Streamlining Project Collaboration
To better manage and streamline our design and construction processes, we took the next step and created a modular project collaboration system, dubbed "Design Portal."
Tying It All Together
We were looking for a way to bring our existing databases, FTP, and e-mail services under one umbrella in a way that would be accessible through a Web site but without necessarily integrating everything into a single system.
The firm's in-house technical team evaluated a variety of technologies, and concluded that most available software tended to be platform- or application-specific, costly, and intended more for contractors than for architects. Switching to an online service or buying a networkable application meant losing all of the firm's previous technology investments and having to use a system that wasn't customizable for our needs.
McCall Design opted instead to use Zope , an open-source Web application server from Zope Corporation, as a platform on which to develop our own modular system.
Zope is similar in many ways to traditional Web servers such as Microsoft's IIS or Apache in that it can serve static content such as HTML files, images, Flash animations, and other Web-viewable content. However, the similarities end there. Zope's real power is as a Web application server, allowing it to generate dynamic content on the fly, integrate a wide range of information sources, and deliver information to users in a variety of different ways.
Zope runs on every major platform in operation today — Windows, Macintosh, and Unix/Linux-based systems. Its built-in scripting capabilities allow Web designers to develop custom functionality or create Web sites in a fraction of the time normally required.
Hundreds of free third-party plug-ins are available that enable users to work with particular types of content, such as Microsoft Word or Adobe PDF files, or to provide special functionality such as connecting to databases and generating charts or diagrams on the fly.
Zope supports multiple access protocols, including HTTP, FTP, WEB-DAV and XML-RPC, giving users access to the same content with either an FTP tool or a Web browser. Zope can also be used in tandem with existing Web servers.
Almost all management of the Zope server can be done through a standard browser, and Zope's "safe delegation of control" allows administrators to define access rights for individuals or groups of users and then assign particular types of files or entire sections of a Web site to their control. For these reasons, Zope is growing in popularity among users and third-party developers.
McCall's Design Portal
McCall Design Group developed "Design Portal" as a collection of plug-in modules for Zope. Keeping in mind that the design staff does not want to be in the business of technology administration, we created each module to minimize organizational and technical complexity.
The modularity of the system allows administrators to choose what they want to make available in their Web sites and ensures maximum integration with other products. A total of nine modules are currently available in the Design Portal package.
"Portal," "Extranet," "Project Owner," and "Project" are basic modules used to construct a Design Portal Web site. These modules act as containers for project-related content and provide navigational elements.
Basic file sharing and management is accomplished with the "Document Folder" module. Users can upload, download, cut/ copy/ paste, delete, rename, create folders, and otherwise maintain content through their browser.
Shared documents, such as DWG and PDF files, transmittals, digital photos, or site surveys, can be stored and viewed online, and some support is available for thumbnail previewing of particular types of content. Folders in the Zope server can be mounted in Windows File Explorer, for integration with the Windows network environment.
Design Portal adds support for the i-drop technology from Autodesk. I-drop enables users to create Web-based libraries of DWG, DXF, and 3DMAX files, which can be previewed in a Web browser, then drag-and-dropped into an open AutoCAD drawing.
Design Portal's i-drop module allows users to create i-drop files on the fly by simply uploading a DWG or DXF file to the server, and it extends the basic technology by adding version control features. When modifications are made to a file, the drawing can be posted as a new version with a description of the changes since prior versions. In this way, designers can understand changes over time while maintaining access to previous versions.
The "Log Folder" module is used to record day-to-day project related events such as phone calls, courier or mail deliveries, fax transmissions, and — most importantly — e-mail. To document project-related e-mail, we establish an account for each project to which team members can forward important project-related messages.
The Log Folder checks this account periodically, downloads any new messages, then records the e-mail into the log database. Team members are then able to see all transmissions for a project in one central, searchable location. Thus, administrators are saved the headache of archiving email. The log folder can also be used to record shop drawing and material sample transmissions.
The "News Folder" module can be configured to send announcements to a notification list whenever new postings are made.
The "Issue Tracker" module allows project teams to document important problems that occur during design or construction and to record steps taken to resolve those problems. Its operation is similar to that of an electronic bulletin board.
When a problem occurs, it is added to the top of the issue list and assigned to a team member. Inside each issue record, notes can be made about steps taken to resolve the problem. If the same problem arises in the future, designers can use the knowledge gained from prior cases to speed their work.
Other modules currently in development and testing stages will manage scheduling and Web mail. Design Portal has been in daily use since autumn 2002 at McCall Design Group. We are now beginning to offer Design Portal-based services to our clients.
Davis M. Marques is the director of information services with McCall Design Group.