AECbytes Product Review (June 3, 2010)
Newforma Project Center Seventh Edition
Newforma Project Center is a project information management and collaboration application targeted towards architecture, engineering and construction firms, with capabilities for contract administration as well. It automatic indexes and categorizes all project information, manages project email, and includes review and markup capabilities, a web-based collaboration module, and dedicated interfaces for all project items including document sets, submittals, transmittals, RFIs, and action items.
Pros: New version uses a MySQL database for storing Newforma Project Center data, resulting in faster performance, five-fold increase in server capacity, and the ability to access data via standard SQL reporting tools; allows mirroring of project data on remote servers; improved external collaboration through several enhancements to Info Exchange; email integration expanded beyond Microsoft Outlook to several additional email applications; introduction of project email addresses for faster filing; expanded support for keywords which enables quick categorization and retrieval of project information; expanded capability of creating relationships between items; enhancements for contract administration and project administration; new Change Log feature for better transparency and auditability; includes several critical server-related enhancements including support for 64-bit server OS and virtual servers.
Cons: Complexity of the application is increasing with the addition of new features; no specific support yet for BIM and the model-based design and construction processes apart from the ability to directly open DWF files and view markups created in applications.
Price: Newforma Project Center Seventh Edition is available on an annual software subscription basis priced at $300 per user per year.
Newforma recently released the Seventh Edition of its PIM (project information management) application, Newforma Project Center. We first took a detailed look at the repertoire and capabilities of this application three years ago when it was in its Fourth Edition, followed by a review of the Fifth Edition in 2008, exploring its enhancements for contract administration, project monitoring, and external collaboration. Last year, the article “Collaboration, Project Management, and Project Information Management Solutions in AEC” provided a brief overview of the enhancements in the Sixth Edition of Newforma Project Center, including features for LEED certification administration and better support for digital workflows in BIM design processes with the ability to view markups created in applications such as Adobe, Bluebeam, and Autodesk Design Review, as well as the ability to directly open DWF files within Newforma.
The new Seventh Edition of Newforma Project Center is a major release of the application, with some dramatic enhancements and new features. To start with, the whole application has been migrated to using a MySQL database for storing Newforma Project Center data as opposed to the XML flat files that were being used earlier. While most of this change is “under the hood” and not immediately visible, it has translated into faster performance, increased scalability, and the ability to access data via standard SQL reporting tools, enabling custom reports to be created. Since MySQL is an enterprise-level database solution, the move is critical to the future development of Newforma, to ensure that it can continue to meet increasingly complex project requirements for data storage and access. Other key enhancements include the expansion of email client support beyond Microsoft Outlook, enhanced access to information for collaboration via Newforma Info Exchange, enhancement of administration capabilities, and a number of improvements that have been developed specifically in response to customer requests. Let’s take a detailed look at all of these enhancements.
Improvements in Performance and Scalability
The move from XML to MySQL for storing Newforma Project Center data is essentially a redesign of the back-end of the application in order to rebuild it for the future. Another related back-end development was replacing the previous search technology with the full-text search capabilities of MySQL. Both these developments have allowed optimization of many of the application’s capabilities, with significant performance and scalability improvements. The most tangible change is a dramatic five-fold increase in server capacity. So, for example, a single server can now index ten terabytes of project data, in contrast to the two terabytes it could index earlier. The new capacity allows a single server to support 10,000 projects, allowing Newforma’s customers to consolidate their existing servers and continue to expand the use of the application to more projects without adding more servers. More and more of Newforma’s customers are deploying the application firm-wide and are also migrating older projects to it, so the increase in the number of projects a server can support is very timely and will benefit them right away. One customer example is Affiliated Engineers, Inc., an MEP engineering firm of 700 people in 11 offices in the United States and Kingdom of Bahrain. Prior to Seventh Edition, the firm was faced with installing a second server to index the nearly three terabytes of project files on the firm’s network. But with the Seventh Edition, the firm does not have to install a second indexing server to keep up with user demand.
Another benefit of the back-end redesign of the application is better support for remote office and VPN (virtual private network) usage. Current business trends indicate that more work is being done remotely, so technologies that allow distributed teams to work together are critical. Many offices are choosing to centralize their data on a main server and allow teams to access it remotely (see Figure 1), rather than have different sets of data in different locations and deal with the synchronization and sharing issues. Newforma Project Center supports this trend by allowing remote offices to use a server to “mirror” project data on the main server and make it available locally to remote users on the remote server. Mirroring of Newforma Project Center data requires no additional setup in the application—it is activated by a simple administrator project setting. This mirroring can also be used in conjunction with the replication of project files via standard Microsoft DFS (distributed file system) technology. The performance enhancements resulting from the transition to MySQL have eliminated any latency issues between the central server and the remote server, making it easy for remote users to work with project data stored centrally. Another related enhancement is that the remote server can be a virtual server. In the Seventh Edition of Newforma Project Center, virtual server installations are fully supported.
