While the digitisation of the design and construction market moves ever onwards, the explosion of project related documents projects are a considerable headache. We talked with industry veteran Alec Milton about his new venture, CloudFiler
Long time readers of AEC Magazine will know Alec Milton, who managed Oasys, the soft ware development arm of Arup, – in the 1990s and 2000s. While there, Milton recognised the considerable problems the AEC industry faced with aligning and storing project related emails, along with traditional project documentation.
Columbus and then Mail Manager were developed and these low-cost, easy to use products became global players in the AEC space. Milton left Oasys to join Excitech, where he developed the popular Excitech DOCs and Excitech Mail. As Symetri acquired Excitech, Milton span himself out to carry on what has clearly been the development of a lifetime. This has lead to a ‘next generation’ email management software called CloudFiler.
AEC Magazine: What makes CloudFiler special?
Alec Milton: The management of email remains an important nut for every business to crack. Whilst vendors of collaboration tools would like all customers to use their systems for everything, this is just a pipe dream. Customers can’t force all of the businesses they work with to cease sending them email.
Email is a common denominator which remains the dominant method of communication in business. This is what made Mail Manager and Excitech Mail popular, as they allow you to file messages to defined locations and easily find them later.
AEC Magazine: So how is your new system different or better than what people are used to?
Alec Milton: The first system I worked on was designed to address the then-current problems. Quality Assurance was the big issue at the time and we wanted to treat email with the same care as other documents by filing messages to the file system alongside those documents. We also realised that when people were away from the office, they would not be able to file or search, so the tool caches filing requests and has its own indexing / search tool too.
Working practices have since changed, expanding customers’ requirements, behaviours and expectations. They not only expect to use phones, tablets, browsers, Macs etc. — because easy access to the internet has made this the norm — they also find themselves required to file content into places other than their company file systems; such as SharePoint, Autodesk Construction Cloud, CRM, etc.
This has long been a well understood problem, but we didn’t have a solution.
Let me give you some examples. Most tools work on the premise that a PC files the messages and then indexes them to provide the search capability. Indexing creates problems, as it can swamp both the network and the local PC, such as when new staff join, a machine is rebuilt/ replaced, or there are software updates that require a re-index.
If you are on a slow link this can take days and consume a good chunk of disk space too. This becomes a bigger problem when filing to external services, as the indexing can be perceived as a denial of service attack causing the service to either prevent access or throttle it.
In today’s world, some staff don’t even have a PC as most of their work can be done on a tablet or phone.
Previous systems that I worked on learnt the user’s filing behaviours and would suggest where to file new messages, but this ‘intelligence’ is held locally to the device, so if you get a new machine or rebuild it, you lose that data and you’re back at square one. Similarly, each device learns in isolation so the suggestions on one device won’t be the same as those on another.
Ideally you want to be able to file from any device (PC, Mac, phone, tablet, browser) and for the management of suggestions to be central so that the experience is the same across all devices and you can never lose it. When you file from one device you also want to be able to search for and find that message via any of your other devices too. You not only need the software to run on all devices, you also need a single central index which is always up-to-date.
Licensing can be a frustration to customers if it constrains them and they are not in control, so we designed our licensing so that a single licence allows a user to have as many devices as they need and their management are able to see what they own, who is using each licence and can move the licences between staff themselves.
Another key area is security. It’s all too easy to believe that things are secure but later find that staff are reading confidential emails. CloudFiler has rolebased security with PCI compliant banking level encryption both in transit and at rest. For example, you can decide that only those whose role is ‘Partner’ can file into or search the company’s business-related locations and the Managing Director can have filing locations that only he/she can access. You can even select a location and ask the system to show you who has what level of access to it.
Centralisation provides consistency, reliability and easy management. For example when new staff join a business, adding them to the environment with other email management tools can be quite a task. Ideally you want to be able to both add staff easily and control their configuration remotely so that it matches the business’s preferences.
Lastly, if your business is geographically dispersed, you want staff to have the same high-performance experience regardless of where they happen to be at the time.
AEC Magazine: We guess CloudFiler files the messages to the cloud?
Alec Milton: Yes and no. We realised that some people would need to continue to file to their file system folders, SharePoint, etc. Often their insurers will require them to keep important data like this on storage that they alone manage, whereas others will want to move their data into the cloud. CloudFiler is unique in enabling you to file to your own storage and cloud storage from any device.
We are also not aware of any other system that then allows you to search all of these storage locations from any device. It’s the Nirvana that we always wanted to offer to customers but couldn’t make work.
