Project Management Software Demystified

The devil, as the adage goes, is in the details. And if you're managing projects that involve dozens or hundreds of tasks, the chore of keeping track of the details can be even more daunting than performing them. That's where project management software comes in.

The problem is that learning how to use project managers can be a devilish business in itself. Fortunately, that's one area where we've seen a great deal of improvement in the past year. Thanks to new wizards for creating projects and designing reports, project managers are getting easier to use.

All three of the packages included in this comparison -- Kidasa Software Inc.'s Milestones, Etc. 5.0, Primavera Systems Inc.'s SureTrak 2.0 and Scitor Corp.'s Project Scheduler 7 -- were released in the past few months, and all three packages are more powerful and easier to use than earlier versions.

In addition to getting easier to use, project managers are also beginning to ship with more World Wide Web functionality. Although they're not yet capable of letting you change schedules over the Web, all three packages provide tools for converting project schedules to Hypertext Markup Language so that they can be displayed on your Web site. And many of the programs now let you insert hyperlinks to Web sites right into schedules.

Of course, even these increasingly powerful tools may not be enough for some projects. If you've got hundreds of projects in the enterprise with thousands of tasks to track, you may need a higher-end project management tool, such as Primavera's Project Planner (see related story). The higher-priced project planners also generally offer more sophisticated analytical tools and integration with enterprise databases from such vendors as Oracle Corp.

Finding the Right Fit

But if your project management needs are on the workgroup or departmental level rather than the enterprise level, one of these products is likely to be a good fit.

Primavera's SureTrak received the highest score in this comparison, thanks to a strong set of scheduling tools and a very reasonable price. But you'll want to take a close look at the other products as well to see if one more closely matches your needs. Kidasa's Milestones 5, for example, offers extraordinary value if you don't need to manage resources. And Scitor's Project Scheduler can be customized to the greatest degree and offers the strongest multiple-project management capabilities, although you'll pay a higher price for these tools.

Take note that one major player, Microsoft Corp.'s Project, is not represented in this comparison. That's because the current version of Project is about to be replaced by another release.

Primavera SureTrak 2.0

In light of the fact that SureTrak just shipped a new version last May, we were a little surprised to find that it is still only a 16-bit product and doesn't recognize long file names. Nonetheless, it is a very good package.

Primavera SureTrak offers users a significantly higher level of project management functionality than Milestones, thanks mostly to stronger tools for managing groups of projects and resources. Version 2.0 of the product offers a number of enhancements to the program's ease of use, including an animated tutorial and new wizards.

The first such wizard you're likely to encounter is Project Kickstart, which leads you through setting up a new project. We found it does an admirable job of helping you organize tasks and set up resources.

Entering tasks into an existing project is also easy, and you can choose from among three basic types of activities: task, independent and meeting. Which type you choose has to do with how you want it to relate to resources. Specifically, if the activity should be scheduled using the project's primary calendar, and not considering when resources are available, then it's a task. If an activity depends upon the availability of resources but those resources don't have to be available at the same time, then it's an independent activity. If the activity depends upon resources and all the resources have to work together, then it's a meeting.

No program offers a wider and easier-to-use set of schedule constraints for activities. SureTrak's detail window makes it a snap to view and change start dates, floats and eight other schedule constraints.

Resources can also be characterized in great detail. You can specify up to six time constraints for each resource, with different date ranges. You might, for example, indicate that two design engineers are available during June, while four are available from July through August. You can also enter other information, such as cost per hour or revenue, making budgeting projects a breeze.

SureTrak can automatically rearrange - or "level" - your project schedule to make sure that activities take place when the necessary resources are available. SureTrak allows you to choose from several leveling methods. You might, for example, tell the program to level in such a way that tasks that are completed first get the resources, or that tasks that have the least float get the resources. Or you can set priorities for individual tasks and have the program level resources according to those priorities.

One limitation to SureTrak is the way it handles projects. You have to collect projects into the same project group if they are to share the same set of resources. The snag is that if one user has the project group open, other users can only open projects and resource tables in read-only mode, even if the first user isn't working with those files.

SureTrak offers an effective set of views, including both a PERT display and a bar view. The screen design is excellent, showing a maximum amount of data in an easy-to-digest format. You can display as many columns of tabular data as you like in the left-hand window, time bars in the right-hand window, and by default the details for the currently selected items are displayed in the bottom panel, though you can select other layouts to display other information there. The program comes with several dozen prefab layouts, and you can create and save your own.

