Originally published in the January 1995 issue of Advanced Systems.


Creating order from chaos

We compare Accent GraphicVUE, AutoPLAN II, and Project/2 Series X.

By Cedric Higgins & Dalia Freeman

It ain't easy planning and delivering a product on time that meets its specifications. Budgets get cut, requirements change, and deadlines slip and slide like a team of drunken college students playing broomball on ice. Many leaders attempt to bring order from chaotic complex projects by using project management techniques. It is controlling the process -- from the initial concept through research, design, prototype, test, manufacture, and final delivery -- that is the magic of project management.

What does this mean to you? Project management skills are becoming more in demand as organizations re-engineer themselves and adopt team-based approaches to creating new products. So read on, even if you don't use project management software today.

Humans have managed big projects for thousands of years. But only since the dawn of the digital computer has project management evolved into a science (see the sidebar A brief history of project management.) The Advanced Systems Test Center compared three tools for Unix: Digital Tools' AutoPLAN II, National Information Systems' Accent GraphicVUE, and Project Software & Development's Project/2 Series X. (To get more information about project management, as well as a list of additional such products, send an e-mail message to project95@advanced.com.)

Modern project management is a discipline with its own terminology. For the most part, the three packages tested use standard buzzwords and procedures. (Neophytes are well advised to make frequent detours to our glossary sidebar Project management terms defined.)

Before cracking the shrink-wrap, we took an informal poll of project managers to find their areas of concern. Let's take a look at how these three measured up.

Ease of use topped the list. Accent GraphicVUE is the friendliest of the three Unix products, though it lacks keyboard shortcuts for experts. AutoPLAN II is a close second, allowing its users to move around with minimal mouse movements. Project/2 Series X falls short here due to its busy "messy-desk" interface design.

Report generation is another top area of concern. All three products are acceptable in this category. For users needing to abide by U.S. Government report requirements, Project/2 Series X offers several compliant report formats. Only AutoPLAN II offers a print-preview option.

Project managers told us they want to import data from other applications, such as spreadsheets, databases, and project management programs including Microsoft Project. AutoPLAN II and Project/2 Series X can import and export to applications such as spreadsheets easily. Project/2 Series X imports and exports data to SQL databases. Accent GraphicVUE can import and export Microsoft Project and AutoPLAN file formats. AutoPLAN II handles Microsoft Project files, too.

All the Unix tools we tested handle dependencies from multiple, distributed projects with ease, a task some PC tools struggle with. (See PC, workstation, or mainframe? sidebar.)

Tracking a project's progress is key, users told us. Project managers need to track each resource down to each available hour. All offer this feature, though AutoPLAN II handles this more adeptly than the others.

Time is time, money is money
With our expert's wish list in one hand and our own project requirements in another, we developed a detailed, real-world test. Over a three-month period, we used each to manage the progress of this comparative review. If you are reading this in the January 1995 issue, we had some success with one (or more).

We tested each product on color SPARCstation 2s running Solaris 1 with 32 megabytes of RAM, 100 megabytes of swap space, and a gigabyte or so of free disk space. All work acceptably on this class of computer. We strongly recommend a color monitor. A color printer or plotter is helpful, but not required.

Overall, AutoPLAN II cleared the field in our tests. While Project/2 Series X and Accent GraphicVUE beat AutoPLAN II in certain areas, AutoPLAN II is more intuitive, reliable, and nimble than its Unix counterparts.

While not as feature-packed as AutoPLAN II, we felt at home with Accent GraphicVUE 1.6's amiable user interface. Project management newbies should try Accent GraphicVUE before they buy a competing package.

Project/2 Series X suffers from a wacky window-for-everything GUI, a tendency to a dump core, occasional nonstandard terminology, weak documentation, and a breathtaking list price. On the plus side, it is based on an SQL database, making its data the most accessible of the three, and its reports meet government specifications.

Now let's look at each in more detail.

Digital Tools AutoPLAN II 2.0
Digital Tools distributes AutoPLAN II on CD-ROM. Included are five paper documents that can be stored in the original, smartly designed carton on a shelf for ready access. Installing AutoPLAN II was as easy as installing software on a Macintosh. Digital Tools uses the FLEXlm license manager.

