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Software Options/Alternatives – focus on open-source

  • 1.  Software Options/Alternatives – focus on open-source

    Posted 01-18-2021 11:50 AM

    We'll start with the questions, followed by the verbose narrative behind them:

    1. What free or open-source software do you use? And why? (Particularly looking for CADD options)
    2. If you use proprietary software, have you tried free/open-source alternatives? What were your impressions?
    3. If you have found no suitable free/open-source software alternatives to proprietary programs/platforms, which "camp" or "tribe" do you prefer for your needs, and why? (AutoCAD Civil 3D vs. Microstation vs. Carlson Civil vs. SketchUp, for example.)

    There are often discussions or debates about which software programs are better for certain purposes or functions. For example, AutoCAD Civil 3D vs Microstation, or PCSWMM vs. HEC-GeoRAS, or TR-55 vs. HEC-HMS, or… you get the idea. Largely, these comparisons are between software programs that are within the same general category, 'paid, proprietary' or 'free, publicly available'. I'm interested in getting some discussion going about free or very cheap, preferably open-source software.

    There are many reasons why someone might want open-source software as opposed to proprietary software, including but not limited to:

    • Cost
      • Open-source is free, and developers are compensated largely on donations.
    • Security
      • Open-source means you get to see the code, so there's no "funny business" behind the curtain threatening data collection, odd computer resource usage, etc.
    • Customization
      • It is possible to use the source code to build your own software or user interface, or to build add-ons and custom scripts to make it your own.
    • Community
      • There is often a large community of users to help you by sharing their experiences and troubleshooting/problem resolutions.
    • Compatibility/Accessibility
      • No two software programs that claim compatibility are 100% compatible, but at least if you give a client a deliverable (let's say CAD file) in a format usable/readable by free/open-source software, they won't need to pay big money or find a kind friend to help them open/use it.

    I have had a personal fascination with open-source software for the above reasons, largely the first. I'm starting my own business now, and while I would happily continue using AutoCAD Civil 3D and the associated Autodesk programs, the cost ($2,000-2,700/year) is a major overhead expense for a new business with unknown workload and income. This is also just one of many software programs/platforms I'm likely to need. Free alternatives are often barely classifiable as "alternatives" since they don't perform near the same range of functions.

    Anecdote: I had an older MacBook I needed to "refresh" with a format and reinstall. I decided to switch it to a Linux operating system and go open-source with all the software. After the initial installation, all seemed great. Day 2, I had trouble with a basic website because the web browser didn't have whatever it needed to play some basic video. Unlike the mainstream operating systems, it wasn't as simple as "click to install." As I started to research the steps necessary to get my most basic web-browsing to work, I quickly realized I needed more "free" time or computer knowledge than I had. I asked a knowledgeable friend, and he told me a friend once told him "Linux is free, as long as your time is worthless." I reformatted and installed the Mac OS again.



    ------------------------------
    Ari Daniels, P.E., M.ASCE
    Outland, LLC - Owner/Principal
    Center for Watershed Protection, Inc. - Water Resources Engineer
    Monterey, Virginia, USA
    ------------------------------


  • 2.  RE: Software Options/Alternatives – focus on open-source

    Posted 01-19-2021 09:29 AM
    Hi Ari,
    I'll just throw in some names for open source or low cost software that I've used, although they are not CADD related.
    - USEPA SWMM and USACE HEC suite for stormwater modeling, both have very good documentation and discussion groups
    - rapidlasso LAS tools and CloudCompare for spatial data analysis.
    - programming languages (Python and R)
    - once I tried using QGIS for a small task, because I didn't have ArcGIS license, but ended up using a convoluted routine in Excel rather than spending time figuring out the free software. ESRI has good options if you just want to learn their Arc suite software, but the fees are steep for any kind of business use.

    Generally, in my very brief stint as an independent consultant running a virtual windows machine on MAC, I've realized that I would need to find a good IT person or spend a lot of time figuring these things out. I was also wondering if it's a viable option for several small businesses to share one subscription, since often the software doesn't need to be used all day every day.

