conventional, workstation-based CAD software, BIMserver stores BIM data within a dedicated server where it can be accessed by all members of the design team simultaneously. Whilst conceptually not a new idea, the project is the first to move beyond the research lab and be promoted as software (almost) ready for production deployment within AEC organisations.

What is a BIM server?

BIM in its most general sense is a collection of 2D, 3D and textual data that when assembled within a computer’s memory creates an accurate and detailed representation of an architectural project. Like its predecessor CAD, BIM data is typically stored in a digital file (or files) where it is accessed directly by complex, workstation-based applications such as Revit and Microstation. In contrast a BIM server stores all design data internally and exposes its information to client applications through a series of well controlled and documented interfaces. This has a number of practical and technical advantages, the most significant being all client applications read from, and write to, the same digital model. In comparison when using a file-based BIM it is up to each participant to ensure they are working on the latest revision of the project’s files. Additionally by centralising the flow of data a BIM server enables near real-time collaboration as changes to the model are reflected on all clients each time their view of the data is refreshed from the server.

Another important characteristic of a BIM server is that the building model exists as a live entity, distinct from the client applications that interact with it. This means client applications are simpler to write because they do not need to know how to comprehend an entire digital model, they simply need to ask the BIM server for the subset of information that concerns them. For example using a traditional file-based BIM an application that counts the number of doors in a design needs to parse the file, construct an in-memory model, and then count the door instances. In comparison a BIM server handles the parsing of the digital model, all the client application needs to do is construct a query that asks how many doors the design has. Another benefit of a live BIM is that the server can automatically respond to outside events such as scheduled processes or changes to data hosted by external services. For example the BIM server could monitor the pricing and availability of materials used in the design and automatically update the model to reflect these variations. The end result is that instead of being viewed as a static, “dumb” file, the migration of the Building Information Model into a server would create a far more dynamic and accessible project resource.

Autodesk Beyond Desktop CAD & BIM

or: How they Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Internet

It is my opinion that Autodesk is in the early stages of implementing a bold Internet-centric strategy that if successful will position it as the Software + Services giant within the Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry. Excluding the spin-off and re-purchase of Buzzsaw during the Dot-com bubble one could say Autodesk's attitude towards the Web, like the rest of the AEC industry, has been tepid at the best. In a similar manner to Microsoft, the historical and financial foundations of Autodesk lie in the traditional, desktop software market. Here its catalogue of heavy-weight tools compete for domination of the competitive CAD, BIM, animation and rendering markets. Unlike Microsoft vs Google, Autodesk and its competitors (such as Bentley Systems) have yet to face serious competition from an Internet savvy, AEC software heavy-weight. Rather than waiting for such a competitor to emerge Mike Haley, Jeff Wright and the rest of Autodesk's Content division are building it 'in-house'.

Following up on CAD Collaboration

I have had a fairly positive response to my last CAD Collaboration post. Feedback has highlighted a couple of areas that need clarifying and developing a little further.

On Snapshots and Deltas

Paul Wilkinson of the Extranet Evolution blog put up a fairly long post that discussed many aspects of the article. Of most interest was his comments on the snapshots and deltas idea, significantly the fact that a similar approach had been adopted three years ago by BIW Information Channel from BIW Technologies.
BIW’s Accelerated Transfer pack condenses file revisions to a fraction of their previous size allowing faster transfer – up to ten times faster in the case of some files.

In the case of BIW it used delta encoding as a means of increasing data transfer speeds to remote, poorly connected places such as construction sites. This is slightly different to the concept I proposed because it deals with binary deltas rather than deltas at an abstracted digital model level. Binary deltas are great at a file level because they do allow changes to the same file be transferred somewhere very quickly. The problem is that binary deltas are intended to convert a file to a carbon copy of the remote source file from top to bottom.

Using delta's in a collaborative digital model is all about exchanging design intentions (i.e. rotated wall A 45 degrees) so that the model is updated but many properties of the actual file remain the same. In many respects it is more complex process than a low-level delta courtesy of a tool like diff. However this added complexity provides the benefit of enabling users to choose what design intentions they wish to inherit from other team members without worrying about the associated digital baggage that accompanies their team member's file.

CAD Collaboration

(or how I learned to stop worrying and love ambiguity)

This post covers the issues surrounding CAD collaboration and past approaches to resolving it. It then concludes with a concept of how decentralised digital model development could be undertaken in a manner that reflects the ambiguous environment in which collaborative design is experienced.

The Problem of Digital Model Orientated Collaboration

Modelling an architectural design in CAD almost never occurs in an isolated environment. Typically work is undertaken with at least one other person simultaneously in order to meet development deadlines. Unfortunately issues arise when participants wish to simultaneously change the same design element, or a set of design changes inadvertently effect another aspect of the digital model.

Recently I was asked to comment on a debate that was raging in the Vectorworks forums related to its minimal set of collaboration functionality. Whilst the forum thread initially begun as a feature request it soon evolved into rather heated debate over how collaboration functionality in CAD should function (if at all). Central to this online debate was the role internal offices processes and politics held in the success of a collaborative digital model. Whilst this is typically the most visible factor we must also keep in mind the mere introduction of digital models has significantly altered our collaboration psyche.