Bentley Systems embraces the cloud
Bentley is taking a measured approach to cloud services, allowing its users to set their own pace as they embrace data mobility, simulation and flexible licensing
As a consequence of an industry-wide move to Building Information Modelling (BIM), it is without doubt that collaboration has become harder. File formats have given way to relational spatial databases; lines, circles and arcs have become parametric models of real-word components; drawings are increasingly seen as a byproduct, or legal requirement, not an end goal.
To this backdrop, one of Bentley CEO, Greg Bentley’s favourite topics is that of collaboration, what he terms ‘Information Mobility’. At Bentley’s recent Year in Infrastructure event in London Mr Bentley reinforced the problems faced by the federated infrastructure industry. Project information must not be locked inside corporate databases, accessible to only the privileged few, but made available in a controlled fashion to all project participants.
BIM presents new challenges as well as new opportunities to revisit the whole ‘connectedness’ of project information and its flow. Bentley’s ecosystem of tools, servers, mobile applications and i-models (containers for the open exchange of infrastructure information), is aiming to ease this flow of data between industry standard applications.
Bentley recently sponsored a SmartMarket report on Information Mobility, along with Bluebeam, BIMForum and the Building Smart Alliance. The free 48-page document makes for interesting reading, highlighting that only 20% of companies track project information to or from other firms and 41% track internal flows (tinyurl.com/IM-smart-report).
Improved collaboration helps every aspect of the design and build process, from scheduling to versioning, with new mobile devices and applications enabling onsite information to be fed back into the system. Everyone knows that reducing errors, decreases costs and providing access to accurate information can be achieved just by using existing tools.
When asked what formats firms use to exchange project information, as probably expected, PDF and CAD files, paper drawings and handwritten notes took the lion’s share of responses (72-92% for each). However in two years’ time, the majority of firms predict that ‘central’ cloud storage will host their data, with the majority (89%) expecting a major reduction in the use of paper and handwritten notes.
The combined benefits of ‘digitalisation’ of project information, the centralisation of management and the expanded reach of mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets, means that projects can be better connected end-to-end.
Mr Bentley highlighted how increasing mobile bandwidth such as 4G (LTE) certainly helps in cities but other technologies such as satellite data is also being employed to enable WiFi onsite. By utilising these cloud-enabling services, design and construction teams can be connected, getting the latest design information to those in the field and the latest reality on site back to base. Mobile apps like Bentley’s Field Supervisor for the iPad and iPhone are helping shape this vision.
To highlight the importance of collaboration to the entire BIM world, Mr Bentley has taken to calling BIM, B/IM, where IM stands both for Information Modelling and Information Mobility. We are unsure how many other CAD vendors will take up the convention but can see how Bentley’s strength in management and distribution technology would make it want to give it equal billing in the move to the industry adopting new complex processes.
Bentley Systems today
Bentley Systems has come a long way from being known as the developer of MicroStation 2D drafting software. It now has annual revenues of over $500 million and remains a privately held firm, with over 3,000 employees in 45 countries and is a major player in all the AEC, plant and infrastructure markets. With MicroStation still the founding platform technology, the company has developed a plethora of industry-specific solutions and applications to create, manage, and distribute complex design data.
The company specialises in supporting major projects through its ecosystem of desktop, mobile and server-based design and analysis tools together with its management / collaboration platform, ProjectWise, which lies at the heart of many major multi-billion pound projects, such as the UK’s Crossrail. Every year it compiles a list of the top 500 Infrastructure owners, in terms of billions and trillions worth of assets owned. The kinds of firms and government bodies listed are an indication of the typical Bentley customer.
As the company’s products have developed it’s clear to see that Bentley is not just engaged in adding ‘features’ to products but is just as focused on attempting to solve the many process issues that face us in creating complex models and sharing this rich 3D design information from client to construction worker, from concept through lifecycle to demolition.
Bentley leverages the cloud
With the focus on connectivity and the benefit of cloud within the design ecosystem, last year Bentley announced ‘Bentley Connect’, a cloud-based storage and sharing service, which provided each user with full audit trails, versioning and data file transfer.
Now Bentley has fleshed out some soon to be available cloud-based services, some of which could radically impact the way core applications are located and accessed.
Bentley has been experimenting with Microsoft’s Azure cloud service for a number of years now and it seems that next year the company will have enough confidence in the technology to provide rental of portfolio licenses as well as hosted ProjectWise services.
