Centerfold: Extreme Makeover: Virtual Building Edition

Major commercial contractor Webcor Builders is paving the way to virtual building, the next generation of construction technology where every detail of a project is modeled and mapped out virtually

March 28, 2006

9 Min Read
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Here's the future of construction: Before a backhoe disturbs a single speck of dirt, a new office complex--from foundation to fixtures--has already been "built" on a server. Commercial contractor Webcor Builders is one of the first in its industry to implement virtual building technology, which improves efficiency by identifying potential trouble spots ahead of actual construction. Virtual building technology also bolsters Webcor's image as a tech-savvy company, a plus when scouting clients in Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area. But Webcor had to undertake a major expansion of its WAN, backup, SAN and e-mail archiving infrastructures to support the heftier files generated by the new technology.

"Virtual building is a huge technical initiative this year for us," says Gregg Davis, vice president and CIO for Webcor Builders, one of the leading builders in the Bay Area, with more than $1.8 billion worth of construction contracts.

The contractor uses a commercial virtual building package called Graphisoft Constructor, which it helped develop with U.K.-based Graphisoft. The tool lets builders track expenses, as well as map out everything from lighting to emergency response planning. Builders can catch any potential conflicts and costly problems before the job gets under way.

The virtual building files are information-rich. They contain 3-D objects such as an office's interior wall, including characteristics such as the gypsum board, paint, studs, insulation and tile. The files also store information on how each element relates to others. Webcor can even determine the quantity and order in which each material is applied.

But the 3-D virtual building files are about four times the size of a typical CAD file, so Webcor had to beef up its WAN and storage or risk ongoing network slowdowns, backup failures and storage overload. "It's going to continue to expand our needs for storage management and within Exchange e-mail archiving," Davis says. The company will pump about $350,000 into hardware and software for the virtual building initiative alone within the next year, including upgrades to its network and storage.

Room To Grow

One of Webcor's priorities was to expand its bandwidth. Some of Webcor's T1 WAN connections were straining under the load of the new virtual building files, increased backup demands, and a new VoIP system.

Backups were getting tough to schedule over the WAN because of the company's growing volume of data and its offshore development team. "Our backup window shrunk because, as we've grown, we have more and more people working around the clock," Davis says. Webcor had run backups after-hours, from 5 p.m. until 7 a.m. Pacific time, but that was no longer realistic. Backup jobs also failed due to the bandwidth constraints, and end users were experiencing painful WAN slowdowns.To address the problem, the company recently upgraded WAN connections from T1 to DS-3 in two of its key regional sites. Tape backup was no longer cutting it either, so Webcor went to disk-to-disk for its Symantec Backup Exec 10 for Windows Servers.

The headquarters and data center backbones are getting more headroom to accommodate the beefier files. Webcor soon will add 10-Gigabit connections between its HP ProCurve core switches and 1 Gbps to the desktop at its San Mateo headquarters and Hayward, Calif., data center. The move should also improve VoIP performance, which had been suffering. "Voice-over-IP was breaking up. The pipe was only so big," Davis says. He says Webcor has also added VLANs and DMZs to segregate and prioritize data so it doesn't interfere with VoIP traffic.

Virtual Buildings EVEN Take Up Space

Webcor has also begun expanding its storage, backup and e-mail archiving capacity over the past few months in anticipation of the virtual building app. The new virtual building CAD files eat up about 100 GB of storage capacity versus a conventional project's 50 GB. Webcor will accommodate that increased demand by doubling the storage on its EqualLogic PS Series iSCSI arrays from 2 TB to 4 TB. "We're taking the information [from the virtual building projects] and sending them via e-mail, and these jobs use one-third more storage space than other jobs," Davis says.

And Webcor has increased the storage capacity of its Symantec Enterprise Vault e-mail archiving system by 60 GB to house the virtual building files. The company purchased more SQL server hard drive space to make room for its increasing number of messages and attachments, which now are about several megabytes of graphical and other files.E-mail archiving is an integral part of Webcor's data archival strategy. Once a building project is complete, Webcor off-loads all e-mails and attachments to the archival system. "We have to be able to manage this new content and retrieve it in the future," he says.

Merely compressing the files was not an option--virtual building files don't lend themselves to higher levels of compression, Davis says. So the best way to ensure users get the file attachments from the archive was to add capacity: "We solved that problem by expanding our SQL storage on the Enterprise Vault server and increasing space on our iSCSI storage devices," he says.

Webcor began phasing in the e-mail archiving system four years ago. Using the archival software's search engine, a builder can search and access attachments or messages about a specific project to verify, for instance, if Webcor agreed to move a bathroom wall.

