AECbytes Feature (April 17, 2014)
Towards the end of last month, I attended Graphisoft’s launch of its new BIMcloud service in Tokyo, Japan. Graphisoft chose to have this event in Tokyo because many of the leading design and construction firms in Japan have standardized on ArchiCAD as their BIM solution. These include Nikken Sekkei, a 2,500 person architecture, engineering, planning, and construction management firm with over 20,000 projects in 40 countries; Kajima Corporation, a global construction firm with over 9000 employees worldwide; Obayashi Corporation, also a global construction firm with over 9,200 employees, which provides additional construction related services such as engineering and urban development; and the somewhat smaller Maeda Corporation with 3,700 employees, which is focused on building construction, civil engineering, and design/build projects. All of these firms have a long history in the AEC industry going back to at least over a 100 years, with Kajima Corporation being founded as early as 1840; they are also leading global AEC firms, with a particularly strong presence in the Asia-Pacific region. It is to Graphisoft’s credit that it has succeeded in establishing ArchiCAD as the dominant BIM application in these firms. As such, Tokyo seemed the perfect setting for the launch of its new BIMcloud service, guaranteed of a warm reception by Japanese AEC firms, many of which were able to attend the launch event in person.
Going solely by its name, BIMcloud would seem to be a way to store BIM models in the cloud, presumably for better collaboration and convenient access. In actuality, it is more than that, and this article explores its functionality in more detail. BIMcloud is best understood by looking at how it is different from what Graphisoft had until now for model-based collaboration as well as from other cloud-based AEC solutions that are currently available.
Recall that in ArchiCAD 13, released in the summer of 2009, Graphisoft introduced a new component called the BIM Server specifically to enable model-based collaboration between multiple team members working on the same project. Prior to this, ArchiCAD included some built-in collaboration capabilities through its TeamWork module, which allowed the building model to be divided into parts, across a local network or intranet, for different design teams to work on. However, in the absence of a central storage for the model, it did not really support spontaneous, real-time collaboration. The BIM Server was introduced in 2009 as a central store to maintain the complete and up-to-date BIM model of a project, while the individual team members used their individual ArchiCAD licenses to work on local copies of the model on their own computers (see Figure 1). What made this effective was that instead of the whole model being copied back and forth between the master model and the copies, only the modified elements were copied using a patented “Delta Server” technology, which enabled the synchronization of the master model and the local copies to happen almost instantaneously, irrespective of the size of the model. (This actually works effectively thanks to ArchiCAD’s efficient data structure for storing BIM element information, which makes the size of changes that are to be transmitted in the range of bytes or kilobytes rather than megabytes.)
Figure 1. The earlier BIM server technology in ArchiCAD for model-based collaboration, where the central model was stored on the BIM server and ArchiCAD users worked on local copies, synchronizing them frequently with the central model using a technology that could detect and transmit only the modified elements between them.
While the TeamWork module in ArchiCAD 13 was completely revamped to work with the then-new BIM server and make collaboration on a BIM model easier and more seamless, there were no substantial updates to this functionality until now. It was possible that as projects grew more complex and their models grew larger, the BIM server might, at some point, no longer be able to accommodate them, which could cause some disruption in the design process as new or additional BIM servers would have to be deployed and the server settings re-configured by the BIM/CAD/IT Manager.
It is precisely this problem that Graphisoft’s new BIMcloud was developed to solve.
In contrast to the earlier scenario where the individual users were connected directly to the BIM server holding the master copies of models, the new BIMcloud works as an intermediary or a gateway between the individual users and the servers that actual hold the model data, as shown in Figure 2. This new configuration has several advantages. To start with, there can be as many BIM servers as required to hold project data. Servers can be cloud-based (such as those provided by Amazon Web Services) or they can be private, on-premise servers, located anywhere in the world. All these servers are managed by the single BIMcloud application, and servers can be added, removed, upgraded, or downgraded by the BIMcloud administrator without it being visible to users at all, let alone disrupting their workflow. Also, the individual users are no longer interacting directly with the servers, but are doing it through the single BIMcloud, which can be accessed using a simple HTTP or HTTPS protocol instead of the more complicated IP address of a server, which they had to use before. All they need is a standard Internet connection to participate in collaborative BIM projects from any location in the world.
Figure 2. The new configuration for model-based collaboration with BIMcloud acting as the intermediary between individual users and the multiple BIM servers deployed by a firm.
It should be noted that BIMcloud itself does not contain any BIM data, but is used to efficiently manage all the BIM servers where the data is actually stored. Having this additional component in the user-server configuration does not result in any slowing of the collaboration, as was demonstrated live during the launch event, with multiple users collaborating on the same model from different locations in the world. The “Delta Server” technology works exactly as before, and multiple team members can continue to use the TeamWork functionality in ArchiCAD to collaborate almost instantaneously in real time.
It can be seen from Figure 2 above that the individual users accessing the project data through BIMcloud could be using not just ArchiCAD but also BIMx Docs, the nifty iPad app that Graphisoft launched a few months ago for reviewing the 3D models as well as the 2D documentation of a project. (Please see the recent AECbytes review of BIMx Docs for a detailed overview.) Recall that BIMx Docs users could view projects that had been published to the Graphisoft cloud, a 5GB cloud storage for BIMx models that was provided for free to all Graphisoft customers that had a maintenance contract with the company. While this continues to be an option for viewing project data in BIMx Docs, users will soon also be able to view the project data that is located on their firm’s BIM servers by connecting to them though BIMcloud. There are some additional enhancements planned for BIMx Docs to take better advantage of its ability to work with BIMcloud and be part of a collaborative workflow, such as the ability to add markups and a messaging capability.
In addition to supporting the HTTPS protocol for enhanced data security, BIMcloud also includes backup and version rollback options, allowing the model to be rolled back to any earlier version. In addition to standard administrative tasks such as maintaining databases of projects and users, setting up roles, and administering permissions, BIMcloud also logs every action by every user, allowing all project activities to be monitored and audited when needed. In addition to enabling the team members from the firm deploying BIMcloud to collaborate on a project, it can also be set up to allow external team members (such as engineers, consultants, contractors, subcontractors, clients, etc) to access the project via their mobile devices using BIMx.
Being a cloud-based solution, BIMcloud can be deployed on a public cloud or run from a private in-house server installed on premises. The private cloud setup option enables companies working on projects with extended security requirements to keep their data on premise and entirely under control.
The Graphisoft BIMcloud has been already released in Japan in March, a nod to the progress Graphisoft’s Japanese customers have made in their BIM implementation in recent years and the importance of the Asian market to the company. It is expected to be rolled out worldwide along with ArchiCAD 18 in a couple of months. The pricing details are unclear at the moment, but should be available closer to the launch.
Even though the new Graphisoft BIMcloud is a cloud offering, it is unlike most other cloud offerings by AEC vendors by not being primarily a data storage or a SAAS (software as a service) application. It is, first and foremost, intended to eliminate the complexity firms experience when commissioning multiple servers to store design models, and further, to streamline the process when multiple team members have to collaborate on the same project. It hides the complexities of servers, IP addresses, and so on from the individual designers, allowing them to focus on their core professional expertise—architecture, engineering, and construction.
(You can see some personal observations and photographs from my trip to Tokyo here.)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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