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Cloud-based project management service gets projects off the ground

Stan Gibson, Contributor

Critical to any company's success is managing projects successfully. Doing the job right could require a costly server-based project management suite and even the hiring of a project management specialist. It's a high price to pay to bring a project home -- whether it's creating a new product, a new IT system or a new customer service system -- on time and on budget. For many companies, particularly smaller ones, a cloud-based project management service can be just the answer.

Case in point: New Castle, Del.-based AET Films, a maker of the polypropylene film used in packaging, tried to launch Microsoft Project Server in-house, and even hired a professional project manager to oversee the implementation. The task was more than the company bargained for. "The more people that got involved, the more harm that was done," said Jim Burger, the company's director of information services in Terre Haute, Ind.

That experience led Burger to seek a lightweight, cloud-based alternative that wouldn't require either a full-time manager or a standalone application server. "We looked at 10 to 12 cloud-based [project management] tools, then narrowed it down to three," he said.

Burger's vendor short list included AtTask Inc., Qtask Inc. and LiquidPlanner Inc. LiquidPlanner got the nod because it can organize sub-project teams and its collaboration capabilities include Chatter, a microblogging feature. Now the 650-person AET Films has 34 active LiquidPlanner users; another 20 persons can view project progress, although they are not active users, he said.

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Cloud-based services are well-suited to project management because they make it easy to get started, add users and avoid a long-term commitment. After all, projects can start up quickly and expand in scope. Then, when they're over, they're over: There's no need to keep a project management server and software licenses around -- not to mention a project management professional.

There are other benefits as well. Cloud-hosted applications readily enable collaboration and make it easy for mobile users to check on a project's status via the Web. Low cost is another plus: Cloud-based applications almost always are less expensive than traditional standalone or server-based applications.

Off-premises not off-putting

Since cloud computing burst on the scene several years ago, a lot of potential customers have been hesitant to relinquish control over their data to a cloud provider whose hosting facility and disaster recovery site might be far away. Those same fears, although they're steadily diminishing, are still present in the minds of many cloud-based project management service users.

"Four years ago, when we first started using a cloud-based service, there was concern about having this internally critical data out in the cloud. Our concerns were security and reliability, and not being able to touch it. There was concern about not having control," said Jeff Greenberg, managing director at InfrastructureWorks LLC, an IT integrator in Short Hills, N.J., that relies on NetSuite Inc.'s OpenAir cloud-based project management system. To allay customers' fears about losing their data, NetSuite OpenAir lets users download all their project data at any time so that it can be copied for backup purposes. "We back up that copy for safety and security reasons," he said.

The NetSuite service's record of solid reliability has given Greenberg a sense of security. In the time his company has been using the service, "there has never been an unplanned outage. We very much appreciate not having to maintain a system and having to be so reliable," he said.

Larger companies often require tight security. Trilog Group Inc., a project management software vendor in Woburn, Mass., offers ProjExec Online, a cloud-based version of its ProjExec application that's hosted in a collocation facility protected by biometric security, according to CEO Alex Homsi. ProjExec Online also has encrypted connections to backup facilities, and offers customers the option of backing up their own data. "Larger companies require it," Homsi said.

Even though its owners require backup, most project management data generally is not the most highly sensitive data a company handles. Credit card data and trade secrets, for example, demand the highest level of protection. "There was never an objection [to a cloud-based application] because of the kind of [project planning] data," AET Films' Burger said.

Which cloud-based project management service is right for you?

For very small companies, a simple project management system is usually best. "I wanted project management at its simplest, most basic level," said Richard Newton, CEO at Atelier Weddings LLC, a wedding-planning consultancy in New York City."If you're doing [project management] for a large company like IBM, it's presumably pretty easy to get everyone on board; but when you're dealing with brides and grooms, you need something that's simple -- that just works," he said. For Newton, the simple cloud-based project management application was Basecamp from Chicago-based 37signals LLC.

"Planning a wedding shouldn't feel too much like work to them," Newton said. Nevertheless, a wedding can include myriad tasks, which Basecamp presents in a week-by-week to-do list that Atelier Weddings officials, as well as the bride and groom, can access. "That's a real simple way of looking at things. You can just take a look at what you need to do that week," he said. Basecamp is basic: It doesn't include Gantt charts, which are a fixture in more sophisticated project management systems that visually present a project's sequence of tasks.

If you're doing project management for a large company like IBM, it's presumably pretty easy to get everyone on board; but when you're dealing with brides and grooms, you need something that's simple -- that just works.

Richard Newton, CEO, Atelier Weddings LLC

The attractiveness of a hosted project management service notwithstanding, some organizations may decide to host their own application. Devsum, a consultancy in Brescia, Italy, that specializes in cloud-based computing applications, chose to host Redmine, an open source project management application, on its own server. Devsum gives its customers access to the Redmine application so they can see how their project is coming along.

"We give a Redmine account to the client. They can open a new feature request on Redmine," said Alexander Fortin, system and network administrator and cloud specialist at Devsum. Redmine has 10 basic modules including a wiki, which is frequently used on projects, he said.

Best practice: Slow ramp-up

One big obstacle to the successful use of any application is a rollout that's complex and involves significant user training. For this reason companies are finding it makes sense to get going gradually with a cloud-based project management system, and let users adopt it at their own pace.

Instead of a "big bang" rollout of its project management system, AET Films was able to ramp up gradually, a few users at a time. Uptake was essentially viral in nature: Employees learned by themselves and helped each other. In about six weeks the team members were relying successfully on LiquidPlanner, Burger said.

"We're rolling it out slowly. There's a lot of trial and error with a small [user] sampling," said Jeremy Schmidt, coordinator of retail sales at McCarthy-Duce Sales Inc., a manufacturer's representative firm in South St. Paul, Minn. Twenty-five of the firm's 30 employees use HyperOffice Inc.'s Online Project Management Solution.

In a typical project, McCarthy-Duce salespeople would seek to have a retail hardware store carry, say, a manufacturer's new light fixture. Some 100 stores would each be represented as a task in the HyperOffice application, and every salesperson could see the work of other sales staff. When a store agreed to carry the fixture, that task would be marked as completed.