The great Office Server smorgasbord, part 4: Office Project Server 2007 pleases

Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 and Office Project Server 2007 make a smart combination for team management

Welcome back to the great Office Server smorgasbord. There’ll be a related review soon covering a couple of open source answers to SharePoint, including Liferay and Plone. And come October, you’ll be seeing a fully graded review of the release versions of Office Communications Server and Exchange Server 2007.

[ See our Special Report for related reviews: SharePoint 2007, Office Groove 2007, and Forms Server 2007. ]

Meanwhile, we’re topping off this four-part series with a look at how MOSS (Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007) and Project Server 2007 combine to give project managers a better handle on team management.

Project 2007
This isn’t a review of the Office Project 2007 client, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t run down a few of its newer capabilities before moving to the server. The 2007 client incorporates the new ribbon-style UI contained in most of the other Office 2007 client applications. This is intended to make the UI easier to learn for new users and faster for experienced users, but we’re only lukewarm on its success in those endeavors. The new ribbon doesn’t seem to decrease complexity as much as it simply reorganizes it. Features and concepts will still need to be learned, and experienced users will still need to figure out where those same functions are located in the new UI.

You’ll find two basic flavors of the Project client (Project Standard 2007 and Project Professional 2007) bolstered by a third (Project Web Access 2007) once you’ve installed Project Server 2007. Only Project Standard can be run as a stand-alone client application with full functionality. Both Professional and Web Access require Project Server on the back end -- Professional so you can access all its features, Web Access so you can access it at all.

Standard and Professional carry most of the same features for basic project management, including project editing, all the calendar views and task creation capabilities, etc. Web Access really only allows Gantt chart views and task creation at this level, though if the OLAP capabilities provided in the new Project Server 2007 appeal to you, then Web Access is the only UI that will let your users access those features.

Where Standard and Professional begin to differ is in team management. Only Professional gives project managers full resource management features, including team assignments, collaboration support, and specific things such as timesheets. Also, only Professional can make use of the capabilities provided by SharePoint when it and Project Server are combined for better back-end data access.

Customizability, however, is a mixed bag, so shop carefully. You can customize Project Standard to a certain degree using Visual Basic for Applications. However, only Project Professional and Web Access can make use of the much beefier API offered by Project Server. Additionally, should project managers want to use the new Server’s permissioning capabilities, they will have to turn to Professional and Web Access as well. Finally, Project Server can only be administered from the Web Access UI, unless you’ve combined it with SharePoint, in which case it can largely be managed from SharePoint’s central administration screens.

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For the most part, Microsoft has ensured that Project Professional is the required client version to make use of Project Server 2007. While the Web Access UI is somewhat functional, it’s really only good as an executive-style viewer of team project data and as a feature add-on to the fat client interface. Project Standard is good only for single-user project managers.

Project Server 2007 and MOSS
Architecturally, Project Server 2007 runs a middle road between Office Groove Server 2007 (which doesn’t need SharePoint at all) and Office Forms Server 2007 (which is wholly contained in SharePoint Enterprise). Project Server is definitely its own entity, but one that can be enhanced in combination with SharePoint.

Specific points of enhancement include integration with the Windows Workflow Foundation, document libraries, organizationwide search capability and team work site orientation. To clear some confusion right off the bat, however, MOSS includes a list feature called Project Tasks, which offers some Gantt-style features. This is an independent feature, however, and has no relation or connection to Project Server 2007.

If you want to upgrade an existing Project 2003 server to Project 2007, you are in for some detail work. There are no easy wizards here. Migrating data is done via a special .ini file with a series of possible switch parameters that must be configured using a text editor. And, by the way, this step is mandatory. You’re not going to get away with running a 2003 Project Server next to a 2007 Project Server and waiting until the data migrates itself through user interaction; Project Server 2003 and Project Server 2007 can’t communicate, so the upgrade process is unavoidable.

