Marcus Roberts, Technology DirectorAtvero Now and The Future

Established by Nittygritty – a respected technology company operating since 2003 to provide BIM consultancy, IT support and software services to over 100 design companies – Atvero is a cloud-based project information management solution built on Microsoft 365 and Teams. With a mission of helping companies in the AECO industry deliver project and business success, Atvero has notably matured since launch, supporting industry leaders manage over 7000 projects in the past 2 years. Looking back at our journey full of memorable milestones, Marcus Roberts - our Technology Director, has shared some insightful thoughts on Atvero’s history, from its back story relating to SharePoint to where the product is now and Atvero in the future.

The AECO industry and problems with SharePoint

The seedling from which Atvero started was sowed in July 2018. Chapman Taylor, one of Nittygritty’s larger IT customers, was looking at ways to move away from their existing on-premise document management system.  As well as evaluating existing systems, they also wanted to look at how well SharePoint might match what they needed to do, given the ongoing investment in the Office 365 platform they had already followed with an early move to Exchange Online. 

SharePoint seemed to have the right tools to build a document management system.  It had document libraries for storing files, lists for keeping information and workflow support.  It also allowed the leveraging of an underused Office 365 subscription as Chapman Taylor’s account came with 7TB of cloud storage that wasn’t being used.   

Nevertheless, upon investigation, there were some problems. Firstly, SharePoint was just starting its transition to the Modern look and feel, and most of the pages were still in the Classic view.  More importantly, the way SharePoint organised data didn’t correlate with the way construction project information was structured.   

For example, SharePoint provides versioning of files, but only for major or minor numbers, meaning a file will start at version 1.0.  If you overwrite this file with another version, it becomes version 2.0.   Moreover, those versions are hidden; therefore, you can only see the latest versions of files unless you access the history of each file in turn. Every version of a file also had rich metadata associated with it that could change with each release – who it was uploaded by (and on behalf of), who had approved it, or what status it was.

 Secondly, it was also a requirement that the new system enforce project naming scheme standards.  Every practice has its own naming schemes, but the BS1192 (which informed the later international standard ISO 19650) had a very specific format for naming files. Besides, there could be no duplication of document numbers.   The naming scheme of SharePoint was great for the computer to interpret but made finding files difficult because of the way they were ordered first by author, zone and level before the more familiar package or category and document numbers. 

And a final simple problem – there was no easy way to get SharePoint to generate the next document number in the sequence automatically. 

How Atvero was born

Acknowledging the problems, we looked at customising SharePoint to deliver what was needed and built some sample flows to control document formatting and numbering. However, we soon hit roadblocks such as a new Word document created in the system couldn’t be given a document number using Flow until after it was created. We also looked at document sets as a way of collecting versions of a drawing or document together with shared metadata.

Eventually, a serendipitous moment led to the birth of Atvero. The exact details are already lost in the mists of time, but I remember reading an article about the SharePoint PNP framework that exposed the files and data in SharePoint through a REST API. I started to wonder if we could solve the problems, we couldn’t easily fix by customising SharePoint itself by writing a custom user interface that would use the SharePoint system as a cloud database and filesystem, but control and present the information in a way that would support the construction industry view of their data.  The very first version of Atvero (and the product didn’t have a name at this point) was a conceptual proof of creating a sequence of documents based on the BS1192 naming scheme by choosing from the appropriate metadata in an automatically increasing number range.  It also hid the internal representation of versions of documents using folders for each container and each version, presenting a unified view of the documents with no folders, and selecting each document showed the previous versions of each document. The first version ran as a SPA (single page app) hosted outside of SharePoint, connecting using PNPJS to send and retrieve data. 

We ran through what we had built with Chapman Taylor, looking again at their requirements and the possibilities this layer over SharePoint offered, and a joint venture to develop Atvero. And that’s how Atvero was born!

The Atvero team and Chapman Taylor at Atvero’s launch at the RIBA London in 2019

The early days of Atvero

The earliest requirements of Atvero were to be able to upload documents into the system and to have the system reject any that didn’t match the project naming scheme.  When uploading a file with the same name as an existing one, the user would be prompted to choose the next revision number automatically (e.g., if the existing document was as P2, the system would suggest P3). We also started to look at the other advantage of using SharePoint – it’s native support for and integration with Microsoft office.  We wanted to be able to create Word and Excel documents from templates within the system, giving the document a correct name, and to show the versions of the document as it was worked on. 

Authoring Word documents within the system also started to unlock other technology integrations.   We could call out to Azure Functions to run tasks like converting Word documents to PDFs, and so the Atvero publishing system was born where documents could be written, version tracked and published as PDFs all within the system. 

