When searching for affordable information technology solutions, architecture engineering and construction firms often find bargains in niche products, such as general computer utilities or shareware programs. A variety of general-use and specialty design products are available for little or no charge. But some firms are finding they can also save money on traditional big-ticket items such as computer-aided design and Web collaboration software.

LEARNING CURVE Users say Power CAD from Tekhnelogos.Com is easy to pick up.

In the computer-aided design market, AutoCAD and Microstation remain the most widely used products, but several vendors offer low-cost alternatives. Autodesk's own AutoCAD LT, along with CADopia's IntelliCAD, IMSI's TurboCAD and Intergraph's SmartSketch, can each be had for several hundred dollars a seat, compared with several thousand for the marquis products. A scaled-down version of IntelliCAD can even be downloaded for free at www.Cadopia.com.

PowerCAD, from Tekhnelogos.Com, is an efficient tool for preparing two-dimensional drawings on the MacIntosh platform, says John Miller, president of John Miller Architect, Los Altos, Calif. The product is available in versions that range from $300 to $1,200 and it "has a short learning curve," says Miller.

Even project collaboration tools are no longer for the biggest firms or the largest projects. Cheaper collaboration solutions are available, says architect James Spinola of Hillcrest Architecture, Saylorsburg, Pa. Using downloadable tools such as Adobe Acrobat Reader and Autodesk VoloView Express, firms can exchange files, communicate electronically and view CAD files on simple Websites built with low-cost tools such as Microsoft Front Page. "These solutions don't offer the tracking and redlining features of the big boys but they offer basic collaboration tools for small projects," he says.

The Internet has enabled firms to lease software from application service providers instead of buying it. Gannett Fleming, Harrisburg, Pa., halved the cost of using structural design software STAAD.Pro from Research Engineers Inc., Yorba Linda, Calif., by switching to an ASP licensing program through Web4Engineers.com, says James Popielski, computer applications developer. The ASP approach also provides flexibility for multiple users. "We were purchasing numerous licenses and it got difficult to manage," he says. Both Web4Engineers.com and Research Engineers Inc. are now subsidiaries of NetGuru.com.

NO COMMITMENT STADD.Pro can be rented short term.

In another tack on the ASP approach, Cetrus, Inc., Danville, Calif., has pooled a library of civil engineering and geotechnical software and rents it out by the hour, week or month. The company also allows customers to "test drive" software before renting.

For project management, GigaPlan, from GigaPlan Inc., Novato, Calif., is an enterprise-level online workplace that allows distributed teams to manage projects, resources, expenses and documents. It can be leased for $35 per month, plus a one-time setup fee of $2,500. It can be used independently or integrated with Microsoft® Project, says company spokesman Cameron Heffernan. GigaPlan also offers a free product, GanntPrint, which allows Microsoft Project files to be uploaded to a Website, viewed and printed with a browser.

The ASP model is not a panacea for small firms, says Randall Siemon, senior project engineer with Brazos Environmental and Engineering Services ltd., Waco, Texas. His firm briefly leased STAAD.Pro, but had limited success due to a slow dial-up Internet connection and unfamiliarity with the software. "Unless you use the software all the time, it's tough to be productive in a short time," he says.

Whether low-cost solutions can measure up to more deluxe alternatives is up for debate. "The real cost [of software] is implementation and training," cautions John Geffel, senior vice president at Beaverton, Ore.-based Timberline Software Corp., which develops construction estimating and accounting software. Companies trying out unconventional or low-cost solutions may need some in-house IT expertise, advises Miller. But for those with the right combination of resources, the best solution may not always be the most expensive one.