AEC Magazine: It sounds like CloudFiler was technically a challenging piece of software to create.
Alec Milton: It has certainly been a journey. Building software that can run on just about any device is easier today using the latest technologies, but it can also be restrictive and that has been tough, as we set ourselves a high usability bar.
Security was the hardest nut to crack. Not only did we need to ensure that users can only file into or search those places that they are entitled to access, but we also needed to ensure that they really are who they claim to be, and that the access points to our systems, including API access, are all equally secure.
Scalability is also not for the faint hearted, as the system needs to load balance and automatically spin up additional servers and storage to meet demand. Fortunately, we have staff in the team with plenty of experience creating and managing secure scalable banking and payment systems for high availability and high volume.
AEC Magazine: Some vendors have created their mobile apps, why aren’t you doing the same?
Alec Milton: We don’t believe that users want to leave Outlook and use yet-another system, which will never be able to catch up and provide all the features of Outlook. By creating CloudFiler as an Add-in to Outlook we ensure that it works on all platforms whilst retaining all the capabilities of Outlook.
AEC Magazine: You mentioned filing to external systems like Autodesk Construction Cloud. How does that work?
Alec Milton: People can find themselves contractually bound to file messages into third-party systems. This creates a concern for their legal advisors who will want them to keep their own copies for future reference. Double-filing messages is a pain, but with CloudFiler you just file once and where a copy is required in another system, CloudFiler automatically mirrors messages across. The beauty is that the user does not need to do anything and if the construction management firm pulls the plug on your access, you will still have your own records.
In the future we plan to provide connectors for most major systems like Autodesk Construction Cloud, Microsoft Teams, CRM, ProjectWise, Aconex, Procore, Business Collaborator, Box, Dropbox, etc. so that any filing location can be paired with an external location such as a document library in SharePoint. An important design decision for us was to build CloudFiler with a rich serverless REST API from day one, so that customers or third parties can build their own connectors that are fast and scalable too.
AEC Magazine: What about Google Workspace?
Alec Milton: Whilst I can’t provide any assurances, it’s something we are considering and if there is sufficient demand, we will integrate with that too.
AEC Magazine: Some customers will have significant storage requirements, do you charge extra for the storage?
Alec Milton: It’s not uncommon for services to include a limited level of storage and then charge extra for any usage beyond that limit. This can be a concern for customers as they won’t know what level of cost they may face in the future, so our service does not set a limit on the storage costs for newly created messages and there are no additional hidden costs. If customers wish to move legacy data into CloudFiler there is a small annual cost.
AEC Magazine: You mention speed and security, how can you ensure that? Alec Milton: Obviously, our number one priority is to ensure safe and secure data. The service is built on top of Amazon’s AWS services. There are always a minimum of three copies of every message on three separate servers and these are also backed up. For our Enterprise customers we plan to offer the option to further replicate this data to another geography with an additional three copies on three more servers, providing a higher level of redundancy.
As for speed, users of cloud-based document handling systems will know all too well that downloading a document can be slow, this is typically because the system does not provide direct access to the files, so they first copy them to an open area and you then download them from there. This all takes time. Our system uses onetime and time-limited security tokens to provide the client application direct access which is as fast as it could possibly be.
AEC Magazine: When can we expect to see the software?
Alec Milton: We started internal testing in January and hope to be moving to beta trials with early adopters later in Q1 with commercial sales starting in Q2 of this year.
AEC Magazine: How fully functioning will the first releases of the software be?
Alec Milton: Early adopters will be able to file and search from any device. Initially they will have only the file system connector as one for SharePoint and other systems are due to come later. The management portal will also be raw at this stage.
Part of the early adopters involvement will be to guide the evolution from this starting point, so whilst we have a clear idea of what we want to build on top of these foundations, we know from experience that it’s best to involve those working at the coal face at an early stage.
AEC Magazine: Some of your early adopters are likely to have legacy messages filed with other systems. Will they have to re-file everything into CloudFiler?
Alec Milton: No, we have methods to bulk import from other email management systems, PSTs and Windows folders.
AEC Magazine: We guess the important part of this is price. Typical solutions cost from £16/device/month for the software whereas you have both hosting and storage costs to account for, so is CloudFiler going to be expensive?
Alec Milton: Our plans will start at £4/ user/month which includes everything: servers, storage, backups and systems management. And with our licences you can have as many devices as you like without paying more.