AutoPLAN II's 30-minute tutorial is designed for novices and shows how to create a simple project. Though it covers the basics well, we wished it would detail more of AutoPLAN II's advanced features. (By contrast, Project/2 Series X's five-hour tutorial is more comprehensive.)

A note to administrators: If a user forgets their password, you need to e-mail the project to Digital Tools' technical support for a session of password cracking. Depending on the nature of your paranoia, this is either very good or very bad.

AutoPLAN II offers the best calendar of the lot. Users can choose from three calendars types. The master calendar is generated automatically when the project is created. It is supposed to reflect the organization's policies on standard work weeks, holidays, and companywide meetings. It can never be deleted, and is the default for all projects. The base calendar is used by a department and includes additional detail about local policies (such as hours worked per week) and resources. The derived calendar is a child of the base calendar, and can be used by small workgroups or individuals. This pooling allows a change in a higher-level calendar to update lower-level calendars automatically.

When it comes to tracking, AutoPLAN II uses the project run date as the present moment of time against which activity progress is measured. For example, if you specify that an activity is 50 percent complete, AutoPLAN II assumes the activity is half finished relative to the project run date.

We didn't thoroughly test managing multiple projects, though based on our limited tests it appears Digital Tools expended a lot of effort to make this easy. AutoPLAN II uses a project tree diagram to show the relationship of subprojects to each other and the project as a whole. Since certain activities in one project can depend on resources and activities in another, the project tree is an effective way to see dependencies, and the easiest way to maneuver between projects.

AutoPLAN II offers good reporting features. Reports can be saved as text or as PostScript, and both can be e-mailed automatically. AutoPLAN II supports color pen-plotters, and allows the user to customize reports to their liking. The latter is a must-have feature. Unique for AutoPLAN II is a print preview option.

Accent GraphicVUE 1.6
Accent GraphicVUE 1.6's installation is straightforward and takes 20 minutes. National Information Systems uses the FLEXlm license manager.

Completing the on-line tutorial took but 45 minutes. Like AutoPLAN II's tutorial, the majority of Accent Graphic-VUE's advanced features were left unexplained. After rummaging through the documentation, we found chapter four in the user manual offered a much more comprehensive guide to starting and managing a project.

Accent GraphicVUE is the easiest of the three to navigate. It collects all the components to build a project within one menu. As we became more accustomed to the software, we wished National Information Systems offered more keyboard shortcuts. (None of the Unix tools allow the user to customize the GUI.)

There are two ways to add information to a project. The first is by selecting the Add task icon from the spreadsheet/Gantt chart window. The second is in the PERT chart. (AutoPLAN works this way, too. Project/2 Series X, alas, does not.) All windows are updated in real time whenever a change is made to one of the activities.

We did run into a minor annoyance in the Gantt chart window during our testing. We found that we could change the start date and duration of activities by sliding the Gantt bar to the desired setting (which we think is a good feature). However, one needs a sharp eye and steady hand to position the cursor on the precise pixel for this feature to work properly. If not, be prepared to adjust the duration and the start time simultaneously for that activity.

When it came to arranging the work flow of our activities, we took the easy way out and used the PERT chart. We found this approach more natural than linking activities in the Gantt chart. One feature that stands out in the PERT chart is the ability to see a global view of the entire project. (We couldn't find this in the other two.) Also, we were able to see the critical paths in the PERT chart window by having our critical activities outlined in red. Another feature we appreciated was connecting lines between activity boxes with either standard straight lines or tony Manhattan-style lines. If a user forgets their password, a simple call to technical support is required.

Accent GraphicVUE offers more than 50 standard reports. We tried more than half with no complaint. To customize reports we used an included utility. Accent GraphicVUE saves reports and charts to ASCII and PostScript formats.

Project/2 Series X 1.2.2
Project/2 Series X 1.2.2 requires a SPARC computer and NeWSprint 2.0 or later. (Advanced Systems uses NeWSprint so this requirement wasn't onerous.) Project/2 Series X is shipped on 13 (thirteen!) 312 inch diskettes, with a six-volume documentation set. We welcomed an installation checklist in the system administrator's guide. Despite the 13-disk distribution, installation took a mere 20 minutes. Project/2 Series X employs its own license manager.

