When users of Autodesk's (www.autodesk.com) AutoCAD 2000i or 2002, Mechanical Desktop, or Inventor open those programs, a separate window opens automatically. Directing users to "Point A," it offers a portal to such services as: a units of measurement converter; on-line services from MSC. Software; product updates; technical support and on-line training; a library of over 15,000 free drag-and-drop symbols; links to discussion groups, professional organizations and industry resources; and a customized e-mail newsletter. It also lets engineers access pilot versions of a collaborative workspace called My Files and Autodesk Streamline, a separately hosted space for sharing design visualizations internally with sales, marketing, and purchasing, and externally with suppliers and customers.
Although Autodesk did very little to draw attention to Point A until recently, engineers have had no trouble finding it because it launches automatically within all Autodesk programs based on AutoCAD 2000i and later versions.
"The first time I used AutoCAD 2000i, a separate window called AutoCAD Today opened after the program launched. It gave me a choice of three different activities. The first section, called "My Drawings," provides a space to create designs. The second, Bulletin Board, lets me communicate with the whole design team. The third section offers links to a number of different destinations accessible through Point A," says Robert Oswald, senior CAD coordinator for Patrick Engineering (Lisle, IL).
"I like the fact that Point A comes to me without a search," says Wayne Tittes, president and CEO of Colorado-based Castle Builders.
"When a user starts up the software for the first time, he or she can register for Point A," says Bruce Polderman, director of Autodesk Point A. In a straightforward registration process, the user first chooses an industry and is prompted to fill out a questionnaire. He can also specify what he'd like to see in a monthly newsletter and choose to receive information about products he selects.
Oswald says, "The point A interface can be customized, and it's worth taking the time to do that and add whatever services you need."
Customization filters the interface, so that it becomes very specific to, say, a Mechanical Desktop user who designs products for a manufacturing company. The monthly newsletter provides product information specific to Mechanical Desktop users and news about what's going on in the user's industry. Auto-desk tries to provide valid, valuable content matched to what the Point A user tells the company about his or her interests.
Two of the most popular free services are the units of measurement converter and the discussion groups. Oswald uses the converter frequently, to change English units to metric. The converter also shows engineers the formulas used to make the conversions.
He also finds uses Point A's discussion groups very helpful. "If I run into a problem, I can check to see if anyone else has similar problems, and look for discussions and answers. If the matter hasn't come up in the past, I can post a question—and I usually get an answer within 20 minutes."
Point A also keeps tabs on the user's current installation of Autodesk software, and alerts him when updates, service packs, and patches become available. Updates can be downloaded by clicking on the relevant product in Point A's interface. "I get a live update to tell me that my installation is up-to-date after the download completes," Oswald says.
Other free services from Point A include a library of drag-and-drop symbols, links to professional organizations, tips, and a calendar of industry, Autodesk, and partner events. Such services as on-line training, books, and partner services charge fees.
A new feature called My Files, now in final testing, offers an Autodesk-hosted space for on-line design collaboration, with a number of tools for sharing design data with others, either locally or remotely. "Autodesk designed My Files to make design data viewing more accessible than FTP and more reliable than e-mail," says Polderman.
Using ProjectPoint technology from Auto-desk partner Buzzsaw.com, My Files lets users post drawings, organize files, view and mark up visualizations, drag and drop instructions, track file information, and lock documents in what the company describes as a "safe, private backup file." Users can also select files and folders to share with co-workers, and upon doing so, My Files automatically sends an e-mail to inform those with permission for sharing. The My Files user controls who can change the files or have read-only views. In its test stages, My Files is free of charge. Upon completion of testing, subscribers will pay a fee, the amount of which has not been determined yet.
My Files data, hosted by Internet data center giant Exodus (www.exodus.com), is stored on units from secure storage specialist EMC (www.emc.com)—the kind of units used to store bank and legal files. A user's Point A identification and password govern access to My Files. Polderman says that the IDs and passwords are encrypted in Point A's internal database, using MD5 format. "If anyone broke into Point A, he could not gain access to the Point A user's IDs or passwords in any kind of usable format. In addition, when the UID and password passes over the Internet during log-in, they go through a Secure Socket Layer (SSL) supporting up to 128-bit encryption for security."
All registration data resides in Autodesk's own data hosting facility, also stored on EMC units with redundant hardware. Backups are performed nightly and weekly onto off-line media protected by multiple power sources, including battery backup and on-site generation facilities. Firewalls and physical on-site guards at both Autodesk's and Exodus' data centers bolster security.
Autodesk Streamline is available through Point A during its pilot period. This hosted service provides lightweight models that can be accessed over a 56K modem connection by non-engineering departments and external suppliers and customers. After testing, Streamline will be available for $970. A trial version will remain available at Point A after Streamline goes live as a separate service, to introduce potential users to it. And users of Streamline will be able to access Point A in the same way users of Autodesk's design software do now.
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This article is part of a continuing series of monthly pieces on "E-services and the design engineer," sponsored by Hewlett-Packard. Design News will continue to report on the latest developments on the web, and how new web-based products and services make life easier for engineers. Please share with us your experiences with websites that help you do your job better and faster. Direct information to Chief Editor Karen Field at firstname.lastname@example.org.