Figure 1. Typical setup of Newforma Project Center to support a remote office. The diagram also shows how the Info Exchange collaboration module is implemented.
Info Exchange Enhancements
Newforma’s Info Exchange, the module for external collaboration (shown in Figure 1), has been expanded and improved in every release and the Seventh Edition is no exception. External project team members now have increased flexibility and granularity when viewing information in Info Exchange. For every project, you can specify which activity centers should be displayed in Info Exchange, as shown in Figure 2-a. It is also easy to control exactly what kind of information a team member can see by using the settings shown in Figure 2-b. There are three options for each of the project data items such as Email, RFIs, and so on: Show only items team member is on (the default option for an external user), Do not show any, and Show all (the default option for an internal user).
Figure 2. The settings used to control the display of the different activity centers for a project in Info Exchange as well as the information visible to every team member.
Another enhancement is the ability for internal team members to access the email messages filed to a project through Newforma Info Exchange. This can be helpful for those who are away from the office and cannot access Newforma Project Center—all they need is an Internet connection to be able to connect to Info Exchange to read and respond to important project-related messages. Email is accessed through the new “Project Email” activity center in Info Exchange, and there is the ability to search email as well as filter messages to speed up access to the required information (see Figure 3). Internal team members can see all project-related email in contrast to external team members who can only see the messages that they have sent and/or received. Internal team members are also provided with a “Copy to My Mailbox” option which allows them to copy emails from Info Exchange to a new “Newforma – Copied Messages” folder on their email client. This conveniently allows them to respond/forward an email through any email client, email web app or Smartphone while viewing email on the road. In addition to the ability to view and respond to email, Info Exchange has also been enhanced by adding an “Email Log” to key activity centers such as action items, submittals and RFIs, which allows team members to quickly find email messages associated with specific tasks (see Figure 4).
Figure 3. Viewing specific email messages in Newforma Info Exchange by using the word “carpet” as a filter.
Figure 4. The new Email Log associated with an Action Item in Info Exchange.
Other Info Exchange enhancements include a redesign of the Info Exchange home page which allows project team members to immediately see a list of projects they are involved in and a summary of open items, providing them with a more “at a glance” view of project status. This is an example of a refinement that was developed in direct response to customer feedback. Also, internal users now log into Info Exchange with Windows domain credentials which enhances security.
Project Email Enhancements
One of the most compelling features of Newforma Project Center has been its ability to effectively manage the proliferation of project-related email, keeping track of which was becoming a major challenge for AEC firms. It allows both incoming and outgoing emails to be quickly saved with their respective projects with a single click. In addition to filing general project emails, emails can also be filed as a submittal, transmittal, action item, new RFI, or response to an existing RFI. Many of Newforma’s customers had initially implemented the application because of the value of its email management capability alone.
Prior to the Seventh Edition, the email integration was limited only to Microsoft Outlook, for which the necessary plug-ins had been developed. In the new version of Newforma Project Center, this limitation has been addressed by extending the email integration to other email applications including Google Gmail, Lotus Notes /Domino Server, and Novell Groupwise (see Figure 5), avoiding users being forced to switch to Outlook to use Newforma effectively. The email filing works in a manner similar to Outlook, where email messages can be dragged and dropped into specific folders for different projects; however, the processing of an email as submittal, transmittal, action item, RFI, etc. has to be done as a separate step. The automated email filing option—which allows all email messages dragged and dropped in the project subfolders under the “Newforma - Items to File” folder to be filed automatically by the Project Center Server in their respective projects—also works for these other email applications, provided they are IMAP‐compatible.
Figure 5. Newforma Project Center extends email integration to other applications such as Gmail (top image) and Lotus Notes (lower image) in addition to Microsoft Outlook.
Another significant email enhancement in the Seventh Edition is the introduction of project email addresses for faster filing. If a user includes the project email address in the To: or CC: line of an email, it is automatically filed to the project. This is especially useful for Smartphone users, allowing them to file emails as they send them. The project email addresses are easy to set up—the IT staff simply needs to create one additional mailbox in order to support project email addressing for all projects. Subsequently, the project administrator can set up one or more email addresses for a project through a simple project setting.
