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Project collaboration extranets

Project collaboration extranets promise a time and money saving revolution. Big clients are now trialling them on major projects, reports Sophie Kernon of NCE Plus.

A project extranet enables an entire project team - clients, engineers, architects, contractors, sub-contractors and suppliers to interact via a single project-designated website. From a scheme's inception to its completion all documents, drawings and communications are stored on the site.

Pre-extranet, team members typically worked using discrete documents, making for slow and inefficient cross-disciplinary communication. But the instant access to documents made possible by an extranet means all parties are now able to view changes as soon as they are made, and update their own project areas. The extranet also makes it possible to keep track of changes by creating a full 'project trail'.

In addition to storing data, an extranet provides necessary software, enabling users to work off the site without need for new connections or installations on their desktop computer.

A rash of project collaboration website service providers has appeared recently. Research carried out by the Construction Industry Computing Association has identified some 120 systems in the UK alone. It is predicted that, over the next year, the number will reduce as buyouts and mergers take place, and as the weakest providers fold.

'For all these firms there is going to be a big shakedown, ' comments senior IT manager at multi-disciplinary architecture and engineering group BDP, Paul Davies. 'Before long there is only going to be a handful left from those that exist today.' Dramatic changes in the market are expected over the next 12 months.

The US extranet market is roughly two years ahead of the UK but has yet to reveal a clear leader. However, early indicators here show provider Citadon taking a lead. Recently created by the merger of extranet providers Cephren and Bidcom, Citadon has received a big boost from leading client BAA's decision to give it backing.

'To use an extranet, all you need is a computer, an internet connection and a browser to connect from anywhere in the world, ' says Davies.

'It does not matter where you are, because internet browsers and connections are relatively standard. You don't need to do anything but log on and enter your password.'

Claims that massive time and money savings are possible through using a project extranet are now starting to stand up. Latest project information can be accessed instantly.

There is a single up to date copy of each file, printing costs are reduced and there is no need for couriers. Documents can be viewed and commented on by all who have access, with editing performed by the person who created the document or other specified users.

Importantly, establishing an extranet should not create extra administration. If a system is complicated and takes time to get used to, it probably won't last, Davies warns.

Three categories of extranet service are currently available, all differing in what they offer and how they operate. 'Traditional' software houses such as Bentley Systems and Autodesk have diversified, providing extranet services through, respectively, Viecon and Buzzsaw. There are sites developed by civil engineering consultants, such as Arup's software house Oasys, WS Atkins or e-Gibb. And there are extranets offered by internet-only businesses like Citadon and the Building Information Warehouse.

Even the most basic systems should be password protected and capable of producing a permanent project trail. Most extranets will allow each user to view some 250 file types regardless of whether the user has any of the original software.

However choosing an extranet just on face value is close to impossible and numerous consultants, including Whitby Bird and Building Design Partnership, have set up their own working groups to find out which are the best to use. In the meantime, CICA has applied to the Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions to fund a research project on the different offerings available.

Building Information Warehouse - Project Information Channel History: BIW was set up in 1996, PIC was first tested in 1998 with real projects.

Cost structure: Monthly subscription including licence fee.

Estimate for a £5M project running for five months: £12,000. Price not based on memory used.

Hosted by: PSInet at a secure internet data centre in London.

Number of current projects: 70 Number of current users: 3,000 Current value of projects: £0.5bn Unique offering: Two dimensional drawing data can be linked to different applications and product specifications.

Comment: 'A very flexible and powerful system which is easily configured to suit all project needs, ' says McWIlliams. 'BIW's dedication to research and development places it at the forefront. The provider is offering 3D web-enabled objects and is able to link manufacturers' objects to CAD models.'

Citadon - ProjectNet History: Extranet providers Cephren and Bidcom merged in October this year to form Citadon.

Both US companies were set up in the mid 1990s. ProjectNet, which was formerly run by Cephren, is now Citadon's extranet.

