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TeamPlatform Takes on the Email-FTP-Dropbox Troika

By Ralph Grabowski, July 8, 2013

A comparison of popular systems like email, FTP, and Dropbox with an engineering coordination portal named TeamPlatform.

I'll look at the pros and cons of each system as they apply to coordinating CAD designs. When we work with more than one person on projects, we need ways to communicate with one another, move files between us, and coordinate the who-does-what tasks. Email remains the most popular way to coordinate these activities for most of us. But there may be better ways to coordinate projects - especially for engineers.

Communicating Through Email

Electronic mail predates the Internet as universities and corporations ran proprietary email systems as early as the 1970s. Being this "old," every so often someone proclaims email dead; despite the rumors of its death, email thrives. This is because it offers benefits that make it handy for continued use:

Email is universal. Any email client works with any email system, because all are based on the same standards, which carry names like POP (post office protocol), SMTP (simple mail transport protocol), and IMAP (internet message access protocol) - even modern systems like GMail and Outlook. Access to email continues to be universal through Web browsers and mobile clients.

Email has user-friendly benefits, like being able to drag and drop files into messages, tracking conversations through threads, and queuing and delaying the sending of messages. Best of all, email is essentially free.

These benefits means email gets used on just about every project I have ever been involved with, with the exception of sending very large files. This hints at the one of the drawbacks to email for project coordination: the size of email attachments, which is often limited to 10MB, usually.

Email was never meant to handle binary files, and so files have to be converted on-the-fly to 7-bit ASCII files, which bulks up files by 12%. Email has no inline viewers of CAD formats, and so relies on external viewers being installed manually on every computer. While conversations can be threaded, they are not project-oriented. There are no limitations on accessing emailed files, so there is nothing like a read-only permission. And most irritating, email clients can be inconsistent in displaying simple things like text and positioned images (which sometimes are displayed as a jumble or at the wrong size), and they can be pretty bad at printing neatly.

Taking into account the limitations of email, project engineers need a system that handles very large files, that displays files in engineering formats without installing viewers, and that displays text and images correctly.

Transferring Files with FTP

The primary purpose of FTP (file transfer protocol) is to send and receive files of any size. An FTP site allows anyone to access them, given the correct password. Because it uses a single FTP server computer, files are centralized; project management is handled through folders. Like email, FTP is free and universal, because any FTP client program works with any FTP server.

But FTP has drawbacks sufficient to make it rarely used anymore. (Only one of my clients still asks me to deposit files on their FTP site.) FTP clients are awkward to setup and to use for normal CAD users; someone with IT expertise must set up the FTP server software and computer for the project.

FTP lacks versioning; engineers need to rename the newest files manually, or else move old files into archive folders manually. There are only two permission levels, read-only and read-write. And there definitely are no online viewers; every file must be downloaded before it can be viewed.

While FTP allows centralization of files, project engineers need to look for a management system that handles FTP's drawbacks in the areas of versioning, permissions, viewing, and archiving.

Sharing Files with Dropbox

Dropbox allows access to files that are stored on a server on the Internet (a.k.a. cloud). Indeed, Dropbox is a user-friendly version of FTP. Because the idea is so simple, Dropbox has many competitors, such as SugarSync, Box.net, and even services even from CAD vendors, such as Autodesk 360 and Vectorworks Nomad.

Dropbox is nicely integrated into portable devices running Android and iOS, and benefits from drop-and-drag on desktop clients. It handles any size of file, up to the maximum space allocated to the account (although there is a 300MB cap on files uploaded through the Dropbox Web site). It has these advantages for projects:

But Dropbox has its drawbacks. It is free for only the first 2GB of storage space, with options for increasing the space through referrals and other offers. Beyond this, we pay. For instance, Dropbox for Business starts at $795 a year for five project engineers, and can cost $31,000/year for very large teams, albeit with unlimited storage space.

Dropbox is not universal; only Dropbox clients work with Dropbox folders online, although Windows Explorer (and similar apps) can access files from the desktop. I have found that Dropbox tends to lag its competitors in important areas like security and read-only access. It definitely lacks conversations and online viewers for CAD formats.

Dropbox is much handier than FTP, and for large files it is better than email. But it isn't actually oriented to project use. And so engineers must look elsewhere, especially in light of Dropbox being implicated in handing our private data to the US government's PRISM spying program.

Project Coordination with TeamPlatform

As handy as email and Dropbox are, their limitations become apparent as projects grow beyond a few engineers and a several dozen files. I know firsthand the panic that arises from wondering which file is the most recent one (overwritten, maybe), and whatever happened to that communication (misfiled, probably).

TeamPlatform is one Web portal that provides everything engineers need on projects. It's meant to handle 3D models as well as regular documents; it lets us collaborate on projects; and so on. So let's take a look at how it competes with email, FTP, and Dropbox in the areas of communications, file sharing and archiving, file viewing, universal access, and cost.

Communications

TeamPlatform has a nicely threaded comment and reply section that can be applied to files, pages, tasks, and entire workspaces. We can make ad-hoc comments; or use the @mention function to link items. Comments made at TeamPlatform are sent as summary emails to project members.