For the system administrator, setting up new users is easy. A script prompts the administrator for the approved users and their passwords. (If a user forgets the password, the system administrator removes and then reinstates the user with a new password. No user files are lost.)

New users need to run a special set-up script in their home directories. This script is supposed to create a personal Project/2 Series X subdirectory and copy 14 files into it. However, it did not work correctly when given the directory name as an argument, as recommended in the manual. (The company acknowledges this as a bug.)

Project Software & Development uses what it calls a "messy desk" interface design. This means that the windows you have used stay open and stack up on the desktop. Since many windows are used for controlling a task, this results in a lot of clutter. Aside from the clutter, the user interface is not intuitive. For example, the Edit menu does not contain Cut, Copy, Paste and Undo. Common commands, such as Print, are often nested three menus deep. We kept the documentation close at hand at all times.

Project Software & Development recommends following the tutorial before using Project/2 Series X, and we heartily agree. (An on-line tutorial is available for PC but not Unix users.) Unlike the AutoPLAN II and Accent GraphicVUE tutorials, the Project/2 Series X tutorial went into great detail. However, completing it took even longer than the recommended five hours due to the awkward user interface.

With Project/2 Series X, users enter activity information into dialog boxes, and not directly onto the plan window. These dialog boxes can be brought up in different ways, the easiest of which is by using the position-sensitive cursor. For instance, to add an activity, you would position the cursor under the date ribbon and select the left mouse button. The data you enter causes an associated activity bar to appear in the plan area. Of course you can use the menu, but adding activities by using the mouse is easier. Using keystrokes to access the menus is another option, but because of the deep hierarchies involved for many of the functions, it is not practical. (Even keystroke lovers with good memories will have a hard time.)

Project/2 Series X uses unconventional terminology in places. For instance, "PERT" and "Gantt" do not appear in the documentation or on-line help. We correctly assumed the "bar" chart was the Gantt chart, and by calling technical support found that a PERT chart is dubbed a Network Diagram.

A bevy of standard report formats are available. Project/2 Series X devotes an entire manual to the subject. A variety of charts can also be created in Project/2 Series X, though viewing them can be awkward. Graphs are panned only by clicking on buttons labeled left, right, up, down, or zoom, rather than by dragging a scroll bar. There were parts of some charts that were never fully visible. Reports and charts can be printed to text files, plotter, or printer driven by NeWSprint 2 or later.

We encountered a few oddities. One is that the plan window is not labeled with a project name and it takes opening several windows to find your current project. Another is that if you want to see a different project, opening another file causes the two to actually merge on the plan window. A call to technical support informed us that this is a feature in the multiproject mode, where logic ties can be set between the projects, and related information gets saved into each project's files.

Project/2 Series X stores its data in an SQL database, which is good news if you've already installed Oracle or Sybase. The documentation supplies all the information about rows and columns needed to make the tables accessible to other applications.

Project Software & Development says its next version will sport an improved user interface, hypertext on-line help, easier progress reporting, and better documentation.

Documentation & support
To take full advantage of their capabilities, you need experience either with project management concepts or with project management software. If you are a novice to both, we recommend you consider the training each vendor offers, though we can't vouch for their quality.

Digital Tools' support hours are 6 am to 6 pm PST. E-mail queries are welcomed. The first 90 days of support are free. If you don't purchase a maintenance contract, support after the first 90 days is via fax or e-mail only.

National Information Systems Inc. has a four-person staff ready to accept support calls from fax, voice, or e-mail. They work from 7 am to 5 pm PST (though we often caught them well after 5 pm).

Project Software & Development has a support staff of six. Unfortunately, the company does not offer help via e-mail (it is not connected to the Internet). Support hours are from 8 am to 8 pm EST.

Project/2 Series X occasionally dumped core for no discernible reason. Following the crash, the software would not run again until our administrator removed and then reinstated the user's Project/2 Series X access privileges.

