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Information Aging PUBLIC ACCESS

The Data Stored in Computers can Remain as Valuable as Ever, but Retrieving, It Becomes a Challenge Over Time.

Mechanical Engineering 130(03), 22-25 (Mar 01, 2008) (4 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2008-MAR-1

This paper emphasizes on the importance of keeping aging information in a format that can be used readily and understood by everyone. In order to get up-to-the-minute access to older engineering information, managers need to be ever vigilant about ensuring that legacy data exists in a format, which can be easily understood and accessed. Today a number of new software applications and technologies can help even those companies with seemingly the most outdated of computers, the mainframe. In recent days, software developers have introduced innovative ways in which companies can speedily retrieve legacy information, whether it is stored in a format for a desktop computer or a mainframe. These methods involve migrating or upgrading information or installing middleware, all at some cost. Some companies may choose to move legacy data to the open XML format and use a number of software tools, such as database query methods, to quickly retrieve information. Legacy documents that can be written into XML can include blueprints, CAD designs, change orders, materials specifications, assembly instructions, and cost estimates.

Your company's most important data may also be its hardest to access. This information consists of the digital files created over the years by engineers. If companies don't have a plan in place to gain quick and easy access to this informa. tion, future' engineering projects can suffer, according to a number of industry experts.

In industry parlance, this kind of older, business-critical information is referred to as legacy data. The legacy is tried technology, already paid for, that can serve future projects or answer future questions when they arise. No company would willingly throwaway that kind of investment. Forgetting the past can doom a company to the expense of having to do a lot of work over again.

Ensuring easy access to legacy data can be a nightmare, however. After all, in this age of continued software upgrades, digital information becomes outdated in Ihonths. Keeping older versions available can be a job unto itself.

In the engineering world, legacy documents often take the form of CAD files or blueprints. They aren't referred to every day. But when they are needed, they're needed right away. Perhaps an automaker or aerospace company keeps equipment in operation and needs to check original design data on a component. Maybe engineers are working on an upgrade to a machine and need to see why a part was designed in a particular way.

Or, take the case of defense contractors, which are often required by the federal government to warehouse' design data and information for a particular period of time, often decades, said Ken Tashiro, vice president and chief operating officer at Elysium Inc. in Southfield, Mich. His . company helps ensure that older CAD information can still be easily read by updated systems.

Engineering companies design a multitude of products, some of which have short lives in the marketplace, while others keep selling for years. Successful products usually remain so because they receive constant improvement. Products that are retired today may have parts that will. prove useful in a product during the next year or next decade.

According to Tashiro, the big question about all that design and manufacturing data is: "How can you make sure it's accessible to future generations so they don't have to essentially work backward to get to the information?"

Managers can be tempted to print out all documents and store them in some kind of vault. But who has the room? And such a paper-based system would need an archival method all itS own.

To get up-to-the-minute access to older engineering information, managers need to be ever vigilant about ensuring that legacy data exists in a format which can be easily understood and accessed. Today a number of new software applications and technologies can help even those companies with seemingly the most outdated of computers, the mainframe.

Some engineering-related companies, like large defense contractors or aerospace companies, still warehouse pertinent design information'on mainframe computers. In fact, around 70 percent of all U.S. business data today resides on mainframes, according to an annual survey conducted by BMC Software Inc. of Houston. The company sells administrative and management tools for the mainframe.

Engineering-related companies may house design information about their aircraft, satellites, or components still in use today. Cadam, an early CAD system developed in the 1970s by Lockheed Corp., was created to run on a mainframe. Not until the early 1980s did CAD systems like AutoCAD and Catia, which run on personal computers, make the scene, said Jon Hirschtick, who cofounded SolidWorks. That company released its own now-successful CAD application in 1995.

Many companies have invested large sums of money in their mainframes and aren't looking to give them up, said Mike Moser, production management director for BMC's mainframe business. A mainfi'ame can't be replaced without great 'cost and without putting information at risk. Thesec.ompanies, too, are looking for a way to easily access older information.

In recent days-meaning the past few years- software developers have introduced new ways in which companies can speedily retrieve legacy information,'whether it's stored in a format for a desktop computer or a mainframe. These methods involve migrating or upgrading information or installing middleware, all at some cost. SOll1e companies, for instance, may choose to move legacy data to the open XML format and use a number of software tools, such as database query methods, to quickly retrieve information. XML is a relative of the hypertext markup language used to create Web pages. Because XML can describe many different types of data, the language is uniqu ely qualified to share all types of data across all types of digital systems, according to John O'Connor of Vistagy Inc. in Waltham, Mass. The company sells CAD products for composite material.

Legacy documents that can be written into XML can include blueprints, CAD designs, change orders, materials specifications, assembly instructions, and cost estimates.

One way to make legacy information accessible via the Web features the latest buzzword: service-oriented architecture. This type of middleware can allow the engineer to access resources via a networked interface without the cost and disruption involved with replacing older systems.

SOA links all these systems in an interconnected web. It isn't a technology in and of itself; rather, it's a way to loosely couple a company's installed and varied software systems, regardless of platform or protocol.

It acts as a universal translator that transforms the many proprietary proto cols currently in use around the world into a standards-based universal interface, said Bernd Patzold, the chief exec utive officer at Prostep AG of Darmstadt, Germany, which ni.akes product data integration software.

Still another fly in the legacy ointment is information created today on systems sure to be outdated in the not too-distant future. Couple that with continued software updates-which threaten to make digital designs created on earlier versions of the same application inaccessible-and engineering companies have a real problem.

"In the future-one to five decades out-the person who created the design won't be around, the operating system it was created with will have changed, the CAD company will change, even the computer's power supply could be different," Tashiro said.

"The best way to keep your information is to get a machine with your CAD system on it, put it in a room, hermetically seal it, have a backup power supply and a bunch of energy ready, and keep th e engineers who worked on that program h ealthy so they can tell you what to do," he added.

Tashiro is in the business of serving up an alternative. Although many things change, some stay the same, he sa id . NASA, for instance, will continue to use the Pro/Engineer CAD sys tem and Boeing the Catia system. According to Tashiro, companies c::an put their platforms to work for them by ensuring that upgraded applications can read information created by earlier versions and that designs created in one CAD system can be read by another.

Tashiro's company, Elysium, contracts with clients-notably, a large Japanese automaker that houses close to 5,000 CAD seats. The automaker obviously has a particular stake in maintaining legacy CAD files. Elysium saves CAD designs in a neutral file ' format that can be read by any CAD system. This ensures that future CAD users can always access them, Tashiro said.

On another note, engineering companies bring in Elysium to ensure that their current CAD information can be fully read by each new, upgraded version. Sounds like a no-brainer, but sometimes softv"are developers miss a detail that will let a new version read some of the geometry created earlier.

"I don't know anyone that updates every single CAD file because that's too much work," Tashiro said. "If you want to use a pump modeled in release 14 and now it's release 18, you're either going to have to remodel it or put your faith in the CAD vendor to make sure it has backwards capabiliry."

A service like Elysium's takes some of the faith out of that process.

Protecting legacy data in this complex digital age is downright difficult. But managers need to keep on top of it. Just ask that engineer searching for a design first made in 1971 .

Copyright © 2008 by ASME
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