Managing Projects over a Network

WASHINGTON (07/31/2000) - If your agency does any project management at all, chances are you use Microsoft Corp.'s Project to do it.

Project has nearly become the de facto standard for tracking small- to medium-size projects. And Project 2000 adds several features to greatly enhance the ability to collaborate on projects across a network.

The heart of the enhanced collaborative capabilities is the new Project Central Server. Installation is a snap, but bear in mind that you must install Project Central Server on a Windows NT 4.0 (Service Pack 4) or Windows 2000 server with Internet Information Server 4.0. You'll also have to restart the server for the installation procedure to complete.

Project 2000 requires that you have Internet Explorer Version 4.01 with Service Pack 1 or later installed on each workstation to display workgroup messages.

Installing Project 2000 is pretty straightforward, but the procedure required me to reboot my workstation twice.

Setting up a project for shared access is easy from the Project 2000 Options menu on a client system. All that's required is the URL for the Project Central Server, and you're ready to go.

The Options menu is where you would create a project account on the server if it's your first time connecting. One option you'll want to consider carefully is a box labeled "Update project information to Microsoft Project Central Server on every save." Checking the box means that every time you save a project, it will also perform an update via the network to the Project Central Server. For large projects, such a feature could slow you down, especially if you have a slow link to your server. By default, this option is left unchecked.

Another area of consideration when setting up Project Central Server is authentication. When you first configure Project 2000 to use Project Central Server, you're given two options for user authentication - Windows User Account or Microsoft Project User. The default is Microsoft Project User and, for small projects at least, that's probably good enough.

For projects with lots of users, you'll want to go with the Windows User Account option and let Windows take care of all the authentication and security issues. That also means you'll need a user account for each user on the Windows NT machine that hosts Project Central Server.

Apart from its new collaborative tools, Project continues to offer one of the most attractive interfaces for project management. You'll find all the basic tools for common chores, such as creating tasks and managing budgets and resources, as well as higher-end tools for operations such as grouping tasks or resources by specific categories and adding custom symbols to the schedule to show progress against fixed dates.

Key improvements have been made to Project's database structure and resource pooling mechanism to make it a viable tool for managing very large projects.

Although it probably won't completely unseat high-end, multiuser systems such as Artemis Management Systems programs, Micro-Frame Technologies Inc.'s Program Manager or Primavera Systems Inc.'s Project Planner, it comes closer to those systems than ever before; in many cases, it might work just as well.

One improved feature in Project 2000 is the Network Diagram view. In previous versions, this was known as the PERT chart. The Network Diagram view is a quick way to graphically visualize your project and directly create or edit tasks and task dependencies. Double clicking on a task box gives you access to a tabbed dialog box with all the pertinent information about that task. Clicking on a task date pops up a handy calendar for those of us who are date- challenged.

There's also a whole host of other enhancements for defining custom hierarchical structures, calculating material resources, monitoring resource availability and establishing task and project priorities.

Project comes with a printed manual and extensive online help. I found the online help a little easier to navigate by using the search function.

There is no doubt that Microsoft Project will hang on to its place as the favored project management tool for many government agencies. As to whether you should upgrade to the newest version, that will depend on your need for the new features like the Project Central Server. If you need collaboration in your project management, you will definitely want to take a close look at Project 2000.

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

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