A bit of planning
Posted on 11 May 2007 at 11:47
Ian Wrigley and Simon Brock look at some open-source project planning and management applications to scrutinise their capabilities in the real world.
A word that often comes up in this column is "alternative" - we'll often cite some open-source "alternative" to another well-known piece of software. But there's a danger in constantly plugging this "alternative" aspect that we might end up like so many other people who extol the virtues of alternative lifestyles; that is, sounding a touch weird. We probably are a little bit weird, and we are indeed published in this magazine as an alternative to Windows. The fact is that most people don't use open-source software, and it probably doesn't bring in much advertising (which perhaps we should say rather more quietly). However, while not everyone uses open-source products as direct alternatives, many do turn to them as a means of deciding whether something is a good idea or not. Open-source software offers a low cost of entry to a particular application area, which enables an informed decision to be made - it may often be the case that having proved a particular type of application is useful to them, they go on to purchase the commercial market leader.
One wonders if such purchasing decisions are behind some of the open-source initiatives of certain software developers. Obviously, if someone tries out an open-source application, then their experience may directly or indirectly help the ongoing development of that application. Many open-source applications are developed by a particular group of people to solve a particular problem, but then they release that application as open source and discover that other people are interested in it too and want to use it. The original group receives feedback and acts on it, and sometimes more people join the group, while at other times the application just gets better. We can't stress strongly enough that this sort of feedback is essential to many open-source projects. Most projects need user feedback as much as they need contributions to their code base. If you use an open-source application and like it (or don't like it for that matter), tell the people who wrote it. We've done this many times - both within and without this column - and have never received any negative reactions, even when we didn't like the product.
Open-source applications are now creeping into the areas one would least expect: the original generation of open-source applications were text editors, compilers and utilities that served the needs of developers and system administrators, but now we're seeing open source invade areas such as project management, planning and business intelligence. In this column, we're going to look at some open-source project-planning and management applications, and see how well they work. The virtually undisputed market leader in this area is, of course, Microsoft Project, but it's an application that not only has a steep learning curve, but also a very high cost of entry. Can we find an open-source alternative that would allow someone to discover cheaply whether or not project-planning software will help their business?
Gantts and PERTs
There are various approaches to project planning, and a full introduction to the subject would be well beyond the scope of this humble column. Arguably, one of the main barriers to entry into using a project-planning aid such as Microsoft Project is a complete lack of understanding of the project-planning process itself. A project-planning application isn't going to help you create a plan if you don't actually know what you're doing and what a plan consists of. If you don't know the difference between a Gantt chart and a PERT chart, we recommend you spend a few minutes trying to find out, either starting from Wikipedia and branching out from there, or by using a few well-chosen search terms in Google to see what you can dig up.
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