SAN MATEO (05/01/2000) - When enterprises need to get time-critical information to external partners, extranets are often their first lines of communication.
Geared for building, manufacturing, and product development projects, Framework Technologies Corp.'s ActiveProject v2000/E is an unusual application that helps large organizations rapidly build dynamic extranets for which project information is stored in Oracle or Microsoft SQL Server databases.
ActiveProject has no project management tools of its own, such as Gantt or PERT charts, but supplements your project management solution, allowing team members and outside partners to quickly and easily exchange information, view CAD and image files, and collaborate via threaded discussions and shared whiteboards using only their Web browsers. Moreover, ActiveProject offers special functions -- including the tracking of bids, proposals, drawing submissions, and file revisions -- that are essential to managing product-related projects.
That specialization means ActiveProject wouldn't be appropriate for managing IT or service-oriented activities. And the software is not cheap. But considering the more costly alternative of building a custom database-driven site, ActiveProject does the job very well.
Put your project on the Web
Installing ActiveProject requires a working knowledge of your back-end database and Microsoft Internet Information Server and takes about half a day to complete. The process could have been completed more quickly if Framework Technologies supplied better documentation; I spent about half my time talking with the company's technical support staff. Still, the staff was very patient and helpful. And once set up, this solution did not present any problems.
ActiveProject Builder, software you install on client PCs, lets most anyone quickly create and revise project Web sites. Compared to generic HTML editors, I found this module especially intuitive and suited to the task. For example, a site's general layout includes tabs across the top that represent major elements of the project, such as schedule, submittal log, and team members.
Builder includes multiple functions for modifying the supplied templates or creating your own design. What impressed me most, however, was how much of the site's functionality ActiveProject Builder automates. For instance, an architectural company or facilities department might create a Tab (page) called Building that could link to maps, site surveys, approval documents, and photos.
All these component pieces appear in an expandable folder hierarchy that is automatically built for you in the Outline pane. Similarly, connections to your database are done for you. Therefore, after finalizing the design, I merely published it to my ActiveProject server; everything ran perfectly the first time.
Using an ActiveProject site is also a positive experience. Say you need to add a product photo for others to review; just select the desired folder in the project's outline pane, and then drag the image file from your Windows desktop to your browser.
Furthermore, with some 3-D CAD files, such as Autodesk AutoCAD drawings, ActiveProject will automatically decompose a complex assembly into its component parts. Beyond eliminating the need to upload individual graphics, ActiveProject's built-in file viewers permit team members to view eight types of common CAD drawings and bitmap files without having the authoring application installed.
ActiveProject's collaborative functions are also straightforward and easy to use. Using only my Web browser, I quickly marked up a drawing, posted comments, and attached other supporting documents. These changes appeared in a threaded history list. However, ActiveProject does not provide a way to check out documents and update them -- a feature found in generic collaboration services such as HotOffice and eRoom.
Still, other collaboration functions let me add information to the site's News page, receive e-mail notification of changes to any page, establish a Web Conference discussion with other teammates, and search for project information over multiple projects.
ActiveProject v2000/E improves project communications through dynamic sites that have understandable graphical navigation and accept real-time content updates from users. The integrated communications features let groups provide feedback and see who's accountable for actions.
Although ActiveProject doesn't provide traditional scheduling tools, such as Gantt or PERT charts, it organizes all the supporting material that is essential to managing large projects. And this solution does integrate with third-party applications such as Primavera Systems' Expedition.
Mike Heck (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a contributing editor and manager of electronic promotions at Unisys, in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania.
THE BOTTOM LINE: VERY GOOD
Business Case: ActiveProject v2000/E helps keep projects on schedule by speeding communication and collaboration among team members and by providing centralized storage of project information and CAD, document, and image files.
Technology Case: ActiveProject enables enterprises to quickly set up customized extranets for sharing project information with suppliers, subcontractors, and internal users. Its database-driven Web sites support thousands of users and information items.
+ Accesses Oracle and Microsoft SQL Server databases+ Built-in file viewers+ Multilevel security+ Threaded discussion groups and shared whiteboards for online collaborationCons:
- Not currently Windows 2000 Server-compliantCost: $79,995 for one server, 100 collaborators, and unlimited viewersPlatform(s): Server: Windows NT 4.0 Server; Client: Windows 95/98 or Windows NT 4.0 with Internet Explorer 5.0 or Netscape Navigator 4.51 or laterFramework Technologies Corp., Burlington, Massachusetts; (800) 644-1002; www.frametech.com