Project Software & Development needs to improve its documentation. Finding sub-topics in the first volume of the large user manual was a challenge. There is no master table of contents with detailed subtopics or page numbers. Instead you have to turn to each chapter to find the details of that chapter only. (We resorted to putting Post-itTM notes on the pages to act as dividers.) We also often found ourselves returning to the tutorial because we couldn't find topics in the user manual's index or on-line help.

What to buy
While testing these products, ease of use was a primary concern. AutoPLAN II, with its keyboard shortcuts, and Accent GraphicVUE, with its friendly interface, come out on top. Project/2 Series X, whose interface is less friendly, comes in third. While its messy desk concept ensures all information is included in a project, it lacks the elegance of AutoPLAN II and the Macintosh feel of Accent GraphicVUE.

If you need many different reports, read and write SQL formats, and can deal with the messy-desk concept, take a closer look at Project/2 Series X. If you need to have calendar pools, a print previewer and a software package that is chock-full of features, we suggest you get in touch with Digital Tools. If you're looking for a general-purpose easy-to-navigate project management software solution that can visually inspect and perform what-if analysis on your projects, GraphicVUE is right for you.

About the author
Cedric Higgins is the Advanced Systems Test Center's manager. Dalia Freeman is a technical editor. To get more information about project management, as well as a list of other Unix project managers, send e-mail to project95@advanced.com.

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Project management terms defined

Activity A task that is a building block of a project.

Bar/Gantt chart The basic graph used in project management; it represents activities along a time line.

Baseline This is usually the approved "solid" version of the project, by which project performance is measured.

Critical activity A critical activity has zero or negative float, with no allowance for slippage. If it is not finished on time, the whole project will fall behind schedule.

Critical path A sequence of activities that must be completed on schedule to meet the project end date or an interim deadline imposed by a fixed-date activity. Activities on the critical path may not be delayed without impacting the project's completion time.

CPM (Critical Path Method) The critical path calculation determines which tasks affect the overall duration of the schedule. It finds the best schedule for the project, one that doesn't allow for any wasted time. If any one of the activities on the critical path (critical activity) is delayed, the entire project is delayed. This is known as top-down scheduling.

Duration The time specified for an activity or project.

Float 1) The number of workdays an activity can be delayed before it becomes a critical activity and its further delay would affect the project end date. 2) The time available between activities before the next activity is scheduled to start. 3) The amount of time an activity can slip past its duration before delaying the rest of the project. An activity with a zero float is considered a critical activity.

Histogram/resource histogram A vertical bar chart that evaluates user workloads, analyzing the availability and actual usage of resource over time. Used to see schedule dates against resource usage, it helps detect overused and under-used resources.

Imposed start date A start time imposed on an activity as part of the activity's definition.

Lag 1) The specified time delay between the finish of one activity and the start of its successor. 2) Minimum amount of time that should elapse between two scheduled activities.

Link/logic/dependency/work flow connection The timing relationships between activities in a project.

Milestone An activity with zero duration.

Resource Usually a person, but it also can be a piece of equipment or a building.

Resource leveling Reschedules activities to avoid overuse of resources. Adjusts project schedules to minimize peaks in resource usage. Makes sure that resources are available and assigned to activities, even if it makes the schedule slip.

Resource scheduling The schedule calculated according to resource allocations. Known as bottom-up scheduling.

Rolling up A method of combining the total of sub-activity durations, dates, and costs into the summary activity.

Utility In project management, used as a repository for data that can be used in different projects, such as calendar and special day information.

WBS (Work Breakdown Structure) Displays the hierarchy of summary activities and their sub-activities in an outline structure. Starting point for using software.

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PC, workstation, or mainframe?

To meet the challenges of today's fast-paced business environment, organizations need a structured but flexible information system to keep track of their key business projects. A project management system should serve the information needs not just of individual project managers, but of departmental and senior managers as well. A key element in devising a management solution is the choice of computing platform. Numerous tools exist for mainframe, PC-based, and Unix computers. The choice of computer has far-reaching implications in providing enterprisewide information about multiple projects and the entire organization's shared resources.

The traditional mainframe project management solution is a highly structured, centrally controlled system with very good multiple project-consolidation capabilities. Because of their architecture, mainframe project management tools require a small team of highly-trained system users. Often, however, the project planners closest to the work are not hands-on users.

