August 18, 2005

Review: Imendio Planner

As a project manager, what software do you find essential? Well, if you're good, you'll say none -- there's nothing that you can do on a PC that you can't do with a pencil and paper. However, if you want help from software, and you don't have unlimited funds for proprietary applications such as Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Project, there are a number of Linux-based project planners that you can choose from. If you want one that's simple but covers many of the basics, consider Imendio Planner.

If you have a new Linux distribution, you may aleady have Imendio Planner. To see if you do, type planner on the command line, or you may find it in your window manager's menu; I was pleased to find it on the KDE and GNOME menus when I installed Slackware. If you don't already have it, you can download Planner from the GNOME FTP site (or for Windows get it from the Planner on Windows Web site). Don't be put off by the fact that it is only at version 0.13. This doesn't mean that you're getting an unstable application; however, it does mean that planner is not as advanced as Microsoft Project.

If you've used Microsoft Project then you will recognize Planner's look as soon as you open it. Planner consists of four main areas, or panes:

  • The Gantt chart
  • Tasks
  • Resources
  • Resource usage

The Planner Gantt chart allows you to graphically build a project by adding tasks (the fundamental building blocks of a project). You then can set how long each task will take and you can create links between the tasks. The links show which tasks precede others. Within a very few minutes you can display the details of the project on the screen.

The Tasks pane just gives you a tabular view of the tasks that make up the project. This means that if you're not comfortable with the Gantt chart and prefer a spreadsheet-type format, this will work for you.

Having created the tasks that make up a project you will, of course, want to say who's going to do the job. The Resource pane displays the list of resources that you have. Typically the resources will be people within an organization, but you could also have as a resource another company, a contractor, a piece of equipment, or even a room. You can add details such as name, email address, and rate (although the email and rate have no use within the application). When you have added your new resources you can go back to the Gantt Chart pane to assign the new resources to the tasks that they to be involved with.

By default Planner expects people to work five days a week (from Monday to Friday) and from 8:00 to 12:00 in the morning and 13:00 to 17:00 in the afternoon. It is simple to modify these settings to the actual working time for your organization. You also need to add standard days off, such as holidays.

As well as the standard calendar for each project you can also set an individual calendar for each person on the project team. This can be based on the standard calendar but can have additional information. For instance, Fred may be on holiday from July 1, and Mary might leave for maternity leave during August. All of these will impact on your project timings. This also comes in useful when dealing with resources such as rooms and equipment; for them, you can set a calendar containing only the times when they are available.

One of the most helpful aspects of Planner is that assigning resources to tasks affects the time that a task will take. For instance, say you have a one-week task that you give to Henry, who's going on holiday for an month. Planner will automatically build this delay into the project, and you will be able to see (in the Gantt Chart) what knock-on effect this will have. It is then up to you to add extra resources -- and again you'll be able to see the effect that this has on your timescales.

Another useful function is the ability to be able to set the percentage of time that a person spends on each task. For example you may want Fred to spend all of his time on Task A, John to spend all of his time on Task B, and for Jane to spend 50% of her time on each of the tasks.

The Gantt chart tells you what is to be done, when it's to be done, and who's doing it. Planner's Resource Usage pane turns that around and tells you what each person has got to do and when. In particular it highlights any times when you have overloaded any of the resources; e.g. you may have set the same person to work full-time on two tasks at the same time. By checking this screen you can save yourself a lot of embarrassment.

All of the panes are very easy to use and it won't take you long to have a very professional project plan ready to go.

Too good to be true?

Imendio Planner's developers have concentrated on the key areas that a project manager needs. It doesn't do everything that Microsoft Project does, but it doesn't have to. For instance, it doesn't include a Pert Chart facility, nor does it contain such functions as Resource Soothing (which is just making sure that resources are used effectively, without any massive peaks and troughs).

It would, however, be useful if there were some way to compare a planned project plans against the actual end result, other than printing them both and comparing them on paper. The calendars are useful but it can be time-consuming to create them, and they don't take account of actual working time (but then this is not a timesheet application) -- you must re-edit the calendars if you want to do that. It would also be nice if the costs that you can enter for resources actually did something; adding in the ability to do budgeting would make Imendio more powerful

I also have some criticism of Planner's "database support." The idea is that you can store your project plans in a central database rather than as individual files. Imendio have chosen to only support PostgreSQL, but personally I object to being told which database I have to use. Even so, I installed the database on my Linux box and followed Imendio's instructions on how to set it up, only to find that there was no way that I could get Planner to recognize that the database was there. I did get the Windows version to realise that it should look for the database, but then it just crashed. If you want to store your plans in a database, this is not the application for you.

That said, I don't believe that the database issue is a major one, since the software works fine without using a database. You can pass saved project files between Linux and Windows versions of Planner, which seems a safer method than using the database -- it ensures that users' copies are kept separate with no danger of someone accidentally making changes to the master.

Don't expect any more from Planner than what you see when you open it up for the first time. It lacks common project management features such as budget vs. actual reports. All you get is the main interface containing the key project planning elements for deciding what is going to be done, when, and by whom.

Alternatives

Of course there are project management alternatives. If you are a Windows user with loads of money to burn, then stick with Microsoft Project; it does a good job and can be considered the benchmark that all other project planning software should measure itself against.

If you're using Linux and you want to try out others, there are many out there, including:

Planner is one of the new boys on the block, but is still good at what it does. It isn't a Microsoft Project clone, but does take the main elements that any project planner needs, and it makes the best use of them. The database support is not really sufficient, but it is not essential and its drawbacks do not detract from the usefulness of this application. Imendio Planner is easy to use to produce professional results.

Click Here!