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Taking the pain out of upgrades
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by Alan Joch

Sometimes, it just makes sense to walk away from a fight. That’s what Kevin J. Connolly, AIA, did when software giant Autodesk released the first version of its Architectural Desktop (ADT) software. At the time, his firm, Connolly Architects, in Milwaukee, was using AutoCAD Release 14, and Connolly was wary of ADT because it represented a major change in features and function compared to AutoCAD. “We intentionally stayed away from it,” Connolly, president of the five-person firm, recalls. “When ADT 2 came out, we upgraded to that version,” he says, confident that any bugs in the program would have been fixed by the second release.

Connolly’s firm has since switched to a new design platform, Graphisoft’s ArchiCAD, but the owner still refrains from adopting every major software release as soon as it hits the market. He believes new-release bugs are endemic in the industry, not an ailment of any one vendor. “When a big new version of ArchiCAD comes out, maybe we’ll take every other one of those,” he says.


Connolly’s wait-and-see attitude isn’t unique to small firms with modest IT resources. Some technology managers at multiple-division companies that employ hundreds of CAD users take a similarly restrained approach to the regular incremental and blockbuster upgrades common among software vendors who serve architects—even adopting, like Connolly, the philosophy of installing every other new release. “I like to be number two and let somebody else do the debugging,” says Michael Walters, director of IT in the New York office of Perkins & Will.

Hidden costs

In the hotly competitive and innovative world of software development, regular changes to applications are a fact of life. No one can blame architects for being cautious. The initial cost of upgrading CAD software can range from $200 to $600 per workstation. Multiply that by the number of CAD users, and the bill quickly climbs into the thousands of dollars. But that’s just the beginning.

Additional costs accrue from hardware upgrades. Often, new software requires architects to pack their machines with more memory and storage capacity. In some cases, a newer, faster CPU may be necessary to run the revision effectively. “Hardware upgrading is one of the scariest parts” of adding new software, says Michael Horta, principal of Computers in Design, a New York–based training and consulting company. “Do you buy new machines or spend $2,000 to upgrade existing computers?” He notes that the minimum hardware recommendations provided by vendors aren’t always practical. “Whatever the box says, automatically double that,” Horta advises.

Firms must also consider personnel costs. CAD specialists may need 4 to 8 hours of instruction, at $30 to $40 per hour, to learn the software’s new capabilities. Chris Barron, AIA, vice president of architecture for Graphisoft, recommends budgeting for training costs at two times the price of the software upgrade.

Putting new features into practice takes even more time. “You take your production person, who is running 80 miles an hour and cut them back to 50 miles an hour” while they learn to use the upgrade, says Horta. “Do that across the whole office, and it’s a sizable cost.” A company may not fully benefit from a revision’s enhancements until users get comfortable after four or five projects, Horta adds.

Fewer blockbusters

For their part, makers of CAD software recognize the resistance toward upgrades that require extensive retraining and corresponding hardware upgrades. “Architects tend to be quite resistant to discontinuous upgrades,” says Graphisoft’s Barron. Autodesk says it is avoiding big revisions every 18 to 24 months in favor of smaller, incremental releases that boost behind-the-scenes performance but keep changes to the user interface to a minimum, according to Alex Neihaus, senior director of marketing for the building industry division. One increasingly common option used by these software suppliers, along with MicroStation vendor Bentley Systems, is software subscriptions, where users pay an annual fee, in addition to the cost of the software, in return for free upgrades and technical support. Revit, the parametric building modeler recently acquired by Autodesk, has evolved with 12 incremental releases over the past two and a half years and is marketed exclusively on a subscription basis.

While subscriptions may assuage some upgrade pain, they don’t make everyone happy. Connolly complains about paying up-front for new, unknown features that his company may not need. Adds Horta, “I’ve seen people who just shelve many of those smaller upgrades.”

Alan Joch

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