Tool of the trades

Tool of the trades

By Stuart Finlayson

Necessity proves to be the mother of invention again as one of Australia's foremost construction firms develops an all-encompassing document management system to keep its workers across the globe in the loop at all times.

In 1997, Sydney-based construction firm CADX was involved in the project to build the Star City Casino, situated in the city's Pyrmont area.

The project was dogged in its early stages with document management and distribution problems. This prompted the project's IT manager to come up with a solution to overcome the difficulties the various organisations involved in the project had in getting important documents-such as alterations to the building plans-into the right hands quickly and efficiently.

That decision, unlike many subsequent ones made in the premises once it finally opened, turned out to be anything but a gamble, as the system, known as projectCentre, has grown into an extremely useful tool for CADX and its associates, managing construction projects throughout the design and construction phases of the project.

It remains one of the first programs of its type to be developed anywhere in the world. As such, it is used by thousands of construction teams working here in Australia and is now gaining popularity in overseas markets, including New Zealand, the UK, Singapore, the US, Hong Kong, China and Italy, acting primarily as a repository of all information relating to construction projects and facilitating the electronic distribution and archiving of documents.

"There were a variety of document management issues during the (Star City Casino) project which prompted the IT manager of the project to set about putting together some software to solve the various document management and document distribution problems," recalls Tim Clare, marketing manager for CADX. "It was one of the first web-based document management systems in the world to be designed specifically for the construction industry, and the system has been constantly evolving since that particular project."

The application is currently being utilised by workers on projects as diverse as the Sydney Cross City Tunnel, London Heathrow Airport Terminal Five and Dubai Central Prison.

While projectCentre provides all users with secure access to documentation from a central computer server, it can produce savings of up to 10 percent of project costs by making the project management process easier and faster.

At any one time, over 120 projects may be hosted on the site, with users from literally thousands of individual contractors to major engineering firms accessing and sharing files on everything from engineering drawings to job contracts.

It enables all members of the project, from design consultants, project manager and clients to contractors, subcontractors and suppliers, to all work from a single web-based server, enabling them to maintain control and approvals.

Such has been its success that CADX has in recent months explored a variety of ways to enhance the system to provide additional services and information to construction workers, both in Australia and around the world.

It has not all been smooth sailing for CADX and its innovative projectCentre system. The popularity of the system which led to its widespread use also led to the need for increased bandwidth and made the need for always on connectivity and access to the hosting site all the more critical. Trouble was, CADX found that with that need came spiralling costs, while obstructions encountered by its maintenance people forced its hand and prompted a move to an alternative hosting company, which is where Hostway came in.

"There were a number of issues," explains Clare. "The traffic on the site was increasing all the time, so commercial considerations came in to it, as the increased bandwidth we needed was getting very expensive. Access to the hosting site was also an issue, as it was very hard for our IT support people to gain access to the previous hosting centre, which hindered our efforts when it came to doing any maintenance. We found that Hostway were much more professional in terms of their support levels and they offered a better hosting environment more cost-effectively."

The switch to Sydney-based, Hostway, for a co-location service has enabled projectCentre to enjoy a substantial jump in bandwidth availability coupled with redundancy in security and power back-up.

CADX houses its web server in a co-location facility with Hostway at GlobalSwitch's data centre premises in Pyrmont, Sydney, renting both rack space and a high speed connection to the Internet.

"As we house construction projects which are literally happening around the clock in different parts of the world, we required a hosting partner for the long term which could provide redundancy, security and ample bandwidth while at the same time enabling us to access our server," says Clare.

"By choosing this hosting service we are now in a position to proceed full steam ahead with building a sophisticated e-business portal for the construction industry."In the coming months, CADX will use its projectCentre site to construct a comprehensive e-business portal and provide a full range of services for the construction sector, including tender management, and online catalogues and purchasing. Specifically, it will enable small owner builders to select and nominate a tradesperson at the moment of need. "projectCentre will simply but efficiently SMS a building request to registered tradespeople," explains Clare. "For example, a builder who requires a bricklayer can log on to the website and input the request for labour including details of the job size, location and date. projectCentre will then SMS details to members. Our initial trials with this have been so successful - with as many as five responses gained within a five minute timeframe - that we now plan to fully embrace this type of service."

With projectCentre set to assist in the management of construction projects worth billions of dollars, Hostway is playing a major role in ensuring that the service remains both secure and available and performs its role as the most widely used internet-based project management site in Australia.

"It's critical for them that they have 24x7 availability, with 99.99 percent uptime," stresses Michael Farrell, General Manager, Hostway Corporation. "That is due to the global nature of the site, as well as the fact that it contains mission critical information."The website's security is guaranteed via username and password entry which ensures that individual data can only be accessed by authorised members of the project team. While sharing of documents in electronic format is desirable, this is not always practical. It is the appropriate revision of the document for particular users which is crucial in any construction project. projectCentre manages a workflow process, allowing documents to follow a predefined issue and approval process.

Revisions can be stored and tracked as they are made so that authorised personnel can retrieve the most up-to-date data whenever it's needed. Being browser-based, users require nothing more than an Internet Connection, an Internet Browser and a projectCentre login to access their relevant projectCentre information The migration to Hostway from CADX' previous hosting company also proved to be painless, as Clare reveals.

"projectCentre was seamlessly migrated from the old hosting company across to Hostway within 24 hours. Hostway's focus on customer service and their proven ongoing investment in research and development has now resulted in self-help tools that can assist us to solve problems without having to necessarily contact a support team member.""With a solution like this, it is very difficult to maintain 100 percent uptime (when changing hosting providers) because in order to do that, you would have to replicate the whole solution at the other provider, so when migrating something like this, there is usually a certain amount of downtime but that downtime can be limited through very careful and well thought out planning beforehand," explains Farrell. "In this case, it was basically a matter of how long it took to unplug one box in a particular location and connect it to the rack in the new location."

While the service provides 24x7 support and back-up, there are always occasions where maintenance work of some description will need to be carried out, at times that rarely meet with the approval of the service operatives, as Farrell explains.

"In these contracts there is what is known as a maintenance window within the service level agreement. That maintenance window is usually at some time like 1am or a Saturday or Sunday morning and we use those maintenance windows to minimise the impact to customers. Pretty unsociable hours for us though-our technical people don't like it at all!"

Going forward, and with CADX full of fresh ideas on how to expand the site and broaden its range of services to the construction community, Farrell insists that Hostway will be able to support them every step of the way.

"It's very scalable. If they wanted to move to multiple racks within the facility we have all that there for them. Whatever they want to do with it, we'll be able to handle it."

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