You can also view resources either in tabular or bar chart format, and the program can report a variety of budget data in chart format, including quantity, costs, revenue, net, budgeted cost for work scheduled, earned value, as well as totals per time interval, peak and average. The controls over graphs are, however, basic, with little control over format and chart style.

SureTrak also picks up extra points for providing built-in e-mail capabilities. This feature allows not only easier viewing of project data but easier merging of mailed project data - from a single activity to an entire project - into local schedules. And SureTrak also offers a utility for checking projects in and out. That way, when you check out a project to work on it remotely, other users only can open it in read-only mode. The utility keeps a record of who checked out which projects and when.

The program also earns points for its reporting tools. In addition to providing a broad variety of pre-defined formats for printing, SureTrak 2.0 lets you export and import projects in Microsoft Corp.'s Excel pivot table format. And version 2.0 offers a new Web publishing wizard that makes it easy to export project reports in HTML format, a handy feature for company intranets.

In sum, SureTrak is a full-featured project management tool that's most suitable for departmental project managers. The program can handle complex projects and can manage multiple related projects, though it's not quite as strong as Scitor's Project Scheduler 7 in this respect. But SureTrak's lower price tag makes it a very attractive buy.

Scitor Project Scheduler 7

If you have complex projects that need to share resources, and you need flexibility in managing the whole tangled conglomeration centrally, you'll want to take a close look at Scitor Project Scheduler 7. It delivers more power than any other program in this comparison and without sacrificing ease of use. However, the program carries a premium price tag, which holds back its overall score.

We found Project Scheduler easy enough to install, though we were a little surprised that a CD was not bundled with the product. Instead, we had deal with the time consuming process of feeding floppies into the machine. And the setup routine doesn't tell you how much disk space is required or available on your system.

There is, unfortunately, no online tutorial. Instead, the program provides a brief tutorial chapter in the manual. Nevertheless, Project Scheduler 7 is reasonably easy to learn, thanks in part to the intelligent design of the interface. The program sports three default toolbars, each with well- designed icons and bubble help. There's a standard toolbar with commonly used commands, a secondary toolbar with data and formula entry tools, and a views toolbar providing access to different templates that runs down the left side. Customizing and adding toolbars is easy.

The program also provides a wide array of well-designed views, including Gantt charts, PERT charts, an outline tree, a network view, graphs and list views. Although there are only three types of bar graphs available, Project Scheduler 7 allows you to specify multiple variants and offers good controls over formatting.

Project Scheduler 7 lets you to do virtually any kind of task scheduling, including some tricks others don't match. You can, for example, with a single click have Project Scheduler 7 push a selected task as late as possible without affecting other tasks. That may not seem like a big deal unless your project has hundreds of tasks and dependencies. The program can also handle significantly more tasks than SureTrak, with a ceiling of 99,999.

Project Scheduler 7 lets you manage resources as well as tasks, and the program lets you assign priorities to projects and even to individual tasks to ensure that they get first choice on resources when the leveling process is performed.

The program is also unusually powerful in handling multiple projects. You can, in fact, specify four different relationships between projects: separate, merged, sub-projects, grouped projects. The latter two types allow links between projects. Grouped projects are most appropriate for top- level managers that are responsible for the entire group and oversee others who are primarily responsible for individual projects.

Project Scheduler 7 provides excellent controls over how projects are connected. You can, for example, connect even a single task to a master project. Or you might specify that resource data but not summaries be passed up to a master project.

Two new features have been added to version 7.0 that significantly boost its power. First, Project Scheduler 7 now allows the user to create an unlimited number of custom fields, selecting from among 15 pre-defined field types. You can also create new types of fields using formulas. Version 7.0 also introduces time-distributed formulas, which makes it easy to perform time- sensitive data analysis.

One minor area where Scitor is decidedly weak is that the program offers only 14 pre-designed and very basic symbols, though you can import more. Nor does it support hyperlinking to other files or to URLs.

Scitor has filled in one previous gap by providing support for VIM and MAPI e-mail. Project Scheduler 7 also offers strong database connectivity, including not only ODBC support but also support for direct SQL queries of outside databases.

Project Scheduler 7 is, in short, the powerhouse among the products in this comparison. Although it carries a relatively high price tag, it delivers its power in a surprisingly easy-to-use package

Milestones, Etc. 5.0

Milestones has targeted the lower-end of the market and fills that niche well. Although the package has new features and capabilities, it is clearly designed for agencies with simpler projects and modest budgets.

