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Friday, April 29, 2016

My $300 "Revit Server"

I have been looking for a solid solution for small firms to host workshared Revit files for a long time.  I experimented with Dropbox, Jungledisk, OneDrive, and so on... The problem with all of these services is they duplicate your data.  They "cache" information and upload/download in the background (so it seems much faster for you when you work).  When it comes to workshared Revit files, this caching will corrupt your file.   Notice, I said it WILL, not it might... 

If you are a company of around 1 to 10 employees I have finally created a cost-effective and simple setup that will allow you to work with a Revit Central file from your local area network and as far as anywhere in the world!  Oh, did I mention it only costs around $300?!

Keep reading to find out more...

The Backstory:

I know what you are thinking; "Jeff, you could just setup a networked hard drive and call it a day".  Yes, that is true.  And that is part of the solution.  But, what if you have employees that live hours away or even further?  For example, at studio.bad, Derek and I live about an hour away from each other.  So, when we were working on a project and he couldn't be on my network we needed a solution. 

Initially, I thought I only had two options:
1. Buy a Windows Server and setup some type of VPN.
2. Use A360 Collaboration for Revit

These are both valid solutions...  But not what I was looking for.  Right now, I really do not want to buy, setup, and manage a full blown Windows server machine in my basement.  The initial cost is usually pretty high and the amount of configuring and maintenance is not what I am looking for.

The second option, A360 Collaboration for Revit, is pretty awesome.  Unfortunately, it costs 100$/month per user (or $800/year per user).  Right now, that is just a bit out of our budget for the amount of usage we require at the moment.

Finally, I reached out to my buddy Fred who works IT at Subway's headquarters (shout-out to Fredy!).  I explained my dilemma and asked if there was an easier way to setup a VPN (Virtual Private Network) other than having a full-blown Windows server.  

Freddy told me about these fantastic routers that have VPN server capabilities... I checked one out and I was sold.  You the man, Fredy... You the man...  

How it Works:

I made the diagram above to show how simple the setup can be.  This is how it all works:

The ISP (Internet Service Provider) should be obvious.  You need some kind of an internet service in your home or office for this to work.  Here, at my home, I have Comcast with a 120MB boost.  

My new VPN capable router is hooked up to the modem (the modem is set to "bridge"... more on that later). The router makes up my Local Area Network (LAN).  So when you are at my house and connected to the router via Wifi or hardwired you are on the local network.  

I then hooked up a simple network capable hard drive (Network Attached Storage or "NAS") (see below).  Once this hard drive is mapped on User 1 and User 2's computers they will have access to the Revit central files stored on the NAS drive.  Now, here is the awesome part...

If someone on my team, or myself, happens to NOT be on my home network they can fire up the VPN connection and access the Revit central files on the mapped drive as if they were sitting in my living room. 

I know, this may not seem like a big deal to some of you, but remember, there is no Windows server and the setup takes only a couple of minutes. 

What you will need:

This is all you will need to get started.  If you already have a networked hard drive you are one step ahead!

(1) - Internet Service from an Internet Service Provider (ISP).  For example: Comcast, Optimum, Verizon, etc...

(1) - Network Attached Storage (NAS) External Hard Drive. I have this one:

NAS Hard Drive (Click image to purchase)

(1) - Router with VPN Server Functionality.  I have this one:
Router with VPN Server (Click image to purchase)

How to Set it Up

This is the part that really got me excited.  As someone who has tried many times to setup VPN's and all kinds of wacky connection tunnels, the ASUS router (above) really makes life EASY.

**Disclaimer:  I am not a computer network professional and do not claim to be.  I am going to tell you the process I used to set this up and hope it will help guide you in the right direction.  Use this guide at your own risk and I am not responsible for any issues that may arise from changing your modem or router settings.  If you run into issues I will try my best to help but my knowledge goes as far as what you see below... ;) ***

Step 1:  Plugin and setup your new VPN capable router.  This is pretty simple.  Just follow the instructions that come with your router and make sure you can connect to it and the internet with your computer. 

Step 2:  Plugin and Setup your NAS hard drive. Again, this will be very straight forward.  Most NAS hard drives have an Ethernet port you can plug right into your new router.  Follow the manufacturers instructions and this process will take a few minutes.

Step 3: Map your new NAS hard drive to your computer(s).  Revit requires a mapped network drive to properly use workshared files.  I won't get into how to map a network drive... Here is a simple how-to...  Depending on the NAS drive you purchase there may be different ways to find the drive.  With the WD MyCloud (above) I had to use the IP address of the drive and map to that.

Step 4: Setup your VPN network.  If you purchased the router shown above this process is fairly straight forward. The user interface of this particular router is impressive and simple.  Follow the instructions within the ASUS dashboard or check out this video for help:

The one thing this video is missing is the fact that you may have to set your ISP's modem to "Bridge".  The process to do this will be different depending on your ISP or Modem so do some research.  For me, I had to connect my computer to the modem (not the router) and login to the modem's dashboard.  There, I was able to set it to "Bridge".

Step 5:  Finally, you can install the VPN client (if you'd like) and config file created from your ASUS dashboard.  I used the "OpenVPN" client.  The ASUS dashboard can also automatically create a config file for you that you can place on any computer you want to connect with.

Step 6: Run the client, connect to the VPN, and start using your companies workshared Revit files from a Starbuck's in India, Beijing, or New York!

**Edit**  Aaron Maller, from Parallax Team, posted a great comment and mentioned that once you have a VPN set up you don't have to use the traditional "Revit Central File" setup and you could use Revit Server. He claims it is more stable and has a faster "perceived" speed of synchronizing to central.  Thanks for the tip, Aaron.  Click here to find out more about Revit Server... (it's free)...


Pretty cool, huh?  This setup has been working great for a few months now at my home.  My favorite part is that as long as the NAS hard drive and the router have power, they work.  There are no restarts for updates, random shut-downs, or custom scripts (which you may have to deal with when running a Windows Server).  Set it and forget it! 

Some limitations of this setup:  ASUS VPN client only allows a set number of users (10).  You are relying on the speed of your local internet when synchronizing with central so it will take longer when you are using VPN (patience is the solution here).  Some residential ISP's don't allow VPN usage... So definitely check!