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AECbytes "Building the Future" Article (July 10, 2008)

Autodesk and Bentley’s Unprecedented Interoperability Agreement

On Tuesday, July 8, 2008, the unthinkable happened. Autodesk and Bentley hosted a joint press conference at which they announced an agreement to expand interoperability between their respective portfolios of AEC software. They are proposing to accomplish this by exchanging software libraries, including Autodesk RealDWG, to improve the ability to read and write their respective DWG and DGN formats in mixed environments with greater fidelity. They will also support the use of each other’s APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) to build better integration between their individual applications. For more details on the announcement, you can see the press release at both the Autodesk and Bentley websites.

The Historical Context: Looking Back at the Relationship between Autodesk and Bentley

To say that this news came as an unexpected surprise is to put it mildly. When I first heard of the announcement, I found it not just unbelievable but actually downright bizarre. Even since I can remember, starting from the days I first started writing about AEC software in 2001, Autodesk and Bentley have had the most adversarial relationship in the AEC technology industry—which seemed natural considering that they are the two main leading vendors in the field.

I can still recall the Great BIM debate hosted by Jerry Laiserin in 2003 in which Autodesk, represented by Phil Bernstein, and Bentley, represented by Keith Bentley, disagreed on everything about BIM except its importance and potential benefits to the industry. Autodesk advocated the centralized approach to building data, while Bentley pushed for the distributed, federated approach. Autodesk believed in the revolutionary approach to BIM with its (at that time) newly acquired Revit application, while Bentley felt it should be evolutionary with its BIM solutions built on top of its existing MicroStation and Triforma platform. The two companies even had sharply differing views on interoperability at that time. Autodesk believed that file formats could stay proprietary and that interoperability was best served in providing designed interconnections to the building model data contained in its applications. In contrast, Bentley strongly advocated open file formats to promote free exchange of building data between applications from different vendors. In fact, the encryption of the revamped DWG file format in the release of AutoCAD 2004 at that time emerged as a major bone of contention in the debate, as it meant that MicroStation’s ability to let its users work directly with AutoCAD DWG files without needing translation would no longer work with DWG files created by AutoCAD 2004.

At each of Bentley’s BE Conferences in 2004, 2005, and 2006, there were constant critical references to Autodesk, with the Bentley executives continuing to emphasize their difference in philosophy from Autodesk in issues such as forced retirement of products, open standards and interoperability, open versus proprietary file formats, the federated data approach as opposed to the single file approach, and the evolutionary approach to technology implementation versus starting over from scratch. In the 2006 BE conference, Autodesk came in for some more flak for changing the DWG file format once again in the 2007 version of AutoCAD, for continuing to keep it closed and proprietary, and for continuing to push proprietary formats such as DWF for electronic publishing instead of the industry-standard PDF. I was not able to attend the 2007 BE Conference, so I don’t know what transpired there, but having recently attended the 2008 BE Conference, one of the most notable aspects of the event was the complete absence of the usual Autodesk-bashing in the executive keynotes and sessions. While this was quite mystifying to me at that time, looking back now, it seems evident that some talks towards this interoperability agreement must have already been initiated at that time

Why Work Together? And Why Now?

Given the long history of disagreement and combative relationship between the two companies, it seems natural to ask what made them come together after all these years and decide to work together.  From Bentley’s perspective, it actually makes perfect business sense, given that Autodesk’s Revit platform is continuing to gain in momentum and seems to have established itself as the leading BIM application for AEC (see the AECbytes BIM survey published last year, in which 67% of the respondents were using or evaluating Revit as opposed to 15% using or evaluating Bentley’s BIM solutions). If Bentley’s solutions can work better with Revit, Bentley users will not be forced to switch applications to work better with design partners and consultants using Revit, and that is terrific for Bentley. But what has made Autodesk agree to this, given that it can take away potentially new customers who might otherwise have been inclined to switch to Revit?

