How Mead & Hunt Marshals Resources to Improve Project DeliveryAECbytes Viewpoint #78 (May 23, 2016)

Andy Knauf
Vice President of IT, Mead & Hunt


The Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency’s Natomas Levee improvement program project is just one that illustrates how Mead & Hunt organizes its extended resources. The project is in Sacramento, yet the project team works in Middleton, Milwaukee, Portland, Green Bay and Minneapolis. Some members of the team added specialized skills to the Natomas Levee project, while others’ availability provided bench depth. SAFCA benefits from the expertise of the best people for the job, and our company benefits from higher staff utilization rates.

All multi-office design companies strive to work as single, unified entities. However, it’s difficult to coalesce teams when people are scattered across multiple time zones. We must determine the best way to overcome barriers of time and distance to deliver more successful projects; then, after people are connected, determine the best systems for the team members to find and share the project information, generated not just by themselves but by all their team members.

As an Information Technology professional, I approach the problem from a hardware and software perspective. I want to enable everyone, everywhere, to quickly access all project information without the risk of overwriting one another’s work or working from outdated files. I want people to be able to find project information wherever it originated, whether in the email of a colleague or from a distant office.

To achieve this end, Mead & Hunt implemented a one-two punch of technology solutions that enable our multi-state workforce ­– more than 525 employees in 30 active offices as well as numerous job site offices – to fulfill our mission:

To deliver excellence in diverse professional services, while consistently operating with the highest level of integrity, and to provide our employees with the resources needed to professionally grow and do challenging work, and to respect and recognize the contribution of every employee.

Unfortunately, this was not as easy as it sounds. There were a number of hurdles that needed to be overcome before Mead & Hunt was able to achieve this. 

Two Traditional Approaches, Neither Satisfactory

If project team members are distributed across multiple offices and the IT team is going to provide access to the project’s CAD files and BIM models, that team has had two choices:

  1. Replicate files between sites, which provides great performance. But it is hard and expensive to manage the consolidation of different versions of files.

  2. Centralize files at one site, which is simple to manage as there are no versions of files. However, this provides poor performance for remote users.

Architects and engineers cannot wait all day for distantly stored files to load.

High Bandwidths do not Guarantee Low Latency

The layperson may believe the answer lies in higher-bandwidth connections, but the problem is not bandwidth, it is latency. Using distant files takes time ­­­– to open, close and save files. Time is a function of latency ­– the time interval between the action and the reaction, between the stimulus and response, between the cause and the effect. And using files requires thousands of causes and effects.

For example, opening a 1.5-megabyte CAD file requires 15,000 file system operations, each requiring one roundtrip on a 3,000-mile wide area network. When you add up all the time required to open and lock data packets, look up packets, read packets, and close and unlock packets, those 15,000 roundtrips, each only taking 86 milliseconds apiece, total 22 minutes. Our challenge is to get that 22 minutes down to a handful of seconds.

What’s the Technological Solution?

Before considering alternatives, here is a summary of the Mead & Hunt IT infrastructure prior to making our changes:

  • Tier 1 server setup at each office location with Windows Servers and SAN solution (NetApp or EMC)
  • Archiving using tape backup and electronic snapshots
  • 3D CAD application support that includes Autodesk Civil 3D, Revit and Bentley products

The growth of the company brought significant IT costs as we added servers and racks, networked systems, paid for housing and power, and paid employees to travel, configure and ramp new offices. As the pace of growth intensified in terms of office locations and numbers of personnel, numerous collaboration issues became problematic. Distributed offices became islands, data was duplicated, and collaborating on files slowed performance.

We realized the ideal solution would have to resolve all these issues and be prepared to match the growth of the company in the future. So we began our research, looking at a variety of solutions:

  • Distributed file system (DFS)
  • Peerlock file locking for Microsoft distributed file system replication
  • Riverbed SteelHead
  • Cisco WAN acceleration
  • HP Remote Graphics Software
  • Mapped folders across WAN
  • Autodesk Vault data management software
  • Revit Server
  • Virtual desktop infrastructure
  • Remote workstations

Each of these ten solutions had its virtues, but we opted for an eleventh: Panzura and its Global File Locking technology. Panzura is a file system solution that combines physical appliances (or virtual machines) at each office location with centralized cloud storage. It creates a geographically distributed file system that knows what is happening in each of its controllers. Users work on files as if they were stored locally.

Figure 1. This map represents Mead & Hunt's Panzura controllers across the country – demonstrating that they are all in sync with one another and working properly.