Select Open Access is a quarterly-based subscription based service that provides access to any Bentley information modelling application at any time, by any user. These subscriptions come with the Bentley LEARNservices training to speed up proficiency.
No pricing was available at the event but it is expected to be ‘competitive’ to other rental products from companies such as Autodesk. This is good news for customers that have perpetual licenses and need ‘overflow’ access when times get busy. It also opens up access to Bentley products for those that don’t want the expenditure of purchasing perpetual licenses and paying an annual Bentley Select fee.
Bentley has an established Enterprise License Subscription (ELS), which is an all ‘you can eat’ proposition for large firms. With the new Select Open Access, individuals and smaller firms can also gain access to the whole breadth of Bentley tools at the right time for an incremental time-licensed price.
Bentley MANAGEservices provides cloud deployable access to ProjectWise and AssetWise. This enables rapid deployment, and operation of Bentley’s collaboration and asset tracking platforms. The service is not only available as a pure cloud deliverable but provides hybrid/ cloud and desktop usage for those that prefer to operate an internal private solution. Through Bentley’s MANAGEservices, firms can lower their internal IT infrastructure spend by opting for a SaaS (Software as a Service) model or mid-size firms can now deploy ProjectWise or AssetWise without some of the investment overhead. The company recently released templates for projects of up to 25 users and for design collaboration and work-share for up to 1,000 users.
The technology behind all these capabilities is particularly interesting, with Bentley being very aware that it has many customers that don’t want their data transacting to a third-party server hosted remotely. Bentley is adopting a hybrid approach where services can be deployed on internal corporate clouds, as well as on public networks.
Products such as AECOsim will be available for quarterly rental and delivered across the cloud to customers’ desktops using Citrix technology to deliver the screen pixels. Products such as ProjectWise may be delivered with technologies from Numescent, which use some very clever ‘cloudpaging’ technology to stream the actual application code to desktops on-demand, without having to install the entire application.
This move by Bentley is very much in keeping with the way that the industry is moving and follows news that Autodesk will offer its applications via rental, as well as through ‘the browser’. Bentley, however, has respected that many of its larger customers prefer to manage data on their side of the firewall. By opening the access to its tools without the ‘joining fee’ of buying a perpetual license, Bentley could finally be able to address the needs of SMEs (small to medium enterprises) and compete against the likes of Revit, ArchiCAD and Vectorworks for small team BIM collaboration in the volume market.
One of the cornerstones to Greg Bentley’s vision for ‘Information Mobility’ are Bentley i-models. These act as a container for exchanging all types of infrastructure information and can be used in a variety of applications, desktop and mobile.
This year Bentley introduced the i-model composition server, which it describes as the publishing hub for Information Mobility. The technology can be used to combine a variety of types of information, including DGN, DWG, raster, PDF, Microsoft Office, and IPS files into intelligent i-models, PDFs, and raster files.
The i-model composition server is all about automation. Files can be generated according to rules or project standards — published to a schedule or by triggers, such as when a model is approved, edited, or viewed. The technology can use ProjectWise or AssetWise as the information source and, because it’s server-based, is scalable across an enterprise to reach all parts of a company.
With Bentley’s commitment to pushing data out to mobile devices this looks to be an exceedingly important technology. The challenge of course is ensuring users have the latest revision and this is where the new i-model validation services come into play.
When in a managed environment like ProjectWise, users know the content is up to date because it’s a live system. However, when interacting with content out in the field, or that’s been checked out or emailed, it’s hard to tell.
i-model validation services allows users to check that the information they have is up to date. The service isn’t restricted to i-models per se; it can also be used to check printed drawings. Simply scan the QR code using any smart phone QR reader and this links to a website that states if the drawing is the latest revision. If not it can also redirect the user to the most current version. This looks to be a great tool, not least because of its simplicity.
Analysis and ‘optioneering’
At the event we had time to catch up with Santanu Das, senior vice president, design & simulation to hear how Bentley plans to use the cloud to not only cut analysis times, but encourage the use of simulation to get early stage feedback on different design options.
After years of aggressive acquisition, Bentley owns many of the key structural analysis tools including the popular STAAD and RAM product suites. The company has now rewritten all of its analysis engines so they can be used in the cloud, making use of clusters to crunch big datasets in double-quick time. This is enabled through Bentley Simulation Services.
But cloud-based simulation isn’t just about cutting solve times; it’s about using scalable resources to test out multiple design variants at the same time, then choosing the best one.