According to Autodesk, as per its press release as well as what senior executive Jay Bhatt had to say at the press conference, it is entering into this agreement with Bentley to better support customers that are using their products in mixed environments, and it sees this as part of a larger commitment to provide technology that improves productivity and efficiency across the AEC industry. The famous 2004 NIST study that quantified $15.8 billion waste due to interoperability was cited to further rationalize the agreement. Credit was also attributed to the personal zeal and enthusiasm of two interoperability champions, Norbert Young of McGraw-Hill Construction and Patrick MacLeamy of HOK, for their role in inspiring the two companies to work together. By virtue of its acquisitions of the STAAD and RAM structural analysis tools that work with Revit, Bentley is supposedly already Autodesk’s largest development partner, so making the relationship stronger made sense, according to Autodesk. 

There is absolutely no doubt, of course, that this is the right thing to do for the industry as a whole. Greater interoperability between Autodesk and Bentley solutions will benefit all the AEC firms who use them, improving workflows, allowing better re-use of information, and reducing the time and effort needed to take information back and forth between applications.

But the question still remains: Since when did a leading vendor that dominates an industry, like Autodesk in AEC, start “doing the right thing?” Just like Microsoft in the general software realm, Autodesk has been the “800-pound gorilla” in the AEC industry that everyone loves to hate, despite their overarching reliance on its products. How does a company like this go from being ultra-competitive, closed, and criticized for only playing lip-service to interoperability, to becoming open and initiating an interoperability agreement with a competitor that does not even seem a serious threat, and that too, practically overnight? It does seem “too good to be true,” and I’m sure there will be many cynics out there looking to find the real, ulterior motive that prompted Autodesk to come together with Bentley. While I am not cynical, I am certainly skeptical. I don’t think Autodesk needed to do this for business reasons at all. But it will certainly go a long way towards improving the public image of the company, which could have been the main incentive behind the deal. I am also willing to concede that Autodesk may be undergoing a gradual change of heart (and business tactics) under the leadership of Carl Bass who took over as CEO a couple of years ago.

While the suddenness of the announcement has certainly taken everyone by surprise, there was nothing especially noteworthy about the timing, according to Autodesk. Talks had apparently been going on between the two companies for some weeks, technical details were being worked out, and the announcement was made as soon as things had been properly ironed out. In the context of a broader timeline, this was actually the culmination of many things that were happening in the AEC industry such as increased globalization, larger volumes of work, the emergence of BIM as a true driver, diverse workflows and processes, and expanding technology portfolios that included the use of many different applications. Also, Autodesk had been in the process of opening up the Revit platform anyway through continuous API development, which made the planned interoperability with Bentley applications not that difficult to envision. 

What Does the Future Hold?

According to Greg Bentley, who was representing Bentley at the press conference, this is the most significant announcement that has been made in the last 25 years of AEC technology history. While not everyone would agree with that overarching assessment, there is no doubt that the interoperability agreement between Autodesk and Bentley is certainly an unprecedented one. It will take some time for the companies to work out the exact details and for the industry to actually see and benefit from the results of this agreement.

Thus far, we have associated the term “interoperability” in the AEC industry with an open standard such as the IFC. It is important to note that Autodesk and Bentley are not proposing to enable interoperability between their applications through the IFC but through APIs and directly working with each other’s file formats. So what does this mean for the status of the IFC? In my analysis of the Great BIM Debate of 2003 mentioned earlier (which was published in Cadence AEC Tech News, but is no longer available online), I had written:

I would also say that the issue of interoperability will become more or less critical depending upon how well Autodesk’s BIM strategy plays out. If Revit proves itself as an effective, efficient, and intelligent BIM tool, Autodesk’s “designed interconnections” approach will prevail over the “open file format” approach, and interoperability efforts such as IFC will lose ground. Otherwise, openness and interoperability will gain momentum, and we could even see non-proprietary building model alternatives to IFC that are developed with newer and superior data modeling principles.

It seems to me that while interoperability is certainly gaining momentum, this is happening more as Autodesk envisioned—through direct integration rather than a common open file format. The IFC has not gained significantly in adoption since the time I wrote that article, and contrary to what I had speculated then, it doesn’t seem likely that an alternative open file format will be developed that will work better than the IFC. Instead, Autodesk will just continue to acquire companies that make supporting technologies—such as its recent acquisition of Ecotect—and directly integrate them with its products. And it seems to be no longer confining the integration to just these companies but also extending it now to its competitors.

Looking ahead, one can’t help but speculate: Is this just a precursor to something that seemed even more unthinkable earlier but does not seem so farfetched anymore—the acquisition of Bentley by Autodesk?

About the Author

Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at

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