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Data Management for WANs

CAD Manager’s Column: How to manage CAD and BIM data across your company without losing important information.

I get a good number of questions about how to best manage CAD and BIM data across wide area networks (WANs) to support distributed- and home-based work teams. What continues to surprise me is that the problem has gotten worse over time as data set size and expectations have exploded while Internet speeds have remained static.

In this edition of the CAD Manager’s Newsletter, I’ll start to guide you through discovering your WAN needs and talk about how to manage your data, plus offer some possible solutions of how to manage work via WANs. Here goes.

Image source:  MR/stock.adobe.com.

What’s Really Required?

Perhaps the best first question in the process is: What should a good WAN data management strategy include? Here, in no particular order, are the key components I’ve come to believe are required.

An enforceable storage, numbering, and revision scheme. This is how you know where the current versions of files are and assure that everyone is on the same page. Whether you use a software application or file folders and manual file naming, the point is to achieve consistency. Note that enforceability (via software tools or management edict) is key — users cannot be allowed to improvise on naming, revising, and storing files!

A file locking mechanism. In cases where multiple team members may need access to the same file, there must be a way to assure that one team member doesn’t write over another team member’s file. There are a variety of software and WAN management tools that can provide file locking, which we’ll explore later. 

A data synchronization tool. The only thing better than keeping track of everything is not having to and that’s what data synchronization is. A transparent file service that makes it seem like all the data you need is on your local server even when it isn’t. More on this later.

Durable backup/restore for disaster recovery. This is most likely taken care of by your IT department and includes the ability to store massive amounts of data offsite and then retrieve it rapidly to bulk-restore entire servers, user email accounts, etc. (CAD managers typically need not worry about this unless retrieval times are too long.)

Local project archive storage. These archives contain all data needed to “reload” an old job and work on it again. Archives typically are made at key points in a project timeline (bid, initial submittal, final submittal, as-builts, etc.). The archive data must be locally available to the CAD manager so jobs can be quickly pulled from archive (no waiting two days to download something from the cloud).


Company Size and Topology

Now that we know what to manage, let’s turn our attention to how our company size affects our approach. The first thing to consider for your data management plan is how your company is configured from a topology point of view. The reality is that the farther your offices and workers are from each other, the bigger an IT problem you’re going to have. So, think about which of the following categories your company best fits into:

  • Smaller company with all data in one server location, with some remote-based and travelling workers.
  • Medium-size company with a few branch offices and travelling workers.
  • Large company with many branch offices and travelling workers.

Using the small, medium, and large breakdown allows us to reach the following conclusions quickly:

Small: Moving files over WANs isn’t required in this case, so a complex IT networking infrastructure doesn’t need to be part of the equation. However, fast remote access tools are required to keep remote workers productive. Therefore, any filing/naming/revision standards must be enforced locally, file locking issues are handled by the network, and remote workers are supported at the best available speed.

Medium/Large: The need to have multiple offices working on the same files inevitably leads to users complaining about network speed between the offices. Workers then tend to “work around” the situation by making unauthorized copies to their local machine/server which means the same data can be edited in multiple locations. This “working around the WAN” scenario often leads to a total lack of file locking and frequent violation of the filing/naming/revision criteria that any good data management system must maintain. In these cases, only data synchronization can make the situation tolerable.


It Is Entirely About Speed

What I’ve come to believe over the years of watching companies connect over WANs is that no matter what you attempt to do to manage your data, users will revolt if they perceive the WAN as slowing them down. Here’s a common example as I see it play out:

  • Procedure says a user in Portland must open a 60MB background topo map for a Civil 3D project from a project server located in Minneapolis.
  • The Portland user uses the correct procedure to open the project and waits 6 minutes for the files to load and resolve.
  • Frustrated, the Portland user copies the map to the local Portland server, edits the file link location and experiences load times of 17 seconds.
  • The Portland user now proceeds with the bootleg files and is caught completely unaware 8 days later when data has been manipulated on the base map and their project no longer aligns.

This example scenario plays out in all disciplines and software packages with the common denominator being user speed. Simply put: Users don’t like to wait and if they perceive your data management procedures are slowing them down, they’ll work around them — often with project managers urging them on so they can more quickly complete the work!


Addressing the WAN

The conclusion I’m forced to draw is that unless you operate in a single server, single location small company, your data management strategy is only as good as your WAN. And, by good, I really mean fast.

If your users can access the files they need over your WAN with little perceptible drop in speed, then they will happily follow your data management edicts since it won’t slow them down to do so. But the words fast and WAN typically don’t go together since large files don’t flow through low bandwidth WAN connections, right? In these cases, data synchronization becomes the key tool for WAN acceleration.

The inescapable recommendation: Before you worry about a data management plan for your medium-to-large company infrastructure, you need to upgrade your WAN to achieve fast data sync and operating speeds so your users won’t revolt.


Why CAD/BIM Are Different

One question I’m often asked by senior management groups is why CAD/BIM managers are always asking for faster computers, faster networks, more storage, etc. I’ve heard CAD managers described as needy, expensive, and always asking for the most expensive toys.

The answer I always give is, “Because they’re working with massive files that require a lot of processing power.” I’ll often continue with something to the effect of, “One BIM user equals about 10 general office users, so they simply need more computing and network resources to do their job.” Sometimes, sadly, I also must explain these facts to IT. You should be prepared to use these talking points to bolster your argument when you start pushing for upgrading your WAN tools.


A Quick Look Ahead

Of course many companies are out there trying to provide you with tools to upgrade your LAN speed. Some simply seek to speed up file transfer speeds, some seek to automatically replicate data across all your servers, and some replace the filing system to tightly integrate with your CAD applications. All these approaches have relative strengths and weaknesses.

Some of these approaches to WAN management are hardware-based, some strictly software, some use your network, some use a cloud provider, and some use portions of each. If it sounds complex and confusing, that’s because it can be, so it’s important to educate yourself on the options.


Summing Up

In the next issue of the CAD Manager’s Newsletter we’ll examine some of the approaches outlined above in more detail with the goal of preparing you to become an advocate for upgrading/modernizing your WAN. Until then.



Read more about CAD Management on our  CAD Management Resource Page


Robert Green

Robert Green performs CAD programming, standardization, and consulting services globally. He is the author of Expert CAD Management: The Complete Guide. Reach him via his website (greenconsulting.com/).

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