Cost structure: A standard £833 per month charge buys users 500Mb of memory. Each additional Mb thereafter costs £0.35 although the price and quantity is usually agreed before the project begins.

Hosted by: UK high security internet data centre.

Number of current projects: 1,200 Number of users: 55,000 Current value of projects: £110bn Unique offering: Extranet pages are avaiable in a choice of six languages. The interface is based on Miscrosoft outlook to create immediate familiarity for the user.

Comments: 'Considering these offerings are in their relative infancy, I believe that ProjectNet has got an unrivalled pedigree, ' says Davies. 'It delivered exactly what it said it would and was very user friendly.'

Bentley Systems, Viecon History: Bentley Systems launched Viecon in June 2000 at the US Architecture, Engineering & Construction Systems exhibition.

Cost structure: Still under evaluation so all projects are free.

In January Viecon will start charging for projects based on memory used and number of users, but the precise pricing structure has yet to be decided.

Hosted by: US server.

Unique offering: Viecon claims its own platform can be put behind a computer system firewall, meaning a company could privately host its own project site using the Viecon software if it chose to.

Comment: 'Viecon is a young system from Bentley which seems to have the most potential of all for integrating with CAD systems, but it needs some fine tuning, ' says McWilliams. 'In 12 months I think this system will be a leader if it delivers what it is proposing to.'

i-Scraper History: i-Scraper was founded in Israel three years ago and has been established in the UK for 18 months.

Cost structure: Average fee for a £20-£25M, 18 month construction project involving a team of 20 organisations is £2,500 a month.

Hosted by: US server, but plans to host in the UK in the next 6-9 months.

Number of current projects: 35 Number of current users: 720 Current value of projects: £950M Unique offering: A client service representative who has worked in the construction industry is desiginated to each project.

Comment: 'A very user friendly and robust system which is easier to learn to use than some. But the information structure of roles and zones could be potentially confusing, ' says McWilliams.

Oasys Integration History: Launched in May 2000 by Arup's software house Oasys.

Developed by a team of civil engineers.

Cost structure: Fees start at around £6,000 (excluding VAT).

Benchmarked cost for a £10M construction project is £8,800 (excluding VAT). Pricing follows an approximation of how much memory will be used and includes set up, training and assignment of a project manager.

Hosted by: Integration, UK.

Number of current projects: 30 Number of current users: 800 Current value of projects: £7bn Unique offering: Integration claims that its look and performance can be tailored to project needs and specific templates can be deisgned.

Comment: 'Integration is a well timed system, ' says McWilliams. 'It has identified all the problems a project team faces. However, I am not sure how it will manage 3D modelling and object handling.'

Cadweb History: Founded in 1995 to provide an electronic project management system, Cadweb is a UK based independent company.

Cost Structure: Prices in a project depend on the number of users and amount of information stored. 1Mb costs 10p a month. A typical £25M civil engineering project would cost approximately £9,000 per month throughout its duration.

Hosted by: UK server.

Number of current users: Around 1,000 Value of current construction projects: £1.8M Unique offering: Cadweb claims that posting records to specified users creates a legally binding project trail.

Comments: 'Cadweb is delivering a very good service but seems to be less ambitious than the others.

It would be interesting to see their plans for the future, ' says Davies.

The verdict

NCE's expert panel went for Citadon as overall best extranet provider. The Building Information Warehouse came a close second as a very usable and robust system, with commendably long term aims.

Citadon has a strong position in the UK market with some impressive clients including BAA, Laing, Skanska and Bechtel.

Hosting arrangements are very secure and ProjectNet itself thoroughly impressed the panel.

Davies said: 'There is a real buzz around Citadon at the moment. Everyone is using it and talking about it.'

BAA director of project technology Martin Ong stressed that all the contenders were systems to look out for. 'The core functionality of the project systems are not tremendously different and, especially in the case of Citadon versus Buzzsaw, first mover advantage in the UK has worked in their favour.'

Arup's Integration scored very well as a versatile, well developed and timely system for the market and Bentley Systems' Viecon was described as young, but an excellent prospect for the future.

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