Serious management for serious projects

Tracking large projects calls for serious software. Add geographical dispersion to the project team, and you'll need some way to connect all the players to a central management program. Netmosphere Inc. hopes to help solve that problem with the combined forces of Project Home Page 2.01 and ActionPlan 3.2.

The Netmosphere products do not deliver some of the more sophisticated project management features of a program such as Primavera Systems Inc.'s SureTrak Product Manager, but they do offer an easy-to-use solution for project management across the World Wide Web.

All the actual project management activity—creating tasks and milestones and tracking resources—takes place using ActionPlan. The user interface, which is accessed via a Web browser, is straightforward and easy to understand. And while ActionPlan doesn't support budgeting or PERT charts, the product does allow you to track hourly rates associated with individuals or resources.

Given that this is a project management program designed for workgroup use, it should be no surprise that ActionPlan offers strong tools for controlling user access. Project managers may assign access rights—which include no access, read access or read/write access—on a user or group basis for each project. ActionPlan also supports the use of roles. In short, you can assign a task to a role, such as a mechanical engineer or draftsman, rather than to a specific individual. Once a role is assigned to a user for a particular project, all tasks assigned to that role will be redirected to that user.

ActionPlan project files can be accessed by users over the Internet via a Web browser, but if you want to make attached data, such as word processor or spreadsheet files, accessible, then you'll need Project Home Page. Project Home Page serves as an information portal, funneling data from ActionPlan projects as well as links to schedules, resources, users and pertinent documents. And if you're using Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer to browse the site, you'll be able to view Microsoft Office documents right in the browser.

A new project home page can be built from an existing template or from scratch. Determining what type of information to display is based on three views: team, management and partner. When you initially build the project home page, you determine what information from ActionPlan will be displayed by each view.

Project Home Page runs in conjunction with a Web server. For our testing, we installed the product on a Windows NT 4.0 server running Internet Information Server 4.0, but the program also supports Netscape Communications Corp.'s Enterprise or FastTrack Web server and Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Solaris with Netscape's Enterprise Web server, Sun's Web server, or the Apache Web server.

The Enterprise Java Application Server console provides all the tools necessary to configure and administer Project Home Page and ActionPlan. Using a file folder user interface motif, the JAS console makes it possible to back up key data to another directory on the local machine or to remote file storage via the network. The other key feature of the JAS console is its interface with the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol directory server. All user and resource information gets stored using LDAP to make it easily accessible to other programs.

One new feature in this version of Project Home Page is its enhanced reporting capabilities. With previous versions of the product, you had to use Adobe Systems Inc.'s Acrobat to accomplish all your printing. This release enables you to print directly to the printer.

This release also includes more security. For example, previous versions allowed projects to include users with blank passwords. This has been changed to require passwords for all users.

Project Home Page and ActionPlan use Hypertext Markup Language and Java extensively. While that is good for portability, it also means the programs take a hit in performance. We found a few parts of the programs somewhat sluggish on a 200 MHz Intel Corp. Pentium machine with 64M of memory. Performance was more respectable on a machine with a more powerful processor. Your mileage may vary, but you'll need to know what types of machines your target group will use with the product if you expect users to get acceptable response times.

All in all, the combination of ActionPlan and Project Home Page offers a sound solution for any organization trying to implement a distributed project management system. And the program's Microsoft Project file format compatibility makes it even easier to share project management data files with other users.

-- Ferrill, based at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., is a principal engineer with Avionics Test & Analysis Corp. He can be reached at pferrill@fwb.gulf.net.

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ActionPlan 3.2Project Home Page 2.01

Grade: B-plusNetmosphere Inc.(650) 655-2031www.netmosphere.com

Price and Availability

Project Home Page and ActionPlan can be purchased directly from the company. Project Home Page and ActionPlan are part of the Netmosphere product suite, which sells for $25,000 for 25 users. The software also is available in configurations ranging from five users to enterprise site licenses.

Remarks

Project Home Page and ActionPlan provide the tools to successfully carry out project management via the Web. While the combination of the two programs might not keep up with some of the high-end products, it does provide the basic functionality you would expect to find in a project management tool. The added value comes from the ability to link many kinds of information on a single home page.

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