    ------------------------------
    Natalya Sokolovskaya P.E., M.ASCE
    Wynnewood PA
    ------------------------------



  • 3.  RE: Software Options/Alternatives – focus on open-source

    Posted 21 days ago

    Sorry for the long delay in response! I've been meaning to jump back into Collaborate, but keep allowing other priorities to hold my time. And thank you.

    I've been meaning for a while to spend some dedicated time and energy learning the HEC suite, specifically RAS/GeoRAS and HMS. Ah, time... Abundant in its raw form, rare in its "free" form.

    I've also only played around with QGIS a little, but the learning curve was kind of steep, in good part because I wasn't even really proficient, or literate, in ArcGIS first.

    Your idea for several small/er companies or individuals sharing a license is a GREAT idea. Let's keep that in mind. The fees for some of the software I use in my work are heavy, and only even affordable for the organization I work for part-time because it's non-profit, and the Autodesk AECC suite is $99/year instead of $2,700/year or whatever the "retail" subscription rate is. I couldn't afford as an individual starting a company to have any of the software I normally use.



    ------------------------------
    Ari Daniels, P.E., M.ASCE
    Outland, LLC - Owner/Principal
    Center for Watershed Protection, Inc. - Water Resources Engineer
    Monterey, Virginia, USA
    ------------------------------



  • 4.  RE: Software Options/Alternatives – focus on open-source

    Posted 01-21-2021 09:53 AM
    EPA SWMM - free, but it pays to understand its bugs by keeping up with release notes and community discussion
    EPA SSOAP - software to separate wet weather and dry weather flow in sewers, used to determine the rainfall derived inflow and infiltration.
    R for programming - great for statistics and (more in my experience) manipulating bulk data repetitively. Packages in R can deprecate over time though, and so some scripts that work for a while may later require some maintenance.
    Q GIS - I know this software can be used to view shapefiles from other programs like ArcGIS, but I never figured out how to edit in it.
    Google Docs - I realize this is a commonly known option by now, but its not worth forgetting that if you don't want to pay for Office 365, it may be a viable alternative.
    Slack - if you need a way to collaborate with others while using Google Docs and as such don't have access to Microsoft Teams

    Finally, a few non-engineering softwares, especially since you have your own business and so may need to be your own boss and marketing director as well.

    Asana - browser app - free task scheduler which I really like to use to help stay organized and not forget about small tasks that only occur periodically
    Davinci Resolve - free, pretty powerful video editor.
    Gimp - free alternative to Photoshop
    Audacity - free audio editor

    ------------------------------
    Christopher Seigel P.E., M.ASCE
    Civil Engineer
    ------------------------------



  • 5.  RE: Software Options/Alternatives – focus on open-source

    Posted 21 days ago
    Thanks!

    I've used SWMM a bit. It's finicky, but great. I just need more practice. There's usually some little thing I'm missing, making either the whole model not work, or making everything orders of magnitude too high or low. The devil's in the details.

    Never even heard of SSOAP! I'll check that out.

    Google Docs, I hate. I've used it, and a lot of folks do when free/cross-platform collaboration software is required. But I really hate Google Docs. Could just be me not knowing optimal practices.

    I'll add that I've used InkScape, an alternative to Adobe Illustrator and other vector-design software. It was pretty good, but my partner (formerly a graphic designer, and proficient user of Illustrator) couldn't figure out the interface.

    For whatever its functions (I've only used it for screen, audio, and video capture, not streaming) are, OBS Studio is free/open source and pretty user-friendly. It appears to be quite actively supported (at least bug fixes and continued development) as well.

