Getting Your IT House in Order

With all signs pointing to an economic recovery, it's likely that many design firms will experience increased workloads. Beginning in the late 1990s, many firms simply stopped hiring and spending. And many of these firms have let their information technology systems degrade. Now it's time to get the IT house back in order.

By Tomas Hernandez, Jr., Principal, DBC Technologies, Inc., New York March 1, 2004

With all signs pointing to an economic recovery, it’s likely that many design firms will experience increased workloads. Beginning in the late 1990s, many firms simply stopped hiring and spending. And many of these firms have let their information technology systems degrade. Now it’s time to get the IT house back in order.

But things are quite different today. Even with an economic recovery, firms need to proceed with caution—and smarter purchasing decisions. The cost of hardware, software and services is lower than ever, and firms should look at all possible alternatives for IT expansions and upgrades.

Before taking any action, it’s important to decide how the money will be spent. Keep an eye on the competition to see what they are doing and what industry trends are in the works. Check with the marketing department to determine the amount of new work coming in, and hence, the cash available. If cash flow is a problem, determine from your financial consultants the feasibility of leasing rather than purchasing equipment. Outsourcing should also be considered. Talk to an outside IT specialist to determine the best course of action given your firm’s size, type and anticipated growth. Outside consultants can often avoid company politics and focus on the best system upgrades. They can also determine priorities based on real business processes.

But most important, take the time to talk to staff to determine their short- and long-term needs.

Keeping the staff happy

The best visible investment that a firm can make is in its staff’s immediate work environment. Workstations, whether desktop or laptop, should be properly outfitted for an individual’s work level. For example, a project manager spends most of the time outside the office. A lightweight mobile solution would be in order. For a seasoned designer, a high-powered workstation with a large, high-resolution monitor, a fast processor and lots of RAM is ideal. Flat panel displays should also be considered, as prices continue to drop on these screens. They save a tremendous amount of desk space, and your staff will appreciate them. Mobile devices such as PDAs, pocket PCs and smartphones should also be incorporated into the network. Although they can’t replace a standard computer, they offer a way to inexpensively carry tons of data as well as provide tools such as cameras, recording devices, e-mail and Internet access. These types of devices are no longer considered toys.

Keep it lean

If your office does a fair amount of copying and large-format plotting and printing, consider outsourcing to a reprographics house. Instead of buying and maintaining expensive equipment, consider having an outside firm provide and maintain all the resources and project invoicing. These firms often use the latest equipment and provide tracking software that can accurately record each device on-site. Firms such as National Reprographics and American Reprographics Company provide these and other services.

But while all of these enhancements to a firm’s IT are fine, but none of them are worth much with upgrades to security.

Securing the IT perimeter

Security is by far the most important factor to consider when upgrading a network infrastructure. Gone are the days when virus protection, firewalls and password protection were an option rather than requirement. The Internet has changed all that. Offices connected to high-speed lines, such as DSL and T1, are now exposed, from an IT standpoint, to the outside world. Everyone’s networks are vulnerable to millions of potential attacks from all over the world. Without proper protection, complete disarray and destruction are not unthinkable.

Firewalls, which protect a network from intrusion of unauthorized parties, are the first line of defense. Every home and office should have one, regardless of the volume or type of work. Firewalls for individual computers come in a variety of flavors, from built-in varieties, such as those that come with Windows XP, to free downloads from companies such as Zone Labs.

For full networks, vendors such as WatchGuard, Sonicwall, Symantec, Checkpoint and Cisco offer hardware appliances that connect directly to the Internet point of entry to protect the network. They also offer greater flexibility in controlling the traffic to and from the Internet. Running a network without a firewall is like installing an expensive window without proper insulation and caulking. It leaves holes where intruders can infiltrate.

Virus protection is also a must. New viruses are constantly appearing, but companies continue to let their guard down. The recent Mydoom virus caught many firms, including several Fortune 500 companies, off guard. In addition to each desktop and laptop client computer, all servers and e-mail and Internet gateways should be protected. Again, viruses come from different entry points, and each point has to be covered in order to have the best possible protection. Vendors such as Symantec, Trend Micro and Computer Associates offer complete individual and enterprise-level protection from viruses.

In addition, initial installation of antivirus software must be followed by periodic updates. The best packages update automatically. Virus protection companies do a good job of keeping up with the hackers, but their products are most useful when definitions are downloaded on a regular basis.

Many firms use Microsoft Windows operating systems for their desktops and servers, and they are constantly under attack from hackers. Many of the more recent attacks have been successful due in part to the security holes in Windows. Microsoft tries to stay on top of this by posting updates and patches to its many Windows versions. The IT staff should stay informed about these safeguards. One way is through third-party enterprise programs that automate the process for an entire network.