Bentley refers to this as optioneering, enabled through the new Bentley Connect Scenario Services. The technology isn’t just restricted to structural analysis or use by specialists though — far from it.
Bentley plans to boil down the capabilities of the various engines it owns in civils, structural, and energy simulation and make them available to designers so they can get early feedback on the performance of their designs. Third party software developers can also plug-in their engines so there’s a huge scope for this technology.
Designers will be able to get baseline feedback on different design options taking into account anything from heat gain and occupancy to right to light and structural systems. Constraints can be set for cut and fill, material availability in the supply chain, even the cost of lettable floor space.
This may sound like an absolute nightmare to manage, not least because of all the different studies that need to be set up, but Mr Das says Bentley is committed to keeping things simple. The technology can use Generative Components to automatically come up with a number of different options.
Once all the different engines have done their analysis everything is aggregated and users can compare designs against each other. Results are presented in pareto charts and users can give weight to different criteria in terms of their importance to the project.
Bentley Connect Scenario Services sounds like a very exciting technology, which should steer projects to more optimal outcomes by enabling informed decisions early on. It’s not an entirely new concept – Autodesk talked about using the cloud for optioneering as long as four years ago — but Bentley’s novel take is that Scenario Services can be deployed across multiple disciplines. Importantly, the service will also be able to be used from within non-Bentley applications including SketchUp, Rhino and Revit. Indeed, with Bentley’s close ties to Trimble, access to the service will be available in the shipping version of SketchUp without the need for a plug in. Pricing hasn’t been set yet but is likely to be very affordable, either on a pay per use basis of just a few dollars per run or a set fee per month.
AECOsim Building Designer
With the growing importance of ‘BIM-ready’ manufacturer content AECOsim Building Designer’s new ability to interpret Revit’s RFA format is big news.
RFA content is becoming widely available from building equipment manufacturers so this gives Bentley customers access to a whole new world of parametric components.
Bentley software has long been able to bring in Revit models as geometry with information but the parametrics were less predictable. Now RFA content can be brought into AECOsim Building Designer and interpreted as intelligent parametric objects, retaining rules, constraints, connection points, and other data. Users can change materials, configurations and use these objects intelligently.
AECOsim also has ‘dramatically enhanced’ capabilities in terms of how it supports IFC and COBie data through the use of Bentley’s iModel technology. “Fundamentally there is nothing that supports either of these formats better than AECOsim Building Designer does,” said Huw Roberts, Bentley’s VP, core marketing.
Bentley also introduced new rendering capabilities for its MicroStation-based products. A new Effects Manager enables users to get real-time visual feedback on lighting and other rendering adjustments before committing to a time consuming production render. The technology uses sliders, and a preview pane to allow users to change the settings dynamically and see the impact in real time. Images can be adjusted for brightness or users can swap out new materials and it only renders the new material without having to re-calculate the whole scene.
The future: Augmented reality
Bentley rarely shies away from showing future technology and research director, Stephane Côté gave a glimpse of what Bentley is up to in the field of augmented reality - putting data in the context of the physical world.
There are countless applications. For maintenance - seeing through buildings or under roads, to query physical assets such as structure, services or underground pipes.
For construction using virtual sticky notes to flag up differences between a 3D model and the on-site reality. Builders could also display drawings in context, superimpose animations to help understand how components should be assembled on site.
According to Côté, the big challenge is accuracy, tracking the exact position and orientation of your mobile device as you move on site and making sure it matches the 3D CAD model. GPS and in-built motion sensors can only do so much, but Bentley has found a workaround in the form of panoramic images.
Rather than taking a live feed from the backfacing camera on a tablet, Côté is exploring the use of geo-referenced panoramic images that match the virtual CAD model exactly. It’s not augmented reality in the traditional sense, but the results look impressive.
Last year Bentley bought SpecWave, a developer of software for the creation of structured text content, including engineering specifications, codes and standards. Now the technology has been integrated into Bentley’s software and connected with ProjectWise.
SpecWave Composer allows users to author, compose and consume specifications as structured documents instead of dumb text. So, instead of having a Word doc or reams of printed output, each spec can be managed as an individual object.
The big benefit is that if the design changes, the spec can be updated automatically reducing the risk of using wrong or outdated information. Specifications can also be filtered. e.g. by discipline, phase of work, or work package.
SpecWave Composer works with another new Bentley technology - ProjectWise Construction Work Packaging Server, which is due for release next year. The software is designed to manage the lifecycle of construction work packages, improving the flow of information between engineering, procurement, construction, commissioning, and handover.