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Once you’ve upgraded, it’s time to connect your existing Project Server 2007 farm to a new or existing MOSS farm. This isn’t just a straightforward matter of enabling communication between the two, however. Your first task in this scenario is to move your Project Server machines into the SharePoint domain which unfortunately means you will need to take the SharePoint farm down for this operation. The Project Server 2007 disks will need to install files on each SharePoint Server with front-facing client functionality. Once installed there, each of those instances will need to run the SharePoint Products and Technologies wizard. After that, you’ll need to decide which of those machines will become actual Project Server application servers. Only on the Project Server application servers will you need to enable the Project Application service from the Central Management console. This all sounds involved, but Microsoft’s documentation makes it a fairly easy step-by-step process. The tricky part is managing your planning process properly so you know which services need to be enabled and where.

Once all that work is completed, you’re still not done. Now, SharePoint is going to want to control the management of all team work sites. So the team sites you’ve configured under Project Server will need to be migrated to the MOSS machine as well. After that, you’ll also need to unhook Project from its internal configuration manager and wire it into SharePoint’s equivalent. Again, Microsoft’s docs make this a fairly simple set of steps, but if you’ve got a choice, installing Project Server within a SharePoint farm right from the start is easier.

Finally, all the clients who were looking to Project Server for their team sites will need to be pointed at the new sites running off SharePoint -- that’s the easiest part. You will need to remember that any clients looking to access Project’s SharePoint features will still need to have the Office Project Professional 2007 client installed. We suppose that’s reasonable given the nature of Microsoft, but we were actually hoping to see some included viewer functionality within SharePoint that would allow non-Project client users at least to see certain Project files even if they couldn’t alter them. Even with the Web Access UI, however, that doesn’t seem to be possible.

New interfaces and features
So after all this installation hassle, what does Project Server 2007 really give you? First, it smartens up your Project Server team work sites. These now have access to SharePoint-managed permissions, document libraries, communication capabilities, and search indexes. SharePoint users will be able to access Project data, not just to simply manage projects but also as part of SharePoint workflows.

On a more granular level, we also enjoyed the new Project Web Access look and feel, which can run off a stand-alone Project Server or off a SharePoint Project application server. This has been updated to meld nicely with the new SharePoint UI. Microsoft has also updated the Project Server permissioning system. Administrators now have control over a number of new features, including calendar and Web views, feature add-ins, and specific data views. It’s a powerful new set of security controls, but administrators will have to endure a learning curve to take full advantage of it.

Microsoft has also taken a number of features from Project Server 2003 and beefed them up. You’ll find deeper Outlook integration via the new Outlook Add-In. This gets installed on a user-by-user basis via their Web Access accounts and amounts to a smarter Outlook sync feature. Once installed, it allows users and administrators to use Outlook as another interface for Project. That means project line items can show up as tasks or calendar items and be tracked all the way back to Project Server. Outlook can also act as a timesheet interface with its data again tracked by administrators via Project.

Reporting is the recipient of another big upgrade when using Project Server 2007 because its reporting capabilities can now make use of data gleaned from not just Project clients, but also Project work sites and SharePoint work sites and document libraries. Users then get the ability to arrange that data in whatever reporting front end fits their needs: Word 2007, PowerPoint 2007, or Excel 2007. Install the Cube Building Service and your users will be able to access Microsoft SQL Analysis Services to build OLAP-style views for deep drill-down on Project data. This can be viewed using Project or using PivotTable features in Excel.

Moving from project to project also gets a boost with customizable templates. Project Server comes with several out-of-box project templates, but these can be edited for specific needs or even created from scratch. Templates cover look and feel for users on the client as well as what they see on the team work site and even what they might see in outside applications such as Excel. Even better, templates run right down to the individual field level, meaning that a template can actually map data relationships between a task field in Project 2007, for example, and a reporting field in Excel. Out-of-box templates cover basic project types for a variety of vertical industries, such as construction or technology R&D, but can easily be tweaked for more specific tasks. This lets your company build a library of templates that project managers can use to quickly get a project moving.

There are more features in Project Server 2007 than we can fully cover here (new cost and budgeting features, for instance, as well as slick integration with Office Project Portfolio Server). But as a stand-alone upgrade to Project Server 2003, it’s already worth the trouble. Combined with SharePoint’s capabilities, it can be downright amazing in its integration of project management functionality and tracking in projects that never had these benefits before.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Features (20.0%)
Ease of use (20.0%)
Management (15.0%)
Scalability (20.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Security (15.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Office Project 2007 and Microsoft Office Project Server 2007 8.0 7.0 7.0 7.0 5.0 8.0 7.2

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.