Project comes to the web

Project comes to the web

Project management software is invaluable because it can transform a confusing mass of activities, deadlines, and objectives into neat diagrams, which helps managers use company resources more effectively and deliver results within budget and time constraints.

Since its early DOS-based version, Microsoft's Project Manager has been the favourite tool for managers tackling a variety of corporate missions. Its appeal lies in its easy-to-use interface, flexibility, and smooth integration with other desktop formats, such as spreadsheets.

Project 2002, released in June, maintains those characteristics and improves functionality in key areas. The more interesting novelties involve collaboration among multiple project teams across a company, which provides the means to optimise resource allocation and to ensure that ongoing projects are in sync with company goals.

Project 2002 continues the shift from a project-centric approach to a company-wide vision that began in previous versions. Two versions are available: Standard, which offers limited collaboration capability; and Professional which, when used in conjunction with Project Server, makes it possible to consolidate resources and objectives data from multiple projects into a single, Web-friendly corporate view.

Ex pluribus unum

Project 2002's new packaging could appear confusing. The Standard version should suffice for a company that has localised project control requirements, such as a single project manager who administers local resources and activities.

For more complex requirements, such as several project administrations in remote locations, sharing resources across the company, or using Web access to input progress reports, companies should choose the Project Server and Professional client combination.

With this configuration, managers can use Professional to create independent projects and publish them to a centralised repository: Project Server and its SQL Server database. Project Server offers functionality to consolidate activities, resource demands, and tasks for company-wide analysis and planning.

Using Project Server, managers and team members can access all sorts of project information via Internet Explorer, depending on their rights. For instance, people working on project activities can fill out time sheets from their browsers, and administrators can define the frequency and format of those time sheets.

And Project 2002 will automatically notify team members via e-mail of changes affecting their project, which simplifies keeping everyone informed of changes and new activities - a much-needed new feature.

Some assembly required

If you're getting the impression that installing Project Server can get complicated, you're not far from the truth. Microsoft seems to be aware of this complexity, because the release of Project 2002 proposes a well-populated list of business partners, such as PeopleSoft, Siebel Systems, Accenture, KPMG, and Rational Software, to help customers with training, implementation, and integration.

After we solved our server installation puzzle (which mostly entailed verifying version dependencies, choosing a security scheme, and creating a URL for user access), Project 2002 was easy and often pleasant to use. We installed Project Server on a Windows 2000 server already loaded with SQL Server 2000 and IIS (Internet Information Server). For our fictional project managers, we set up Project Professional on a couple of client machines; our simulated project-team members had access to Project Server from their browsers.

The Professional GUI leaves little room for complaints. Experienced project managers can draft a new project by creating major blocks and then refine activities in more detail as their planning becomes more specific. We were able to add tasks either from the typical Gantt chart (a timeline of each activity and its dependencies) or from the network view that gives a more immediate graphical rendering of chains of activities.

Zooming to specifics, such as entering the cost of each resource or setting deadlines for each project, is immediate and intuitive. We had a variety of reports from which to choose, which were helpful in sorting out scheduling or comparing actual progress to a forecast. Exporting project data to other formats, such as Excel or the newly added XML, is easy and wizard-assisted. Moreover, we were able to save our export logic (which data, what format) and easily repeat the export.

After creating our project locally on the client machine, we attempted publishing it to Project Server. From the Professional client, we set up our connection to the server, indicating the URL to publish to, how to log in to the server and which information to make public - the whole project or resources only. For intranet-based project sharing, you can use (as we did) Windows authentication. The project was successfully published to the server.

Among Project 2002's many new important features are improved communications among team members and the ability to merge independently created activities for centralised management. Preparing the infrastructure for sharing projects across the enterprise requires training, planning, and coordinating several Microsoft products. But it offers the reward of more efficient resource allocation and, perhaps more importantly, ensures that your departmental projects are in tune with corporate business objectives.

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