New distributed workforce collaboration systems rising in the AEC market are making an end run around crippling latency and bandwidth issues suffered by users sharing work on huge building-information-modeling file sets. They are doing it with hybrid systems of local and cloud servers, along with synchronization schemes that give everyone the speed of working locally, even among teams collaborating thousands of miles apart.
Two competing vendors, Nasuni and Panzura, are pleasing customers by using different approaches to solving bandwidth and latency issues—which show up when local users open and save files in seconds, while their remote collaborators working with the same files endure excruciatingly long delays. The vendors' appliances help eliminate lags with file servers; it's a big difference for users but looks the same.
Both vendors rely on servers and software installed at each distributed location to handle file processing, although virtual controllers in the cloud also have emerged as a lightwight option for mobile access.
Nasuni is using locally synchronized mirror images of a "gold," or authoritative, data set stored in the cloud. All of a client's distributed users work on regularly synchronized mirrors from that master data set. Most frequently called-for data is cached locally for rapid access.
By contrast, Panzura customers work on local files using a peer-to-peer-style file-synchronization scheme between public, private or hybrid cloud servers that also ensures that all distributed servers have duplicates of the same files, all the time. "We replace the local file server. We look exactly like Windows [file systems]. Many of our end users don't know they are using Panzura," says Randy Chou, CEO and co-founder of the company, based in the San Jose, Calif., area.
Chou says the underlying logic behind Panzura's architecture does not need the cloud, but, in practice, Panzura requires customers to use the cloud to get data consistency and the "11-9s" standard of reliability that many public cloud services attain. "Panzura handles global de-dupe, compression, security and global locking to maintain 100% data consistency," Chou says. "The global repository supplies very reliable and unlimited capacity for storage." Other major benefits of both systems include automated backup, archiving and disaster recovery.
Panzura's pricing is based on its provision of cloud-controller servers and local storage and software for converting file-structure data into the object-based structure used for cloud storage as well as file-lock control to keep more than one user from modifying the same data at the same time. Cloud storage costs are handled separately.
Nasuni sells cloud storage with centralized management through OEM arrangements with Microsoft and Amazon at a flat rate per year. It rents users locally installed cloud-access boxes as network appliances, available in a range of cache sizes, to connect with the client's file structure—its namespace—in the cloud. Both vendors' servers have solid-state drives for fast access and response.
"Our business model is radically different," says Nasuni CEO Andres Rodriguez. "Nasuni sells storage as a service. We centralize everything in the cloud and sell capacity and the level of performance customers need for their storage, which is delivered to them in multiple offices."
For clients, the bottom line in both cases is that all users enjoy the look and feel of working on local servers, even when collaborators are far away. IT managers say they are delighted with the improvements to their workflow and glad to no longer have to negotiate off-site hosting or to maintain and cool conventional data centers.
"We have Panzura in place for a year now," says Eric Quinn, IT manager at Syracuse, N.Y.-based C&S Cos., a broad service consulting engineer. "We couldn't be happier. We have been able to realize a dream that we've had since the early 2000s."
"They're both really good products," adds Donald Willemarck, director of technology at Manhard Consulting, a 400-person civil engineering and surveying firm based in Vernon Hills, Ill., with seven office locations. "What tipped the balance for me in Nasuni's favor was their infrastructure-as-a-service model. I pay one price each year, and I get everything: support, storage, upgrades. It's a one-price model I can budget for every year."
Panzura's lock-out provision was decisive for Andy Knauf, director of IT for Mead & Hunt, a Madison, Wis.-based engineering and design firm. He says the firm tried four Panzura boxes in December to ease the complexity of installing file servers as it expands to new offices, to reduce latency and to combat the problems arising when two users modify the same file simultaneously. "If we had a guy working in Madison on a file all day [who] then put it back, and then a guy in Sacramento got into the file—but it wasn't the most recent version—he would end up erasing what the guy in Madison did."
Mead & Hunt now plans to deploy 20 more Panzura boxes across its 27 offices and combine all the firm's servers into one directory so that, when anyone logs into the servers, from Denver to Madison, they will see the same directory—and not just on one file server. "It's the same for a team member in Madison as it is in Sacramento," Knauf says.
Nasuni's system does not have global lockout so far, although it warns users when they save their file whether it has been modified by another. The warning shows where to find the conflict. For some IT managers, that's good enough, and Nasuni is promising to enable global lockout in its next release in July. "We're just preaching communication," says Nasuni customer Jim Bonczek, IT manager at Barry Isett & Associates Inc., Allentown, Pa. "With a good 20% of our staff floating around between offices, the same file could be open in two locations without anybody knowing it, [but] it's not bad. In the three months since we have gone live, we have had maybe a dozen little conflicts. It's not rampant."
"It has not been an issue," agrees another Nasuni user, Mike Driscoll, infrastructure architect at The Walsh Group, Chicago. Walsh is one of Nasuni's oldest AEC users, having signed up four years ago. "They have a conflict-detection mechanism to work around that, and it seems to take care of our problems," Driscoll says.