A key part of its capabilities is providing clear visibility on progress. For this it features a dashboard where users can see, for example, which packages have been issued, how the different contractors are performing, what’s completed and what’s on schedule. It also links to ConstructSim, which is enabled by Bentley Navigator, for dynamic project review and analysis. Here, thematic representation helps users visualise all manner of status information such as what’s on site, what’s ready to install, what’s delayed, who’s carrying out which tasks, and which supplier is delivering to site.
Bentley has a new release of Structural Synchronizer v8i (SELECTseries 5), which creates a shared repository of common structural model data so it can be synchronised between a range of applications, including STAAD, RAM, SACS, AECOsim Building Designer, Revit, Tekla Structures and others.
The big news for the new release is that it now fully integrates IFC, as well as allowing users to manage sub–structures, so models can be broken down for different teams to work on.
Structural Synchronizer was originally developed to help bring together the smorgasbord of structural applications Bentley has acquired and developed over the years. And while it’s well regarded in industry, Raoul Karp, VP structural and BrIM, Bentley Systems, acknowledges that there are still times where direct, closer integration is wanted between Bentley’s products
Mr Karp shared details of a forthcoming standalone structural modelling technology currently in development called ‘shared modelling components’.
He explained how the technology will find its way into Bentley’s vertical products that require structural modelling – products like OpenPlant and Pro/Steel.
With a set of shared component set of modelling tools a structure created in OpenPlant will immediately be able to be opened in Pro/Steel without transformation, he said. We should hear more about this interesting technology next year.
In other structural news the SELECTseries 6 releases of ProConcrete and ProSteel V8i will now run standalone on the Power Platform and do not need AutoCAD or MicroStation.
ProConcrete has a new capability called Template driven Solids, where users can create 3D linear objects from 2D templates. According to Mr Roberts, this can give a more accurate quantity take off for concrete as the volume excludes rebar.
There are also new parametric modelling tools for foundations and spiral columns and B-spline structural shapes — complex concrete structural shapes to match the geometries of today’s building, says Mr Roberts.
ProSteel also has some new intelligent parametric modelling tools for stairs, handrails and anchors. According to Mr Roberts detail goes right down to plate connections, stiffners and the threading of holes, so the model can go straight into fabrication.
There was a big focus on rail and transit at the event, a key takeaway being that there were huge benefits from combining point-cloud and CAD data. Also, by using mobile applications to access ProjectWise, companies could save a large amount of money in reduced site visits.
Bentley’s acquisition of UK point cloud software developer Pointools was an investment in the core MicroStation technology, which the company sees as being a key future format in infrastructure projects.
With HS2 being mentioned throughout the event, an excellent rail example was shown, which combined a CAD model of an animated train travelling down a section of rail. This was combined with a point cloud captured model of the trees, bridges and environment. As the train sped along the track the system clash detected the CAD geometry against the point cloud foliage and bridge to check for problem areas.
Bentley Systems is a very technically proficient company that doesn’t rush into the ‘new’ thing until its portfolio of products can benefit. Its commitment to using MicroStation as a platform and building extensive vertical capabilities upon it provides a great sense of commonality between its solutions. However, with the software development market moving to the cloud as the platform of choice, this could have meant a huge amount of re-architecting of all its solutions, which many of its competitors have had to do.
Bentley is a devoted single platform Microsoft-based company so it’s perhaps no surprise that it has opted to use the Microsoft Azure cloud platform. With this addition to its desktop-based Windows applications, the new capabilities of license rental and cloud delivery will mean Bentley solutions will finally be available on the Mac, or any other operating system.
If Bentley gets the rental price right and continues to grow the number of its applications that can be accessed in this way, especially with ProjectWise, there is a potential for the company to finally appeal to those outside of its ‘corporate’, ‘big project’ traditional client-base. Small architectural practices could also bid and take part in DGN-based workflows without the overhead of buying perpetual licenses with SELECT.
Within the next year the CAD market will have radically changed the options open to customers to pay for and access design tools. The old model of highly priced perpetual licenses is set to fade, with individual term-rental or subscription pricing becoming the preferred payment options by vendors.
With more capability being available immediately on-line the market is certainly turning on its head. While this could be seen as users being even more in the vendors’ pockets, the advantage of being able to drop seats or quickly swap design technology providers should keep the software developers as keen as ever to provide value for money.