We found Panzura to be the most cost-effective way to provide the functions we need to collaborate among offices:

  • Global file locking ensures one person works on a file at a time, eliminating version control issues.
  • The system makes all project files available to all locations at all times.
  • The system reduces latency and file opening times to seconds.
  • The system consolidates storage into the cloud by providing robust backup, archiving, duplication, expandability, and disaster recovery.

Remember the scenario where it took 22 minutes to open a 1.5 MB file? By contrast, our Panzura-enabled system needs just eight seconds to perform the same action. Eight seconds versus 22 minutes!

Figure 2. This graph represents Mead & Hunt’s bandwidth activity on Panzura in a typical week.

Opening new offices is now easy. Opening new offices is important. It’s how we employ skilled architects and engineers, wherever they reside, and put them close to clients and/or projects.

Because storage is centralized to Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3), opening and equipping new offices consists of simply installing a new controller and ingesting file shares. With very little set-up time, we can have a new office online, fully integrated with all of the business units, accessing skill sets from resources across the country and ready to collaborate with the rest of Mead & Hunt very quickly.

With Better Infrastructure, Better Project Information Management

Connecting multiple offices is one part of improving collaboration. The other is to provide Mead & Hunt personnel with an efficient, effective means to manage the shared project information. For that task, we use Newforma software.

Newforma Project Center offers many features. Our most-used functions have been these:

  • It provides a single-window view of all project files, wherever they’re located.

  • It organizes contacts by project, making it easy for anyone to get in touch with partnering firms and team members outside Mead & Hunt (and without cluttering personnel and corporate directories).

  • It integrates with our email system to make it easy to file email with other project documents, and then makes it easier to find them, regardless of who originated the messages.

  • For large file transfers, it provides an easy-to-use web-based file sharing component that automatically tracks who uploaded and downloaded what, and when the action was performed.

  • It provides a means to organize, manage, and track submittals and RFIs.

  • It indexes our Amazon Simple Storage Service to provide Google-like speed and completeness of searches for project information, making it easy for people, wherever they are, to find what they seek.
Figure 3. A snapshot representing the amount of activity in Newforma on a typical Mead & Hunt project.

It’s not enough that multiple offices are able to collaborate effectively. They must have simple access to each other’s project information. They need ways to manage, share, and find that information. As a result, our project team managers are spending less time managing, seeking and logging information, and more time improving designs and responding to clients and team members. Responsiveness is important when construction administration is demanding shorter turnaround time on submittals and RFIs, and when clients define good service as extremely responsive.

Return on Investment

Both Panzura and Newforma have a number of benefits for my organization, but when looking at ROI, you have to assess each solution’s value very differently.  On the one hand, Panzura is easy. The cost of the solution is cheaper and the implementation time is shorter than competitive options. Before Panzura, the cost to set up a server in a new office was around $65K. Now it costs my department less than $25K. Considering Mead & Hunt has 24 offices that use Panzura, I don’t have to do the math to tell you we’ve seen a tremendous amount of savings. As an added benefit, our customers also report seeing a number of benefits from the solutions. Per our Panzura customer surveys:

  • ROI averages of 226 percent over four years, as measured by productivity improvements (of $1,930 per user/year).
  • Lower information technology costs ($334,167 over four years).
  • Reduced expenses for storage, backup, and networking (42 percent less).

On the other hand is Newforma, which is slightly more challenging because you can’t represent its ROI with financial data or other metrics. Newforma’s value is measured in something more abstract – time. While it is difficult to express ROI without hard numbers, our project teams say over and over again that the amount of time saved using Newforma is invaluable, and these sentiments are shared by our clients. In fact, many customers have reported recouping their annual subscriptions in the first quarter of use, with recurring savings coming from the preservation of billable hours. Although, it isn’t as clear as the financial advantages of Panzura, the value added by Newforma is substantial.

Conclusion

The Newforma-Panzura integration offers a one-two punch for improved project delivery. Panzura file locking technology radically reduces the latency between the application and the model, solving cross-site collaboration issues. Newforma software enables users to get their hands on project information in seconds, wherever the information is filed and wherever the person is working.

However, it is important to note that one solution is no more important than the other. Simply put – without Panzura our employees wouldn’t have access to files across disparate offices, and without Newforma they wouldn’t be able to access that information instantly, anytime, anywhere. It’s the symbiotic relationship of these two products that allows Mead & Hunt’s project teams to function as one coordinated unit – following the sun to deliver value to clients across the nation.

About the Author

Andy Knauf is a Mead & Hunt Vice President of IT. Mead & Hunt is ranked No. 147 on the ENR Top 500 Design Firm 2015 list. The firm has worked on a diverse array of projects in nearly every state in the United States.

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