The new version of Newforma Project Center supplements its content-based search capability by adding keyword support for project files and email messages. In earlier releases, keywords could be added to action items, submittals, transmittals, etc., but not to project files and emails. In addition to expanding support for keywords, a new Keyword activity center has been introduced that enables quick access to all items tagged with keywords. For example, Figure 6 shows all the items that are tagged with the “LEED” keyword being retrieved, grouped under three categories: Project Files, Project Email, and Project Items. Different levels of keywords can be set up: a global list for the entire firm, a project list specific to each project, as well as a custom list that can set up by individual users. It should be emphasized that the use of keywords is completely optional. For those willing to put in the extra effort to create keywords and associate them correctly with different items, they provide a quick way of categorizing project information, which makes it easy to find specific information when needed. Keywords are supported in Newforma’s Search feature as well, enabling items tagged with keywords to be quickly retrieved. Another keyword-related enhancement is that if categories are assigned to email messages in Microsoft Outlook, they are captured as keywords when those emails are filed in Newforma Project Center.
Figure 6. The new Keyword activity center in Newforma Project Center, showing all project files, emails, and items that have the keyword “LEED” associated with them.
There are many enhancements in Newforma Project Center Seventh Edition for contract administration (CA) workflows, building upon the CA support that was introduced in the Fifth Edition. Both the submittal and RFI workflows have been enhanced to accommodate multi‐disciplinary and contractor work processes. An RFI or submittal can now be closed without a response. Pending incoming submittals or RFIs created via Info Exchange show up in the appropriate Submittal or RFI activity center as pending incoming items, simplifying the incoming workflow. It is also possible now to file submittal reviewer responses after a submittal has been closed. A new “Record with Submittal or RFI” option is available when creating a PDF from the Viewer, helping to simplify the response workflow. All of these CA-specific enhancements are in direct response to the increasing traction of the application among architects, engineers, as well as contractors.
Other enhancements include the ability to create a richer set of relationships between project items, thanks to the new MySQL underlying database—any item can be related to any other item, as shown in Figure 7. Also, every activity center in the application now has a change log, as shown in Figure 8, which enables the higher standards of transparency and auditability that are being increasingly required of projects today. The Search/Snapshot functionality has been moved to the system tray instead of taking up taskbar space. There are several improvements specifically for project administrators, including increased flexibility in deployment, improved management tools for indexing and search, the ability to batch update projects with additional project folders and easily change project names, and the storage of the “My Projects” list for each user in the database, enabling users to access their list of projects from any system on their network. And finally, the Seventh Edition includes several critical server-related enhancements including support for 64-bit server OS (for Microsoft Windows 2008 Server), virtual servers (as mentioned earlier), Microsoft Exchange 2010, and 64-bit client OS (for Windows 7).
Figure 7. The expanded capability of creating relationships between items in Newforma Project Center.
Figure 8. The new Change Log available for every activity center, which enables better tracking of project workflow history.
Analysis and Conclusions
For an application that was launched just about five years ago, Newforma Project Center has developed into a very comprehensive application for managing the increasingly complex multi-disciplinary workflows in the AEC industry. It is also still unique in offering what it refers to as “project information management” or PIM for the AEC industry. While there are several other solutions providing different aspects of what Newforma Project Center provides, such as project management, contract administration, online collaboration, and so on, there is no other solution available that provides all of these services and in an integrated manner like Newforma does.
The product has already been steadily improving, with a solid set of new features and enhancements in every release. The Seventh Edition is no exception, with improvements in performance, scalability, email management, contract administration, keyword search, external collaboration via Info Exchange, and internal project administration. The initiative to rewire the application internally by switching to a MySQL database is commendable, and while all the benefits of that may not be immediately visible in this release, it provides a good solid foundation upon which to continue improving the application in future releases. It is also good to see Newforma Project Center extend email integration capabilities to other email applications in addition to Microsoft Outlook, thereby addressing what had been a significant limitation of the application in earlier releases.
Going forward, it would be interesting to see how Newforma addresses the challenge of better integration with BIM solutions, which is what will be required as BIM overtakes 2D CAD as the dominant technology in the AEC industry. The application is still very drawing-centric, which is fine for now, as most firms, even those using BIM, are still using drawings as their final deliverables for construction documents. But as the AEC industry transitions to using models not just for design but also for construction, we will need actual BIM-based project information management. Newforma Project Center still has to show evidence of a “breakthrough” technology for this, but hopefully, this will come right in time for the CAD to BIM tipping point.
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
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