Cloud Interoperability, Open Standards & Integration for the AEC Industry

So you want to work toward more interoperable, integrated, user friendly solutions? That's a mouthful so let's break this down a bit. When we talk interoperability, we are looking at getting several different information silos to "talk" to each other in a seamless manner. Common AEC Industry examples might be Accounting or BIM software talking to Project Management software. Another common example is getting Project Management information out to the field and various mobile devices. The reason we want to do this is to reduce double entry and deliver more real time information, thus creating more high value time for users to focus on the business of building. This article is focused on interoperability and open standards. For more information on the process of integration and the cloud based technology utilized, see previous articles on Integration [Read More] and Web Services [Read More].

When we talk open standards, we mean a standard for interoperability, that is common among all similar types of software. For example, an open standard for Requests for Information (RFI's) would allow all software that relies on RFI's to exchange that information seamlessly. If an interoperable solution was also based on open standards, then not only would you be able to integrate your current software applications, but in theory you could change one of them in the future and have a more seamless transition to a product better suited to your needs at that time. Some reasons for this might be growth, downsizing, or simply a vendor has come up with a much better user experience or price. So in the perfect world the AEC Industry would benefit the most from interoperable solutions based on open standards.

But what if my vendor says they already offer an interoperable solution? Some software vendors advertise that their solutions are interoperable off the shelf. This may be true, however it does not mean they are built on open standards. The solution could simply be a proprietary vendor solution where two products are owned by the same vendor and they have built a proprietary standard for integration between only those products. While this may initially seem like a bad idea (typically categorized as vendor lock in), many times these proprietary standards can become open standards. When you are doing diligence to buy, if the options for both interoperable and open solutions are limited, then going with a proprietary interoperable solution from a dominant vendor may likely become the open standard. Let's move past the Vendors and on to what's best for the AEC Industry.

Regardless of the type of interoperability and standards, integration itself can mean many different things to different people. Integrations may also be based on many different technologies. Generally, when discussing information technology, there are at least two broad areas of processes that companies are looking to integrate.

IT Processes; for example functions that handle single sign on (SSO), Authentication, Authorization, or lower level tasks like database or project provisioning. All of these can result in a simpler user experience and a "self provisioning" layer or wrapper around applications and information. These are typically suited to the management of IT in general, not just the AEC Industry.

Business Process; for example integration of data between Line of Business (LOB) applications like Financials, Project Management, Design, etc… Integrating financial data between Sage 100, 200 or 300 and Primavera Contract Management or Meridian Systems Prolog Manager is a common request in the is category. Another example is integration of LOB applications and Enterprise Content Management (ECM) applications like Construction Imaging, ProjectWise or SharePoint to improve collaboration, systems of record and reduce storage.

Both the IT and Business process note above can result in more high value time for end users. Still being very broad, with some basic knowledge of interoperability and open standards, you can have a good premise to logically work from. Whether you are a business analyst looking to buy products based on open standards or you are a vendor looking to incorporate open standards, these are at least a good jump off point to the deep landscape of information on the interwebs.

Standards Organizations like ISO, ITIL, and NIST generally act as non profit organizations making sense out of the worlds issues and attempting to put forth guidelines that blend between government and commercial interests on behalf of consumers. These groups generally spawn sub organizations that adapt for specific needs of vertical issues for example like the Architecture Engineering and Construction (AEC) industry would have.

There is a general consensus in the AEC industry that Building Information Models (BIM) are at least the starting point for all the information that goes into the plan, build operate, or design, build, operate life cycle of any facility. There are however other construction phase office or project management process related information like contracts, field reports, RFI's and submittals which generally do not wholly fit into BIMs. It is important however that this range of informations is fundamentally compatible, and so standards are a good idea.

Within the AEC Industry, various bodies exist that are working to facilitate the standards for interoperability I've pointed out a few organizations and standards below in alphabetical order. Descriptions are from their websites.

agcXML Project: The agcXML project will result in a set of XML schemas that will enable design and construction professionals to reliably exchange project information among dissimilar and proprietary software applications, without requiring the re-engineering or redesign of those applications.

BuildingSMART: Developers and curators of the Industry Foundation Classes (IFC), buildingSMART International is a neutral, international and unique non for profit organization supporting open BIM through the life cycle. We have regional chapters in Europe, North America, Australia, Asia and Middle East.

bulidingSMARTAlliance: The Industry's One-Stop Source for Information on BIM & the Built Environment. The buildingSMART alliance™ is a unique organization helping to make the North American real property industry more efficient by leading the creation of tools and standards that allow projects to be built electronically before they are built physically using Building Information Modeling.

Construction Open Software Alliance (COSA): The Construction Open Software Alliance is a community of software developers and providers who support an open standard in construction software applications, in order to provide the most useful, integrated solutions to the end-user.

National BIM Standard: The National BIM Standard-United States™ (NBIMS-US™) provides consensus based standards through referencing existing standards, documenting information exchanges and delivering best business practices for the entire built environment. With open BIM standards we can build detailed models then deliver accurate products that can be used during commissioning and operation to ensure facility functionality throughout the life of the facility and to deliver high performance, carbon neutral, and net zero energy based facilities.

For non-technical or technical readers its a good idea to simply know these entities exist and at a minimum you can reference them in understanding where the technologies you work with fit in your interoperable solution strategy. Perhaps becoming members of a few would benefit you and the organizations to further promote adoption of standards.