Ove Arup's Columbus is billed as a project document management system but, apart from the nifty viewing facilities, it hasn't really discovered anything new – yet.
When Ove Arup Partnershop couldn't find a realistically priced document management system capable of handling the vast amount of information it created, it looked in-house for a solution. Arup Computing came up with Columbus, a simple document management system based on a Windows-style structure. Then it decided to give it away.

The attempt to help clarify the confused state of affairs in the electronic control and transfer of project information is laudable. Dozens of systems are in use or being developed, and construction firms are increasingly frustrated at the cost of buying new software and learning how to use it. Is Columbus the answer?

It must be said from the start that Columbus is a very good document repository system, but it is not a document management system in the style of PC Docs or Auto Manager Work Flow. It works like a rather more sophisticated Microsoft Explorer. There is a tree of information; you control the trunk and the branches hold the data, which is accessed from your in-house PC network, a laptop or via the Internet. Trees can be set up for the in-house control of projects or for overall project documentation for all the parties on a scheme.

The trees of information are created using Columbus data structure files. These can contain project information such as drawings, schedules and memos. Each file is labelled by the user and can be accessed only by users with the correct authorisation. The tree can be extended ad infinitum. Any member of the project team can send data to the tree and to any location to which access has been granted. Other people can then quickly gain access to this data, view it, comment on it or make changes if they have authorisation.

Other viewing programs such as Autodesk Volo View and Auto Manager Work Flow can be accessed via Columbus. In this way, Columbus can also be used as a gateway program. The viewing capacity is very good, as is the fact that the x ref files to drawings are automatically extracted. Once the drawings or documents are in the system, they can be viewed, printed and manipulated simply and efficiently.

But this is an early version of the software, and there are problems. This system is really a data warehouse and you have to handle all your own management routines, such as naming files. Also, all security rights have to be set up by the company's network manager; they cannot simply be created on the desktop. There are no checks on the validity or format of information, functions that are vital in a management system.

I found the program quite difficult to use. Setting up the various structures is not easy and the use of the data structure files, which is critical for success, is too complex and needs refining. As is usual, it seems that the manual and help facilities are only of marginal use. You also need a wide knowledge of Explorer and AutoCAD file structure details.

I could not follow the help routines and had to call the £1.50-a-minute telephone helpline.

I was on the line for 10 minutes without getting anywhere, and was advised to get someone who was IT literate to help. I was also advised to get some training, which I did (at £100 an hour). This was helpful but added to my unease about the usability of the program (we had a three-hour session and may need more).

I was disappointed that the system only works well with structured AutoCAD drawings. MicroStation work is not satisfactorily dealt with – I found it difficult to label MicroStation files properly. The lack of audit trail and file sorting routines is another major drawback. Incoming data has to be handled via Explorer – a fairly laborious task.

One of the biggest glitches with the free issue of the software was getting it from the web site. It took about two hours to download via ISDN and four hours by modem, plus the time taken to download Volo – another hour or so. In fact, of the three downloads we tried, only the ISDN worked; the slower modem method lost files. The Volo download from within Columbus did not work and had to be fetched directly from the Autodesk site. Maybe it's better to buy Columbus from Ove Arup on CD-ROM for £25.

My feeling is that the current Columbus version may have been released too soon, because it lacks vital ingredients and a lot of promised additions are coming "soon". Remember the adage, "You get what you pay for?" As with all software, the true costs lie in implementation, training and use. These must be weighed up before firms decide to take on Columbus.

As a databank, Columbus is very good. I guess this is how the first version is intended. We are promised improvements in the next versions, such as a more comprehensive viewer. This is all to the good. Overall, Ove Arup is to be congratulated on attempting to grasp this hot potato, and on its publicity coup in offering free software.

Ove Arup Partnership replies...

Martin makes some valid points on security and configuration. When we designed Columbus, we realised that any security additions would only serve to duplicate those provided by the underlying operating system, and would require the management of a whole new list of users and permissions. We also found that many programs are designed to work directly with Windows and cease to function when additional security layers are imposed.

Columbus is extremely easy to use but, like any piece of software, it requires a little set-up to get the most out of it. I admit that editing the data structure file by hand is clunky, but it is quick and simple to do, and once done can be used as a template for all other projects. Indeed, we provide example templates that make this whole process easy.

Within the next two months, we should be able to view most files, including MicroStation. We will also be able to compare revisions and convert between file formats.

As for downloading the software, Columbus is a fairly small program, and the large number of viewing filters (more than 200) increases the download size to about 16 Mb. We have a 2 Mb connection to the Internet which enables a download in seconds for those with fast connections. However, we know that many potential users will have much slower links, which is why we provide the option to buy a CD-ROM.

We designed Columbus to work without the check-in/check-out process of other systems so that we could be sure it would work with any documents and equally well in any of our offices, large and small. Try using a classic document management system to work with reference files, object linking and embedded documents and projects distributed on many sites, and you'll see why.

We are getting about 26 000 hits a week on our Columbus web site. This is largely through word of mouth as we have yet advertised the product.

Although one usually gets what one pays for, it's surprising how much you can get for free nowadays.

Alec Milton, associate director, Ove Arup & Partners