AutoCAD Resources - To Network or Not to Network

November 5th, 2012

A few weeks ago, I struck up a conversation with someone who has a job similar to mine, with one exception—her product of choice was an AutoCAD® competitor. This person boldly claimed, “[My product] is much easier to deploy at a large institution as it is easier to network.” I became annoyed because this person knows as much about AutoCAD as I know about her product, which is to say, very little. I tend to take it too personally when someone makes disparaging comments about my favorite software platform.  And besides, her statement simply isn’t true.

AutoCAD can be used with extensive networked resources or none at all.  This versatility makes it scalable to any size install base. When it comes to sharing AutoCAD resources through a large enterprise, CAD managers need to decide on the easiest route for them and what works best with their company’s IT landscape.

When we talk about AutoCAD resources, we are talking about a number of files.  Many AutoCAD resources can be networked, but these are the ones I like to call the “Big Three.”

  • Printers and related resources
  • Templates and related files (DST, DWS, etc.)
  • Tool palettes and blocks therein

Additional files that are handy, but not as necessary to network include:

  • Customization files (enterprise CUI)
  • Color books
  • Fonts
  • Hatch patterns
  • Linetypes
  • Custom dictionary file
  • Action macro location

Methodologies

There are two main ways I have installed AutoCAD or AutoCAD-based vertical products such as AutoCAD® Architecture, AutoCAD® MEP, and AutoCAD® Civil 3D.  One method is to keep default installation paths, and use a batch file to copy data from the server to a local machine.  The second method is to network as much as possible and change the AutoCAD profile to seek out the network resources.

Each method has its pros and cons. The method that is best for your organization depends on your IT infrastructure, user permissions, and mobility of the users.  The goal of any software implementation should be to keep data clean, organized, and protected, but not locked down to the point that it becomes unusable.

Case 1: Resources Local, Updated Via Batch File

Pros:

  • Still functions if network connectivity is lost
  • Eliminates issues caused by network latency
  • Works well if employees are remote
  • No need to use tools such as Group Policy to configure

Cons:

  • Users may not be operating with the newest file versions
  • Local permissions are needed to write to program data directory
  • Consumes additional hard drive space
  • Users will need local permissions to write to Program Files

Case 2: Resources Networked, Offline Files Enabled

Pros: 

  • Centralized CAD management 
  • Ease of Permission control
  • No need to update local machines
  • Can be used with Windows offline mode

Cons:

  • Network outage can disable the use of AutoCAD
  • Increased Network traffic
  • VPN latency can cause performance problems
  • Synchronizing offline files can be time consuming and requires additional hard drive space

Putting select files on the network is the first step.  The user will need access to the folder containing this data when he or she is disconnected from your network. You can create a Windows Group Policy (or network profile management solution of your preference) to set this for all users or set the folder manually as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

When the resource files are on the network, you will need to create an AutoCAD profile that points to the appropriate locations.

First you must start with the Support File search paths in AutoCAD Options. I like to create an easily accessible user-specific directory where users store their main CUI, ACAD.pgp, and tool palettes. Place customized paths near the top of the list to ensure your settings take precedence over the AutoCAD defaults.

I used Civil 3D for illustration, but the concept is the same for base AutoCAD and the rest of the vertical flavors of AutoCAD. My example network path is a mapped drive called I. For any of the paths mentioned, you can use a mapped drive letter or UNC.

Figure 2
In the following Figures, you will see what these paths look like for the Big Three. Here we see the plotter paths.

Figure 3
Here are our template settings:

Figure 4
Here are the tool palette paths. Notice that there are two paths listed.  The top path directs to the user’s local tool palette and is the location that gets written to when the user creates a custom palette.  The second path is on the network in a folder that has been set to read-only.

Figure 5

Once you have perfected the profile, you will export it for use throughout your organization.

Mixed Messages

In both cases, having mixed operating systems among your user base poses challenges. In Case 1, different versions of the batch file are needed depending on the version of Windows. The reason for this is that the install directories for XP are quite different than the install directories for Windows 7.  If you have multiple versions of Windows, this is the easier way to go.

In Case 2, AutoCAD locates networked files by a custom profile and relies on offline mode for users who may take a laptop on the road. You should create AutoCAD profiles for each version of Windows.  Windows offline mode changed significantly between XP and Windows 7.  The XP users may complain about excessively long waits as their computers log into the network and synchronize files.  

Keeping it Clean

One of the most important things you can do while creating your shared resources is keep your folder structure simple and organized. You will be glad you did!

Figure 6

Figure 6 shows an example network folder structure used for a company’s networked design software resources. Notice how the folder is organized by vendor, year, product, and the folders that contain the actual resources.

For troubleshooting and organizing purposes, I like to categorize files by Local, Program Data, Program Files, and Roaming folders on the network to help keep track of where the resource would be located “out of the box.” Another advantage to this is it prevents the multiple folders named Support from mixing.  Note that you are moving only select files and folders from these locations, not the folders in their entirety!

Tips for Sharing AutoCAD Resources

  • Restrict end users from modifying the folder that contains the network resources. Read-only permission is recommended. Only CAD managers should have full read /write/modify permissions to these folders.
  • Never mix data files for verticals. For example, the tool palette specific to AutoCAD Architecture will not work in AutoCAD MEP and vice versa.  In this author’s opinion, it is not worth the effort or the drive space you might save to weed through which files are “vertical agnostic.”
  • Never mix releases. Keep version 2012 resource files separate from 2013 files. Many of these are version-specific.
  • Keep files organized. Keep files separated by year and by product. Do not consolidate folders that have the same name such as “Support.”
  • Document, Document, Document! Keep a spreadsheet of which files are located on the network versus which are left on the local machine. Make copious screen captures of any customization.
  • Test your setup on a workstation that has the exact configuration as that of the end users. Be sure the local and domain permissions on your test machine and the users’ workstations are the same. Make sure everything works as planned before pushing shared resources out to your user group.

Heads Up!

  • Tool palette behavior varies slightly between verticals. You will want to read about Content Browser if the pathing method mentioned earlier does not work as expected or if you’d like to ensure palette groups go along for the ride.
  • Files to which users should have read/write access:

o Main CUI file
o ACAD.pgp
o DGN import setups
o Many more, but these are the biggies

  • Never try to network DLL or EXE files.  Not only will the performance be questionable, but your network security and/or anti-virus program may treat these as malware.

In Conclusion

A well-executed switch to shared resources can greatly simplify CAD management and allow you to make users happy quickly. A poorly planned switch to shared resources can leave your staff without use of AutoCAD if things go badly. I highly recommend reading more about the deployment and data sharing procedures before diving in.  There is a wealth of information at au.autodesk.com and www.augi.com websites. 

Louisa "Lou" Holland is a LEED-accredited Civil Engineer living in Milwaukee, WI. From 2000-2002 she served as a water sanitation engineering volunteer in the US Peace Corps. She has trained users on Eagle Point Software and AutoCAD since 2002, and on AutoCAD Civil 3D since 2006. She has worked extensively with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation and various consultants on Civil 3D implementations. Louisa is a Civil 3D Certified Professional and a regular speaker at Autodesk University, Autodesk User Group International, and other industry events. She currently works at MasterGraphics. Check out Mastering Civil 3D 2013, her latest book from Wiley Publishing.

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