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Projects—Autodesk Buzzsaw Professional
Jerry Laiserin

The first project-specific website went live in 1995, and the term "extranet" was coined in 1996. Literally hundreds of project-specific extranet services have come and gone in the years since—offering diverse mix-and-match variations of the basic ingredients (document repository, messaging clearinghouse and transactional database). Autodesk Buzzsaw, initially a service to manage and share documents, recently added extensive clearinghouse and transactional capabilities in its Autodesk Buzzsaw Professional variant. BuzzPro points to rising comfort levels among users and increasing maturity in the market.

In the four years preceding the collapse of dot-com speculation in April 2000, the number of outfits offering some form of AEC-specific project collaboration over the web doubled every six months, from the single antecedent of today's e-Builder to over 200 would-be's and wannabe's. Established software vendors, whether of project tools or design tools, legitimately feared being "Amazon'd" by one or more of these upstart start-ups (as bookseller Barnes & Noble had been stunned by the early inroads of online bookseller Amazon.com).

Autodesk was not immune to such concerns, nor was the company blind to what billions of dollars worth of "smart money" was touting as the business opportunity of the millennium. With the support of outside investors, Autodesk spun off web collaboration service businesses for customers in the MCAD space (RedSpark) and in AEC (Buzzsaw).

Buzzsaw launched first (November, 1999) with US$15-million initial capital, supplemented a few months later by a whopping US$75-million second round of funding. Redspark, 60% owned by Autodesk, launched in April 2000 virtually into the teeth of the oncoming storm in financial market conditions.

Although RedSpark garnered US$14-million of first-round funding, market timing precluded a second round, and the company was quietly folded in October 2001. Meanwhile, Buzzsaw had burned through its US$90-million total capital by July 2001, when Autodesk acquired the 60% share it did not already own for US$15-million in cash plus assumption of unspecified liabilities. In all, Buzzsaw's other investors lost some US$50-million, and Autodesk sunk nearly $40-million into what is now a wholly-owned operation.

Autodesk's tab for these adventures included more than just financial cost. Some of the company's best and brightest staff spun out with the Buzzsaw and RedSpark launches, and not all of them came back. One who successfully navigated the roundtrip was former CTO Carl Bass, who served nearly two years as CEO of the independent Buzzsaw and has recently emerged as Executive Vice President of the Design Solutions Division—putting him just one rung on the executive ladder below CEO Carol Bartz.

Given Autodesk's headquarters location not far north of California's Silicon Valley, the company also lost talent to non-Autodesk-related start-ups as well, some of them competitors to Buzzsaw. For example, several founders of the now defunct Cubus.NET, a corporate predecessor of today's Citadon, were ex-Autodesk employees who had joined that company with Carl Bass in 1994 when Autodesk acquired Ithaca Software. True to their Ithaca-Autodesk lineage, the Cubus folks crafted what, to my mind, was one of the technologically most sophisticated CAD viewing and document collaboration systems of its era.

Buzzsaw also started life with a distinctly document-centric bent, including an early acquisition of "desktop to print room" reprographic capability that is now Autodesk Plans & Specs. This history is important because, during the years that competitors were spending and losing millions on project workflow and transaction processing for which the AEC user community wasn't yet ready, Buzzsaw was quietly and steadily building a critical mass of users who simply wanted to post, share, collaborate on and mark up file-centric documents created in other applications (such as Autodesk's own design software tools). The recent announcement of BuzzPro signals a new readiness on the part of mainstream users to move towards the integration of database capabilities into their Buzzsaw repositories.

From the end-user perspective, the new database capabilities of BuzzPro appear as a series of forms, five of which are provided (the stock forms can be customized or new ones created on request through Autodesk Professional Services, the company's consulting arm). The initial batch of SQL-based forms, which includes forms for RFIs (requests for information), DFRs (daily field reports), submittals, meeting minutes, and correspondence, betrays somewhat of a contractor-focused orientation. In fact, in Buzzsaw's early days, the service had tested an entirely database-driven "construction manager" application that was resisted by customers who preferred the "fixed" nature of forms and documents over the dynamic nature of pure database reporting. The current iteration of BuzzPro forms adds intelligence to the system, including extensive query capabilities, while shielding users from the rigors of up-front database operations.

With database capabilities on the same system as the document repository, it's a simple task to attach any document to a form (such as an RFI) or to link a form to any document in the repository. All forms and documents can be searched by file, folder, project, site or by indexed search. Significantly, search capability also includes text blocks and attributes in DWG and DWF files, as well as Microsoft Office documents and Adobe Acrobat PDF files—vastly simplifying such chores as finding every instance of "pressure-treated lumber" or "backflow valve" in every drawing, spec, table and memo on a project.

Buzzsaw, with or without the "Pro" databases, can be accessed by authorized users in any of three ways: via a "thick client" interface that provides full functionality—searching, redlining and so on—but requires a one-time download (under 5MB) and installation; through Web Folders in Microsoft Explorer for WIN98, 2000 or XP, effectively a zero-footprint client providing links into Buzzsaw's folders view; or directly from within Autodesk applications such as Architectural Desktop (ADT).

Pricing for Buzzsaw varies with the number of users and the amount of storage, but is not tied to specific projects because of a wide diversity in the ways different user organizations define projects. A typical entry-level Buzzsaw account with 50 users and 500MB of storage costs US$500 per month, or US$6,000 per year. The full database capabilities of Buzzsaw Pro can add 50%-60% to Buzzsaw's base pricing.

These prices buy access to the software as well as secure hosting at a Buzzsaw-managed datacenter inside an Exodus facility in Santa Clara, California. For redundancy, all data is replicated to an Autodesk facility in Petaluma, California. For those unfamiliar with northern California's earthquake-fault-ridden geography, Petaluma and Santa Clara are far enough north and south, respectively, to isolate them from each other as well as from more likely epicenters in the halfway zone closer to San Francisco.

Compared to competitors such as Constructware, ProjectTalk, and industry pioneer e-Builder, Buzzsaw positions itself as design content management—more robust and extensible than services based on file collaboration, yet more comfortable and familiar to use than services built around dynamic database reporting. With most of their 200 erstwhile competitors long gone from the market, Buzzsaw and the other industry survivors can look back on the nearly US$2-billion of venture capital invested in failed extranet services through 2000 as providing a foundation of heightened owner awareness that can now be built upon through new or renewed emphasis on building lifecycle information. As design content creation shifts toward building information modeling, with lifecycle-oriented tools like Autodesk Revit, both Autodesk Buzzsaw and Buzzsaw Professional appear well positioned to take advantage of the emerging convergence.

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