Mainframe solutions make it difficult to provide direct tool access to an entire project team, and often use only batch-oriented processing. The ability to compile accurate, timely project data is limited by these factors.

Personal computers brought a breath of fresh air to project management software. The Microsoft Windows and Macintosh interfaces made these tools much more visual and easier to use, and the availability of good, inexpensive software has helped project management grow as a discipline.

Built primarily as single-user solutions, PC-based tools often limit the number of tasks in a single project. Although these tools can run on networks and contain multiple project features, they do not offer an acceptable level of integration across multiple projects and locations. Instead, PC-based tools spawn isolated workgroups that lack the big picture provided by mainframe and Unix tools.

Unix management tools combine PC-style ease of use with mainframe power in a workgroup setting. The distributed-processing model of the Unix platform makes it relatively easy to provide a decentralized management tool to individual planners while preserving the ability to handle large projects and perform cross-project consolidations and roll-ups.

Compared to mainframe or PC platforms, Unix-based project management software tools provide a cost-effective method for building a comprehensive, state-of-the-art solution, especially for sites where Unix has found a home.

An example of a likely candidate for a project management platform switch is a software development team that performs its coding on Unix workstations, but uses PC-based tools to schedule and track projects. The use of a Unix project management system would provide the benefits of using a single platform for related software tools and would enable the group to conveniently coordinate multiple project plans across development teams.

The key advantage of Unix as a platform for a project management system is that it provides flexibility for individual planners, but maintains the ability to easily view project work from an organizational perspective. -- Tim Goodman

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A brief history of project management

Humankind has been managing projects for centuries, with varying success. The building of each pyramid was a project, as was the construction of each space shuttle. From the first, project managers have always had to juggle time, resources, and the quality of the final product. In early projects, such as the pyramids, the project manager was usually constrained in only one of these. If pyramid construction proceeded too slowly the Pharaoh bought more slaves. If a cathedral builder ran out of money along the way, construction stopped until the church or local nobility had more funds available -- indeed this is often why cathedrals took so long to complete.

We aren't so lucky today. Managers must deliver on time, to budget, to more than acceptable quality. Although projects have been with us for centuries, project management has been recognized as a discipline only as recently as the turn of the century, when mathematician Henry Gantt conceived of scheduling a project from the end instead of the beginning, and created the Gantt chart. Both techniques are still in use today.

Even during World War II, project management techniques were quite primitive by today's standards. During the mid 1950s, two significant breakthroughs were made in project management -- the Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT) and Critical Path Method (CPM). PERT was developed during the Polaris missile submarine program. This was a project nobody knew how long it would take to complete, as no one had ever put missiles inside submarines before. PERT allowed for the fact that a task will finish somewhere within a range of dates, and there is a probability the project will finish on a certain date. For a time, PERT was required of all U.S. Government contractors. PERT is quite difficult to use, however, and its results are often optimistic -- it predicts end dates that are far too early. Today, the cognoscente no longer use PERT.

CPM was developed as part of a plant-construction project for DuPont, also in the 1950s. Like PERT, it uses an activity network now familiar to many in the field of project management. Unlike PERT, it assumes tasks have a single end date, and that there is an associated cost with a task. CPM reflects its real-world origins. Costs are considered, as are the increased costs of reducing project duration, whereas PERT does not consider costs at all. There have been other techniques developed since, but they are not widely used because the tools to support them are not in general use, and the additional benefit usually does not compensate for the additional complexity and project overhead. Most tools available today are based on CPM or a variant.

The computations associated with a project network are tedious and complex, and hence ideal for a computer. The first computer-based project-management tools were based upon a small mainframe, but as smaller computers have become more powerful and widespread, the packages to support scheduling calculations have also migrated downward. Today there are many packages in common use on ubiquitous PCs running Microsoft Windows. PC packages have several limitations. Big projects are usually constrained by available memory, and PCs are by definition single-user tools. There are multi-user tools, which are a genuine boon for larger schedules, and these run on more suitable platforms, such as Unix. -- Perry Owen

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Last updated: 1 January 1995.