Collaboration by Design: Sharing Files Remotely

SLAM Collaborative is a diversified architectural firm with four locations in the United States: Boston, Atlanta, Syracuse, N.Y., and Glastonbury, Conn. With geographically dispersed teams, getting people access to data needed for coordinated projects was a recurrent problem.

John Stergakis, the firm’s director of Information Services, says SLAM is committed to drawing on the best talent from each office for each project. That means they have to be able to communicate with each other and share files between the four offices. This was a serious problem because of the delays in data transfer.

Architectural projects involve a great number of complex files that include a lot of graphic detail. Opening such files on local networks takes 10 to 20 seconds. Though that is not exactly instantaneous, that amount of time was workable. However, the time it took for files to come through from a different office caused a serious latency problem.

Accessing another office’s files could take between 3 and 5 minutes, while really massive ones took as long as 20 minutes to load offsite. Even more problematic than the time lost waiting for files to open was the time wasted when such files got corrupted. When that happened, it could take another 20 minutes to restore the file, create a new central file and then attach it to all the other models linked to it.

For a project that has to meet strict deadlines, such delays are not just frustrating but potentially disastrous. On top of the delays, there was also a problem of locating the data needed. Stergakis says there were 10 different map drives with data dispersed everywhere, making it difficult to locate.

Enabling Collaborative Work to Be Done Efficiently

When SLAM was awarded the Notre Dame Campus Crossroads project, management realized that the company would have to find a way to deploy an integrated system that would enable the collaborative work to be done efficiently. Working out the design of that $400 million football stadium would require resources from all their offices.

If they were to go forward with the systems they had been using, they would have been forced to fly in designers from other offices, or share files manually between offices, resulting in lost productivity and file corruption issues. Neither choice was going to make the project work as well as it could.

What the company needed was a solution that would make file sharing across offices as simple as file sharing within offices—not just for this project, but for more efficient collaboration going forward on all projects.

It was time to confront the problem of getting people who are separated by thousands of miles to be able to work together on the project at the same time and to plan for data storage. Though they thought about investing in traditional storage, that would not have solved the problem of centralizing the data and enabling collaboration.

For file sharing, they considered virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). The drawback of that is that it entails a very large investment in equipment and could only deliver 80 percent of what SLAM needed. That doesn’t cut it for architectural projects because if the solution is “not working at 100 percent, it’s not working,” Stergakis declares.

Making the Workflow More Efficient

They realized, Stergakis explained, that “We don’t need to change our workflow; we just need something to make our workflow more efficient.” They found that “something” in Panzura’s Global File System, which transforms cloud storage into a globally distributed file system and eliminates the latency problem.

The firm had already been using Amazon cloud, which works with Panzura’s system. Storage is now expanded on demand on Amazon’s AWS, and SLAM can purchase additional storage space when needed.

In contrast to the 10 scattered drives the staff was working with before, the company is now down to one drive, one share. With all the data put together, everyone can find what they need and access it at LAN speed.

SLAM has been using the Panzura solution for a year, and, in that time, Stergakis figures the firm has achieved more than a million dollars in savings. He estimates the productivity gains to be worth about $840,000.

On top of that, the firm saved about $300,000 by avoiding the cost of investing in WAN acceleration, backup devices, additional storage, archiving and VDI solutions. Those are the savings achieved on the architectural side. That doesn’t take into account the savings achieved in the marketing and IT departments.

Pointing out that he has 25 years of IT experience, Stergakis says that he can’t recall any other product that got him as excited as this one. “It’s a Swiss army knife for IT,” he says. “What other solution out there can do all these things in one package?”