There's a lot you won't find in Milestones. There's no resource tracking, a gap that will prevent many project managers from even considering the program. Nor will you find data banding, dedicated budgeting tools or PERT charts - common features in higher-end project managers.

What you will find is an easy-to-use set of basic scheduling tools supplemented by a new graphing utility and easy reporting. And the program's price makes it an attractive option.

Milestones was easy to install, though we found it a tad irritating that the program didn't give any indication of how much disk space was required or available on our drives. On the plus side, demo movies on the CD are very helpful in learning your way around Milestones. The program also has a new wizard that leads you through the basic formatting steps involved in starting a new project. Alternatively, you can select a layout from the 46 pre-designed templates delivered with the program.

The program's interface is clean - looking more like DOS than Windows - and generally simple to use. Users are limited to a maximum of 10 columns of tabular data, a ceiling that many project managers will find too confining. The program's column-management tools are well-designed, however, allowing users to designate any column to display Work Breakdown Schedule outlines.

And while you can't create custom fields or formulas in Milestones, you can handle more common chores - such as outlining tasks and setting up dependencies - with ease. The program limits you to five upward or downward links.

Version 5.0 also introduces new DataGraphs. You can create up to four graphs per schedule, and each graph can display up to four variables. If you've keyed data into the tasks, the program can grab it for creating a chart, or you can enter data directly into the charting utility. On the downside, the controls for configuring the look and feel of the graphs and labels are very limited, and you even have to manually enter the height of the graph window. There is no mouse-driven formatting here.

You'll also find a generous offering of 55 pre-defined symbols for use in marking points on timelines. If those don't meet your needs, you can create your own custom symbols or import bitmaps.

There are other welcome new features, including hyperlinks, which can take you straight from the project schedule to another schedule, an external document, or even to a Web page. Milestones also now has a 10-language spell checker and supports OLE automation.

As noted above, Milestones makes it easy to save schedules as HTML pages for use on the Web, and you can also distribute a free viewer to users if you want to distribute sheets in Milestones format.

While version 5.0 of Milestones is stronger than the previous version, the program's lack of resource-tracking tools, its lack of support for ODBC and enterprise data bases, and its limited analytical tools hold the program's score down. Therefore, we would recommend it primarily to individuals and, at the most, departmental users with relatively small and uncomplicated projects to manage.

Patrick Marshall is senior writer at the InfoWorld Test Center. He can be reached at patrick_marshall@infoworld.com.

HOW WE TESTEDProject Management Software

We evaluated each project management software package on a150 MHz Pentium PC with 32M of RAM running Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT Workstation 4.0. To check e-mail capabilities, we used Microsoft Exchange 5.0 running on a Windows NT 4.0 Server.

Installation and Configuration

To receive a score of satisfactory, we had to successfully install the product without being misled by confusing instructions or procedures. Products that provided features that make installation easier, and those that offered tools for customizing the program received extra points. We translated the word scores into a percentage of the 150 points assigned this category.

Project Creation/Management

To earn a score of satisfactory, the program had to allow the user to schedule tasks and to place basic constraints on scheduling. The program also had to allow the user to make tasks dependent upon the completion or starting of other tasks. To receive a score of good or higher, the program had to provide a means for users to track resources, such as meeting rooms or equipment, and to assign those resources to project. Programs that offer special tools, such as the ability to group tasks, place advanced constraints on the scheduling of tasks and prioritize tasks for resource leveling, were awarded additional points. We translated the word scores into a percentage of the 200 points assigned this category.

Viewing Projects/Resources

At a minimum, the program had to offer a Gantt chart and list views of tasks. Programs that offered additional views, such as PERT charts or network diagrams, and that offered charting tools for resources earned extra points. Programs also earned extra points by offering multiple layouts and the ability to save custom layouts. We translated the word scores into a percentage of the 200 points assigned this category.

Report Generation

To receive a score of satisfactory, the program had to provide a basic set of templates for printing reports of project schedules. Extra points were awarded to programs that provided tools for creating custom reports and an extensive set of report templates. Extra points were given to programs that support printing to Hypertext Markup Language, as well as exporting data to other applications for further analysis or printing. We translated the word scores into a percentage of the 100 points assigned this category.

