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Building On SQL Server 2005

New Microsoft database is at the core of construction company's content management system
PCL Constructors Inc., a Canadian construction company whose projects include plants that process oil from the tar sands of Northern Alberta, needs to move heavy duty documents around to keep its business underway. It's one company that's finding new applications for Microsoft's latest database software.

In the mid-'90s, PCL designed a document management system based on Microsoft's Access database and Visual Basic language. Now, it's redesigning the system to handle a wider variety of documents. It must manage AutoCAD engineering drawings, subcontractor contracts, and building permits. And it has to move them seamlessly around the company, from Canada's Northern Territories to Alaska, Hawaii, and the Bahamas.

PCL Constructors' new document management system, dubbed Project Document Controls, is slated for a pilot by the end of the year. The building blocks going into it show how far Microsoft's database technologies have come since the mid-'90s when the first system was built, says Paul Flessner, Microsoft senior VP of server applications.

The new system will be based on a central Windows Server SharePoint Services repository based on SQL Server 2005, which Microsoft announced on Monday in San Francisco. In addition to maintaining documents in the repository, PCL users will have a copy of the documents they are using on their desktop or laptop. If someone changes the master document in the repository, all users will be notified and understand that they should download the latest version from the repository. That makes a difference, says Brian Ranger, general manager of systems and technology, if "a subcontractor's crew is standing around with hammers as the field supervisor asks, 'Why is that door going in there?'"

With Project Document Controls, the supervisor can consult his version of the building plans to see whether the door goes where the subcontractor thinks it does. By checking the document, he can tell whether it's been changed and they all need an updated version.

Project Document Controls is based on Microsoft's MSMQ messaging system, Windows' SharePoint Communications Services, and a new object-oriented version of Visual Basic in Visual Studio 2005, Microsoft's latest suite of development tools. The new system will take over the document management chores of a number of older document management systems scattered around the 2,200-employee company.

Those specialized, third-party systems require each document creator "to do something extra" to generate the metadata that identifies the document for future reference, says Ranger. The PDC system will be integral to the work patterns the workers already use. It will automatically generate a master copy for the repository and end user versions.

"If someone changes a document, the SharePoint repository captures who changed it. The PDC users who subscribe will get notices when the document changes," says Gerry Salm, PCL Contractors' systems and technology manager of operational systems, who's leading the PDC project. Upgrading its document management system will save more than 500 employees at least a half hour of labor a week, according to Ranger.

Salm is using one developer and $60,000 worth of consulting and pre-built blocks of code from Avanade Inc., a joint venture of Accenture and Microsoft, to build the first phase of the system. He expects to enhance it with additional services after it is up and running.

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