    ------------------------------
    Ari Daniels, P.E., M.ASCE
    Outland, LLC - Owner/Principal
    Center for Watershed Protection, Inc. - Water Resources Engineer
    Monterey, Virginia, USA
    ------------------------------



  • 6.  RE: Software Options/Alternatives – focus on open-source

    Posted 01-22-2021 12:43 PM

    I like DesignCAD 3D Max  $150 one-time (2D version is $60) which reads and writes Autocad files.  It started life as a DOS program so it's been around for a while.  Has quite a different interface and design approach, but in a couple of days you get used to it.  I run it on my Mac Pro under Parallels but it needs a lot of resources for decent performance (as does Acad). The 2D version is probably better in this regard.   Here's a link to some native Mac drafting programs but I have no experience with them them.

    Regards / Derm



    ------------------------------
    James Wood M.ASCE
    Dermod Wood Assoc. LLC
    Pittstown NJ
    ------------------------------



  • 7.  RE: Software Options/Alternatives – focus on open-source

    Posted 21 days ago
    Thanks! Alternatives - usable, robust alternatives - to AutoCAD Civil 3D has been my biggest issue. Most of the CAD software out there is pretty darn serviceable for 2D drafting, and 3D modeling for things like machine parts, solid objects, and the like. I haven't found anything yet that deals with surfaces and grading the way Civil 3D does, and certainly nothing that handles the volume calculations the way Civil 3D does. SketchUp was actually one of the most intuitive 3D modeling programs I've used, but it's more of the "visual/artistic/architectural" than "engineering" type, based on limited experience.

    Have you used DesignCAD 3D MAX for much civil work? And what are its strengths and weaknesses, in your experience?

    ------------------------------
    Ari Daniels, P.E., M.ASCE
    Outland, LLC - Owner/Principal
    Center for Watershed Protection, Inc. - Water Resources Engineer
    Monterey, Virginia, USA
    ------------------------------



  • 8.  RE: Software Options/Alternatives – focus on open-source

    Posted 21 days ago
    FYI UNESCO-IHE has an excellent free QGIS course for Hydrological applications
    https://ocw.un-ihe.org/course/view.php?id=11/course/view.php

    ------------------------------
    Tung Nguyen, PhD
    Water Resources Engineer
    Sacramento, CA
    ------------------------------



  • 9.  RE: Software Options/Alternatives – focus on open-source

    Posted 21 days ago
    Ooooh! Thank you. I'll have to check this out. ArcGIS is ubiquitous and is the standard, but it's pricey (or "spendy" as they say on the West Coast). I've wanted to get into GIS more, and definitely would like to learn transferrable skills. Being able to hand a client a product that they at least theoretically can open and use themselves would be great.

    ------------------------------
    Ari Daniels, P.E., M.ASCE
    Outland, LLC - Owner/Principal
    Center for Watershed Protection, Inc. - Water Resources Engineer
    Monterey, Virginia, USA
    ------------------------------



  • 10.  RE: Software Options/Alternatives – focus on open-source

    Posted 15 days ago
    Hi, Ari

    My first experience with GIS was with commercial software TransCAD. The edition back then (version 4.5, some 20 years ago) was not exactly "user-friendly" for me, probably because I did not completely understand the differences between CAD and GIS. I believe that is a common problem in early GIS practice.

    Several years and projects later, I helped my wife to set up her GIS course for architects. One of our primary concerns was that the students would not be obligated to install expensive proprietary software. After a detailed review, we chose QGIS, and five years later, we have managed to complete several academic projects with numerous students.

    I frequently heard that QGIS lacks the specialized libraries available in ArcGIS for hydraulic/hydrological engineering (not my field of expertise); however, the developers and contributors appear to solve such gaps in every new version. Also, you may consider programming your Python scripts for solving custom problems.

    One final remark, when you install QGIS in Microsoft Windows, you get two other programs: SAGA-GIS and GRASS-GIS, which offer complementary and powerful tools in one integrated desktop. I also use QGIS in MacOS, but the interface usually has some differences with the same version for Windows.

    I do coincide that there is not a known alternative for Civil 3D. (Please, someone, prove me wrong!)