Documentation

At a minimum, documentation had to tell us how to install the program and make use of the program's features. Comprehensive, well-organized and well-written manuals received higher scores. We lowered the score if the manual was poorly organized, lacked a table of contents and index, did not include information or contained factual errors in the text. We assigned word scores and translated them into a percentage of the 100 points assigned this category.

Technical Support

We based technical-support scores on the quality of service we received during multiple anonymous support calls. Busy signals, voice-mail-only service and excessive hold times all resulted in lower scores. We assigned word scores and translated them into a percentage of the 50 points assigned this category.

Support Policies

To receive a score of satisfactory, the company had to provide telephone technical support. We awarded bonus points for unconditional money-back guarantees, extended support hours, bulletin board support (such as CompuServe) and a toll-free number. We subtracted points for no technical support or a limited support period. We assigned word scores and translated them into a percentage of the 50 points assigned this category.

Prices

Obviously, programs that cost less scored higher in this category.We rated program prices for departmental-level project managers according to the following ranges: $0-249: Excellent

$250-399: Very Good

$400-549: Good

$550-700: Satisfactory

Project Management Alternatives

If the department-level products in this comparison don't meet your project management needs, consider two alternative packages: Primavera Software's Primavera Project Planner or Microsoft Corp.'s Team Manager 97. We looked at both and found them to be very good products. Primavera Project Planner, or P3, is a good choice if you need an enterprise-level package. For example, if you need to make changes in a project while someone else is working on it, P3 will let you do this, but none of the three packages in the main comparison will. Instead of locking entire project files, as the other do, P3 locks individual tasks. If one person has opened a task to edit it, other users will be able to view but not edit the task until the first person is done with it.

And, unlike its department-level sibling, SureTrak, P3 provides true client/server operation, so client workstations won't be bogged down with processing large project files.

P3 also offers more refined security tools than SureTrak and the other department-level products we evaluated. Instead of simply granting or denying access to projects, P3 allows administrators to selectively grant or deny users the ability to perform specific operations, such as import data, make global changes, and modify layouts, activity codes and calendars.

P3 also provides users with more sophisticated data management tools than SureTrak, including global changes to tasks based on what-if analyses. You might, for example, add a couple of days to all uncompleted tasks that involved a specific individual who just called in sick. And P3 is also more sophisticated than SureTrak in the tools it brings to resource management. Instead of a uniform application of resources to a task being assumed, P3 allows you to create a curve that applies varying levels of resources through the process of a task.

The drawback is that you'll have to pay significantly more for a high-end tool such as P3. While SureTrak costs $399 for a single shrink-wrapped copy, P3 has a list price of $4,000 for a single user and $8,000 for a three-concurrent-user package.

An alternative package to consider is Team Manager 97, which is particularly useful if your workflow is more people-oriented than project-oriented. If so -- and if the many tasks you're tracking aren't highly dependent upon each other -- you should consider a people manager such as Team Manager.

Team Manager is light on many traditional project-management tools, lacking such project-management staples as resource tracking and leveling, PERT charts and sophisticated constraints on task scheduling. What Team Manager does offer, however, is a slick set of tools for tracking people and what they're doing.

The program offers four primary views: Tasks, People, Notebook and Vital Signs.

The Tasks view by default displays six types of information: task name, project it is assigned to, people assigned to the task, start date, complete date and priority. But if that doesn't cover all you want to track, you can create custom fields and columns. Team Manager offers a generous selection of 11 field types to choose from, including text, yes/no, percent, date, integer and currency. Note, however, that there are no calculating fields or formula fields, so this isn't the place to try to build complex data analysis.

The People view is used to keep information -- address, pay scale, etc. -- about the people in your organization.

The Notebook view, as its name implies, is simply a place to write and store memos, employee reviews and the like.

The Vital Signs view is where most managers will spend most of their time. This view offers a concise display of all tasks, deadlines, the people assigned, priority and percent complete. There's even a handy time line that runs across the top of the screen. It doesn't show the duration of tasks, but it does display all deadlines with a marker. And clicking on the deadline marker will take you directly to task details. All the views have very strong sorting, group and filtering tools. And all these major views offer a half-dozen or more ways of looking at the data. You can, for example, pop open a workload display in the People view that shows graphically what time commitments each user has.

These tools make the package great for keeping tabs on what your workgroup is doing -- or should be doing. And this capability won't drain your budget: Team Manager's single-user license costs $109.

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