By the way, I appreciated how easy it was to create a new account: I just needed to click Sign In and then choose Sign In With Google; no need to think of a new username and yet another unique password; no need to share intimate data with Facebook.

File Sharing, Revision Tracking, and Archiving

To upload files from our computers to TeamPlatform, we just drag-and-drop files from computer folders to the Web browser.

After files are uploaded to TeamPlatform, it tracks changes and maintains revisions (see figure 1). When files are sent, TeamPlatform generates delivery confirmations automatically. We can opt to receive daily summaries of actions taken in each workspace.

Although TeamPlatform has a dashboard to show overall progress and status, it seemed to me that nearly every screen had its own set of dashboard-like info tags, such as the "Updated" tag on one file and "File Share" warning for the page.

Figure 1: A TeamPlatform workspace with files and actions
File Viewing

Email and FTP display only text files natively, and Dropbox cannot display anything on its own. In contrast, TeamPlatform provides online previews of more than 130 file formats inside the Web browser. The list includes STL, IGES, and STEP; native CAD formats like DWG, SolidWorks, CATIA, NX, PTC, and Autodesk; Office formats and PDF files; videos and photos; and 3D point cloud formats like Faro FLS and FWS.

I checked the viewer capabilities with some MCAD test files, one of which is shown in figure 2. In 3D, we can measure distances and angles, change measurement units and viewing angles, make a screen grab, change transparency and contrast, and export the part as an STL file.

Figure 2: Displaying a SolidWorks part file in a desktop Web browser

As I write this, the company is private beta testing a new plug-and-play 3D Viewer cloud API service that allows other Web sites to display 3D files, like SolidWorks, CATIA, Creo, UG-NX, IGES, STEP, IFC, Parasolid, and STL.

Universal Access

Email, FTP, and Dropbox are available on just about any computing platform today - as is TeamPlatform. Because it runs in Web browsers, TeamPlatform works with any mobile device that can run an HMTL5 browser.

I tested it with a Firefox Web browser on an Android tablet to find that TeamPlatform provides a mobile version of its portal (suitable for smart phones and their small screens; see figure 3) and makes the desktop version available for tablets and their larger screens (Desktop View).

Figure 3: Mobile interface of TeamPlatform on a smart phone running FireFox OS (left); viewing a SolidWorks assembly on the smart phone (right)

When the tablet can handle TeamPlatform's desktop mode, then we can redline drawings and perform all other tasks available to desktop computers (see figure 4).

Figure 4: Desktop interface of TeamPlatform on an Android tablet showing redline markup tools for a drawing in DWG format

Portable access lets us check files and update statuses from our Androids, iPads, and other mobile platforms - provided we have the proper permissions. Being HTML5-compatible means TeamPlatform can be used as a file viewer on nearly any portable device with a modern Web browser.

Cost

Email, FTP, and Dropbox are typically free at a simple level, such as 10GB storage for GMail and 2GB for Dropbox. Even at a useful level, TeamPlatform is free: unlimited team members, up to five workspaces, up to five guests up, and 500MB storage.

Going beyond this level, TeamPlatform charges $25 per person per month for unlimited projects, unlimited guests, and 50GB storage per member. [see Special Offer below]

Conclusion

 

Email  

FTP  

Dropbox  

TeamPlatform

Cost

Free  

Free  

Free for first 2GB  

$25 per month per user*

Requires IT support  

 

Yes  

 

 

Universal access through browsers, etc.

Yes

Yes  

Yes

Yes

Very large file transfers

 

Yes  

Yes

Yes

Password protection of files

 

Yes  

Yes

Yes

Versioning of files

 

 

 

Yes

CAD viewers built-in

 

 

 

Many

Collaboration by threaded comments

Yes  

 

 

Yes

*Basic version is free but provides only 500MB per user. Also, see Special Offer below.

In a comparison written by Israeli CAM engineer Daniel Dobrzynski, he wrote that TeamPlatform is more mature than Autodesk 360 (see http://www.caddigest.com/exclusive/MCAD/teamplatform/050213_teamplatform_vs_autodesk_360.htm. He found that, for instance, while Autodesk 360 displays some 3D formats, it cannot edit them.

In contrast, TeamPlatform handles nearly all 3D MCAD and common office formats. It allows us to perform manipulation, such as 3D orbiting and parts explosion, on just about any kind of platform - Windows and Mac desktops and non-Windows portable devices. For project engineers, it provides a better alternative to the traditional stand-bys of email, FTP, and Dropbox. For more information, take a look at the Getting Started support page at http://support.teamplatform.com/forums/22018638-6-Step-Intro-to-TeamPlatform.

Generic approaches to project management cannot meets the needs of engineers the way a centralized location like TeamPlatform can, because it is designed to cater to the needs of engineers.

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Special Offer for CADdigest Readers
TeamPlatform has agreed to make their Pro version (normally $25/month) available for free for a limited time for CADdigest.com readers. Signup form and more information available at https://www.teamplatform.com/signup/cd1 

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Additional Information

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About the Author

Ralph Grabowski, TenLinks managing editor, is one of the leading CAD journalists and authors, with over a 100 books and many hundreds of articles. His upFront.eZine may be the industry's longest running newsletter. Ralph holds a civil engineering degree. More...

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