    Best regards,

    Luis R. Vasquez-Varela
    Head of the Civil Engineering Department
    Universidad Nacional de Colombia Manizales Branch

    ------------------------------
    Luis Vasquez-Varela Aff.M.ASCE
    Civil Engineer
    Manizales
    ------------------------------



  • 11.  RE: Software Options/Alternatives – focus on open-source

    Posted 21 days ago
    Oh, I wanted to give a shoutout to @Tirza Austin for offering up two more things in the open source space:
    Etherpad (in a similar space as Google Docs)
    • https://etherpad.org/
    • https://github.com/ether/etherpad-lite
    Form.io (I'm not really 100% sure what this is/does, but "forms," "data," and "API" would appear large in a word cloud for this - probably also sharing some space with Google Docs/Forms)
    • https://www.form.io/


    ------------------------------
    Ari Daniels, P.E., M.ASCE
    Outland, LLC - Owner/Principal
    Center for Watershed Protection, Inc. - Water Resources Engineer
    Monterey, Virginia, USA
    ------------------------------



  • 12.  RE: Software Options/Alternatives – focus on open-source

    Posted 17 days ago
    Hi Ari Daniels,

    First, I am glad to see Open Source Enthusiasts in this community!

    ‐-------------------------
    SWARUP Selvaraj, Aff.M.ASCE,
    Offshore Structural Engineer / Data Scientist,
    Chennai, India.
    ‐-------------------------




  • 13.  RE: Software Options/Alternatives – focus on open-source

    Posted 17 days ago

    Ah, yes! I often forget about the "smaller" additions to the list. I use 7-zip because it's the one that works. And I use OBS any time I have do a screen capture to illustrate a process for someone. I'm not proficient with it, and don't really know yet now to dial in the proper settings to get what I'll call "appropriate" file sizes on my videos, but it works, reliably, seems like it's actively maintained and developed, and of course, free!

    OH! I almost forgot ProjectLibre for project management, particularly scheduling and resource allocation. It's a mostly-there open source/free substitute for Microsoft Project. It's good for most projects of small to moderate size, though the resource balancing functionality is pretty consistently the part that people find lacking.



    ------------------------------
    Ari Daniels, P.E., M.ASCE
    Outland, LLC - Owner/Principal
    Center for Watershed Protection, Inc. - Water Resources Engineer
    Monterey, Virginia, USA
    ------------------------------



  • 14.  RE: Software Options/Alternatives – focus on open-source

    Posted 16 days ago
    The old joke is open source is free as long as you don't value your time!
    Regards / Derm







  • 15.  RE: Software Options/Alternatives – focus on open-source

    Posted 16 days ago
    Innovation thrives in an Open Community.

    Python | Google | NASA | CERN | Raspberry Pi

    ------------------------------
    SWARUP Selvaraj Aff.M.ASCE
    Offshore Structural Engineer / Data Scientist
    Chennai TN
    ------------------------------



  • 16.  RE: Software Options/Alternatives – focus on open-source

    Posted 10 days ago
    I second Notepad++ for text editing.
    Other opensource windows utilities I use are:
    • Beeftext : An open-source text substitution tool for Windows
    • Greenshot : A ight-weight screenshot software tool for Windows
    When it comes to CAD and engineering software, I think the proprietary options are better choices when I consider the value of my time. But I try to use opensource for more general utilities.  I have heard of Open Broadcast Studio (OBS) and want to experiment with it. Sounds like OBS.ninja would make it even more useful.
    • OBS.Ninja : In its simplest form, OBS.Ninja brings live video from a smartphone, tablet, or remote computer, directly into OBS Studio or other compatible broadcasting software. OBS.Ninja is offered as a free web service, but it's also available as customizable and deployable open-source code. Some have called it the modern Swiss Army knife of audio and video transmission.


    ------------------------------
    Peter Narsavage P.E., M.ASCE
    Geotech Engr
    Columbus OH
    ------------------------------