At this point the size of the team was ramped up and there was an explosion of functionality.    We build our site provisioning service that created SharePoint sites on demand and pre-filled them with the structures and data needed to support a project view.   We added contact management – knowing who was working on or who had worked on a project was key project information to manage. 

Atvero’s highlight features

The Modern SharePoint was also going from strength to strength.   SharePoint was now closely integrated with Office 365 groups, meaning as well as a SharePoint site, each project now had an Office 365 group which brought with it modern security controls, a group mailbox, and other tools.    The SharePoint Framework (SPFX) allowed us to move Atvero from an externally hosted website into a component that could be installed into a SharePoint page.  At this point, Atvero was truly SharePoint native!    We could use SharePoint’s navigation to break the Atvero functionality up across pages specific to the task.   We used the SharePoint site home page for each project as the go-to page for information about a project.    SharePoint’s hub sites feature allowed us to collect projects that ran on common formats and standards to allow them to share document templates and metadata taxonomies.  Being a SharePoint component also meant we ran on the SharePoint mobile app, bringing mobile support. 

Our next feature was tracking information in and out of the system. Transmittals are the process of sending or receiving information in or out of the system and keeping track of who sent what and when. We build the functionality to allow selection of documents and drawings in the system, to choose specific versions and then to choose who they were being sent to.  This action was recorded as a transmittal but was also used to build up automatically the issue register of which versions of a document had been sent out and to whom.       

Initially the transmittal was available as a ZIP file to download, but we quickly added the ability to send via email as attachments, or to create a folder in SharePoint and share it using SharePoint’s build in sharing mechanisms to allow secure and easy access for people to download transmittals directly.   The great advantage again of the close integration with Office 365 was that we could guarantee that something marked as transmitted actually had been as we knew if the email had been sent or the SharePoint sharing link created.   These actions also happened as the user, so emails sent were in the user’s sent items. 

Integrations

With the core of the system now up and running and in use, we started to look at integrations. 

Email was the key one, as email forms a key part of project communication and Atvero’s mission is to make one place for all your project information.  After hitting some technical difficulties with having SharePoint index emails stored in the system, we changed to using the group mailbox every project has – a natural place for emails that are specific to a project and need to be accessible to everyone.  This also let us use Exchange’s industry best search engine for locating emails based on email or attachment content.   

We started working with partners too, and our first integration was with Cubic Interactive’s Rapport project management software.   With Rapport being the source of truth about a company’s projects, Atvero could sync in project contact information and project status, removing redundancy. 

We built integrations with design tools such as AutoCAD and Revit, allowing direct upload of information created with these tools into Atvero, avoiding the need to output files and then upload.  This also allows us to keep metadata within the authored information synched with Atvero, ensuring revisions and statuses remain synchronised.   

The COVID pandemic saw a shift in working patterns in 2020 and beyond.  Cloud technologies were instrumental in helping companies keep working, something which Atvero was particularly aligned with.  The use of Teams exploded, and again the close integration of Atvero with Office (now Microsoft) 365 meant the Atvero user interface could move from SharePoint and into Teams.

Atvero won “One to Watch Company” at The Hammers Awards 2019

Where Atvero is now

Atvero is now in use as the primary document control system for leading UK-based architects and engineers, supporting practices in their daily document control, with many more piloting the system ahead of adoption.   

We’re supporting larger and larger projects, and whilst SharePoint has a soft limit of 5000 items in its native user interface, the underlying database technology can support 30 million items in a single list and 25TB of data per project. Our customers are a long way off these limits, but we’ve seen projects of 15,000 records and 27,000 revisions work just fine. 

We have an excellent support team, backed up with a wealth of online support articles and training materials.      For customers looking to move on from an incumbent document management system, we have import tools already for products like Deltek PIM and NewForma, allowing us to import and preserve the data and metadata of projects. We can also provide consultancy in importing from other systems. 

Atvero in the future

So, what’s coming next? As we continue to receive feedback from our customers, there have been a constant stream of improvements both on what we have already built and on newly added feature, with the current main focus being reducing any friction in using the system.

As the product matures and is expected to become notably more advanced in the feature, the Atvero team is planning to develop major features, including quality management systems, upgraded approval flows and management, or tracked markup and commenting of drawings. Our new information exchange portal, Atvero CheckPoint, is a soon-to-be-launched feature that allows for a completely brandable, highly secure and totally auditable transfer of information in and out of Atvero. We are also looking to build on Power Automate and Power Apps to allow low-code or no-code access to the information stored inside Atvero. We’ve had some success already with this, for example building Power Automate flows for synching CRM data with Atvero.   Dashboards built with PowerBI for analysing the information about a project or across projects is another exciting opportunity. 

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