ASP or client/server: Which online project management tool is right for your firm?

August 11, 2010

When the Web took hold in the mid-1990s, most AEC users could not go a day without hearing about some new online solution for the industry that was going to transform their business. As the Internet boomed, literally hundreds of Silicon Valley startups (and their supporting venture capitalists) espoused a totally connected construction world, with themselves at the center, hosting websites and collecting fees.

Since then, most of these ventures have gone by the wayside, while some have survived and a few others have emerged. Today's market consists of a handful of application service providers (ASPs) and client/server software providers whose software offerings keep many of the nation's design and construction projects on track. These electronic systems, also known as extranets and intranets, are online project management tools that appeal to different audiences with varying needs.

The most popular AEC extranet provider is San Rafael, Calif.-based Autodesk Systems, which offers two systems: Buzzsaw and Constructware.

Buzzsaw is more design-oriented, helping to simplify and centralize documents and information. The software is popular in the retail and hospitality construction markets, and is used by several major AEC firms, including Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Chicago, and DPR Construction, Redwood City, Calif. According to Autodesk, Buzzsaw has 129,000 active users, making it the second largest ASP on the Internet, behind Salesforce.com.

Constructware, on the other hand, emphasizes contractor concerns, such as standardizing and optimizing business processes and controlling costs. The program is popular among general contractors and subcontractors, especially those working on government and education projects.

Competing for the same business are client/server system providers, whose software is installed on in-house servers behind a corporate firewall. Major players in the client/server market include Primavera Systems, Bala Cynwyd, Pa., and Meridian Project Systems, Folsom, Calif. Both companies also offer ASP systems that compete primarily with Constructware.

Last June, Manchester, N.H.-based Newforma entered the market with its Newforma Project Center. The client/server-based system is used to create an intra-company network that sits within an organization's firewall. Gould Evans Associates, Kansas City, Mo., is among the first users of Newforma Project Center. The firm's project team members use the software to file e-mails in project folders (a work process previously done with software developed in-house) and to send large transmittals over the Internet (a task previously accomplished via a third-party extranet).

Internal vs. external

When deciding whether to go with an internal client/server system or an external ASP approach, AEC firms should consider the pros and cons of each.

Proponents of ASPs say the extranet approach offloads the risk of having to manage data for an entire Building Team. Project data, such as drawings, specifications, cost information, schedule information, and other key elements, are held on secure servers that can be accessed by all Building Team members, not just those working for the host firm. In addition, users of ASPs claim that internal client/server systems require more work to maintain, since the host firm's IT department is fully responsible for maintenance and operation of the program.

Client/server advocates counter that external systems are slow to respond and pose an unacceptable risk to project data security. While no specific studies are available to support or dispute these contentions, the growth and continued support of the ASP approach suggest that many project participants respectfully disagree.

The consensus among most users is that client/server systems appeal to individual firms needing to share information across multiple offices, while ASP-based tools are often more appropriate for multi-disciplinary, multi-company, and highly mobile project teams.

Online communication systems

While less feature-rich than the online project management systems described above, online communication systems are another popular tool for construction projects.

Systems such as Construction Communicator from Richard Sampson Associates, Fremont, Calif., enable Building Team members to post and view time-critical questions and answers, and other key information such as RFIs. The Web-based application automates the AIA contract-administration process and is especially appropriate for small- and mid-sized construction projects.

Another noteworthy communication system, GradeBeam from Chicago-based GradeBeam LLC, provides many of the same features as Construction Communicator. GradeBeam replaces phone-, fax-, and mail-based project notification processes with an Internet-based system. It includes a nice feature that calls intended recipients when e-mail or fax messages are not properly delivered, thus ensuring that 98% of targets receive the project information within 24 hours.

General contractors can also use the GradeBeam site to manage project communications and track subcontractor qualifications and response history.

In March, the company announced that is was selected to coordinate all outreach with subcontractors and suppliers in relation to the World Trade Center Transportation Hub Project in Lower Manhattan. Estimated at more than $1 billion, the project will feature 200,000 sf of retail, open space, and train platforms serving a quarter of a million people a day using the city's heavy rail lines, subways, ferries, and airport transportation.

For AEC firms that have both PC and Macintosh users, Cortland, N.Y. - based Management Software Inc. offers JobOrder for Construction, which operates on both platforms.

The system manages job scheduling, job costing, and other critical business processes, including accounting, vendor management, asset management, planning, estimating, scheduling, billing, and reporting.

“Project managers of construction firms are often in the position of using fragmented software systems to manage people, projects, schedules, costing, and other critical business processes,” says Victor Siegle, president of Management Software. “JobOrder for Construction manages all core business operations relevant to running their business processes.”

         
 

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