Legal compliance is also reality for Webcor, and the archival system has cut the discovery process to a couple of hours compared with the hundreds of hours it used to take IT to manually sift through e-mails and attachments.

Still Under ConstructionWebcor is testing virtual building technology "live" in two of its commercial construction projects, the Oakland Cathedral and the California Academy of Sciences structure in Golden Gate Park.

It's no surprise Webcor is one of the pioneers in the technology. The builder has been ahead of the technology curve in the construction industry: Its workers use wireless PDAs at job sites, and many of Webcor's clients are high-tech companies in the Bay Area.

Meantime, Davis says he and his team will continue to try to stay one step ahead of Webcor's capacity requirements--storage, network and archival--as the contractor expands its virtual building operation. But it won't be easy keeping up with such a moving target. "New tools, software and ideas make virtual building a living, breathing project rather than a fixed-time IT project," says Davis. And he expects Webcor's network, storage and archival capacity to continue to grow, too.

[15 minutes]

Gregg Davis
41, is senior vice president and CIO for San Mateo, Calif.-based Webcor Builders, a leading commercial construction company in the San Francisco Bay Area. He's responsible for the company's network and systems infrastructure and has been with the company for 13 years, including eight as a consultant to Webcor. He's been in IT for 19 years.Most bizarre IT inquiry: "I was screamed at to get the power back on from a citywide power outage by an attorney. He claimed I should have known and been in control of the power grid."

What stinks about e-mail archiving today: "Do we really need to keep the 'We have food in the lunch room' messages in the system? Do we need to send them at all? I don't think so."

Biggest annoyance with iSCSI: "Need more bandwidth: 10-Gig backbone coming up!"

Why Fibre Channel SAN still rules: "See above."

Lesson learned in Webcor's e-mail explosion: "If you provide a bigger mail bucket, you're gonna fill it up. So you can't win the race if you keep just throwing drives and storage into Exchange. You have to manage the content and be able to retrieve it."Ultimate virtual building design: "A building with complex shapes and intricate piping and ducting. We did a model for the California Academy of Sciences that ranked right up there."

How life imitates IT: "If I bring home one more device that plugs in or is considered a high-tech toy, I'm sleeping in the dog house. When you're a CIO, home and work cannot be differentiated."

Favorite hangout: "The golf course."

What Davis' co-workers don't know about him: "I spent five years as an Arizona law enforcement officer."

Subject that makes him rant: "When you have spent so much time in a server room, you rant about almost anything people will talk to you about."What keeps him awake at night: "Worrying about losing data and redundancy failures."

Actor who would play Davis in a film: "A young James Garner."

Wheels: "BMW X5. It's a company benefit I can't pass up."

In Davis' car stereo now: "SIRIUS Satellite Radio. What's a CD?"

Must-see TV: "The Sopranos."Team: "San Jose Sharks."

Comfort food: "Scrambled eggs or sushi."

After hours: "Playing golf and street hockey."Webcor Builders Defies Construction Industry's Technophobic Image

For Webcor Builders, which constructs buildings for major high-tech companies, technology goes hand in hand with the cement, steel and glass that make up its commercial structures. "Technology spending here has never been an issue--that's what really sets us apart" from other contractors, says Gregg Davis, Webcor's vice president and CIO. The San Mateo, Calif.-based firm has constructed office buildings for big names such as Adobe Systems, Oracle, Palm, Sun Microsystems and even entertainment house LucasFilm.

Webcor's annual IT budget is typically around $7 million, Davis says, and he and Webcor's CEO put their heads together to review upcoming IT projects, which they then present to the company's executive committee. Davis' consulting firm, Bridgenet Information Systems, which had handled IT for the builder, was purchased by Webcor five years ago. Davis says he has plenty of leeway at Webcor to take chances with new technology, such as virtual building. "I can create my own sandbox," he says.That freedom can backfire, though, he concedes. Web-based collaboration tools are an example, he says. "We've tried some over the years, but the majority collapsed and our investments just didn't pan out."

Webcor is confident that virtual building technology is the wave of the future in construction. And it was an easy sell for Davis. "All our projects will be built virtually in the near future, before they even get a demolition permit or funding. Our employees and customers want as much as we can dish out and more."

The key to selling IT projects such as virtual building to upper management is user buy-in, Davis says. That helped him get approvals for the DS-3 purchase, SAN expansion and VoIP.

"Our people who come up with concepts are responsible for driving it through the organization...We form committees and get people to champion the initiative and sell it to the rest of the users," he says. "A good chunk of what I do is sell concepts."

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