Be aware that less dangerous but equally annoying IT headaches make their way into computers every day. Among them are pop-up windows that seemingly appear out of nowhere. Spam e-mail is yet another problem. Not only do these irritations take time away from staff work, but they also often carry tasteless and offensive messages. A number of hardware and software solutions address these issues. Firewall solutions also bundle software to control these new headaches.

In addition to guarding against external attacks, resources should be spent on internal security. Standards and policies should be established for staff access, with proper password protection for main areas of work and additional security measures for sensitive areas such as marketing and financial data.

Of course, proper backup protection is an absolute must. Simple measures offer effective protection: removing the e-mail accounts of terminated employees, using secure and secret passwords that are modified on a regular basis, setting proper levels of privacy and limiting personal work on the network. A policy limiting network use to company business should also be in place—and enforced. Also, IT staff must determine such policies based on discussions with company owners and legal counsel.

Storage and backup

Once security issues have been addressed, the next most pressing concern is data storage. With virtually every type of work being digital these days, the need for online storage is greater than ever. The good news is that storage is also cheaper than ever. In the past, firms had to constantly archive projects and data on a regular basis, as storage space costs on servers were at a premium. It is now feasible to store all current and archived material thanks to the decreasing cost of storage space. Network storage devices are on the market offering large, inexpensive storage areas—and without the need to add file servers that run expensive operating systems with licensing issues. Vendors like Snap, Lacie, Iomega, HP and EMC all offer complete and cost-effective storage solutions that attach to standard Ethernet-based networks. It’s now more feasible and cost-effective than ever to store everything online.

With all that data, file backup is certainly the next issue to tackle. Buying the proper backup devices and media is important, but an even bigger issue is what, when and how often to back up. Many of the storage software and hardware vendors offer complete solutions and help with the data protection practices. Companies such as Veritas offer complete software solutions for many types of servers and networks, while companies such as Quantum, Seagate and HP offer complete lines of tape backup systems including multi-tape cartage units. In addition to using tape for data backup, many firms are now using disk drives for the benefits of speed and random access. Some firms even back data up on devices located miles away, such as at branch offices in other regions and third-party network farms. This raises another issue: disaster recovery, a strategy that should be addressed as part of the backup issue.

All of the aforementioned issues—security, storage and backup—address the critical functions of IT. But in order to get the house in order, IT investments must be made throughout the organization.

Above all, standards and methods must be developed, implemented and enforced. Firms today need to be careful with their money. So, when it comes to IT investment, spend wisely.

AutoCAD Focuses on Workflow and Collaboration

The AutoCAD software family is set for some major enhancements this year, with some significant changes that will offer benefits to the building industry. One of the major initiatives during the last few years—not only at Autodesk, but also at competitors Bentley Systems and Graphisoft as well—has been the move beyond 2-D CAD to object-oriented 3D tools (see “Technology is Key,” CSE 03/03 p. 19).

Autodesk’s soon-to-be-released Architectural Desktop 2005 and Building Systems 2005 continue this trend toward object-oriented CAD applications for building design professionals but also include some new perks. The 2005 applications are designed to automate tedious construction documentation tasks in order to increase productivity and improve workflow efficiency. And once they are effectively mastered, these new features will hopefully improve collaboration among building team members.

Of particular interest to M/E/P engineers, of course, is the 2005 release of Building Systems, which was designed specifically for these disciplines—in particular, for HVAC, energy and fire-protection engineering. This product offers a single platform for unifying drawing, design and analysis and provides an open API for easy customization and ODBC and XML data transfer capabilities. All of this means effective building team communication.

For example, the sheet set manager function enables the designer to manage entire drawing sets, views and models. It displays all drawing sheets and sheet subsets to organize, plot and link information within all the drawings. A design firm might create a sheet set for the entire project and then create subsets for the architectural, electrical and mechanical drawings. Within each of those subsets, the designer could create a subset for details. Named sheet selection sets can be defined for each architectural, electrical or mechanical subset and one for the entire project. So, for example, when a set of drawings for the electrical contractor is required, one simply restores the electrical selection sheet set. If an entire set is required for the building owner, one restores the entire project selection sheet set.

This new release, moreover, realizes the growing importance of project life-cycle considerations. Rather than just optimizing single drawing creation, it uses a workflow capability that manages entire sets of related drawings and documents. In short, AutoCAD has evolved far beyond a design tool. It has essentially become a project management application.