Project Management Institute


Microsoft Project killer?


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If you believe the hype coming from the respected project and portfolio management vendor Niku Corp., its decision last year to spin out its Workbench scheduling and project-management tool into a free download, modifiable by any programmer, was a noble blow against the not entirely deserved dominance of Microsoft Project.

Niku claims, in essence, that despite Microsoft's push into enterprise-class project management running on centralized servers and other groupware infrastructure, Project is predominantly a desktop tool used, they say, by solitary project managers to build schedules and crank out Gantt charts. If that's the case, why not give Workbench away, let others invest the development funds and use the freebie as an enticement for customers to try Niku's real profit center, the Clarity portfolio management suite?

The result—OpenWorkbench 1.1—turns out to be more than a cynical marketing ploy. It is a full-fledged basic scheduling and project-management tool with surprising depth and richness.


Open Workbench 1.1

Requires: Microsoft Windows 2000, Server 2003, or XP,

Sun Java Runtime Engine (JRE) 1.3.1 or later.

Price: Free

Niku Corp., 305 Main St., Redwood City, CA 94063 USA,


AT-A-GLANCE REVIEW (5*s is best)

Ease of Use: ****

Feature Richness:***

Project Management Support:****


Overall Value:*****

Free, But Not Cheap

The premiere version of OpenWorkbench, released in mid-2004, was a barely functional piece of betaware. Version 1.1, out in general availability since January, was the real debut. Besides being a fully functioning desktop project scheduler with basic project-management functions and resource management, the newest OpenWorkbench has important new features.

The user interface now adheres more closely to the standard look and feel of Microsoft Windows XP, and there's a collapsible work breakdown structure (WBS) outline, so you can view tasks at varying levels, as in Microsoft Project. You can store multiple baselines at the summary task and project levels, and you can change the attached cost data without manually changing the baselines. But the most important new feature is basic import/ export support for Microsoft Project files, albeit indirectly through extensible markup language (XML), the still-emerging Web-based standard for exchanging data among programs. Resource-billing support also is new in the upgrade.

You still need Niku's pricey Clarity if you want to use a central database to manage enterprise collaboration. Niku added a module to Clarity, called Schedule Connect, specifically to link to Open-Workbench 1.1. It installs on both centralized servers and the desktop, adding database access to OpenWorkbench's screens. If you're not satisfied with the informal tech support of the online, open-source user community or can't find answers in the 308-page manual, you can buy a maintenance contract from Niku.

I found OpenWorkbench quite easy to use and navigate, with familiar Gantt views and task-entry and resource-assignment dialogue boxes. The same basic toolkit for daily project management that you find in Microsoft Project is all here, too. You can indicate task dependencies, for example (there are four types), and link fairly detailed resource information to them.

The multi-pane windowed interface is intuitive and customizable; you can drag and relocate buttons and entire toolbars almost anywhere on screen with a click of the mouse, and even create custom toolbars. A large toolbar on the left gives you quick access to standard chart types, such as regular and phase-level Gantts, as well as such spreadsheet-style analytical tools.

The XML links to Project are usable but far from perfect. When I tried to import an existing Microsoft Project plan, information came over cleanly, including resources assigned to tasks, but some dates were mysteriously changed. Project displayed an error message relating to fixed-cost accrual and then froze up when I tried to import the XML file back into it. Although you can get a lot done by switching your scheduling work permanently to OpenWorkbench, Niku—still the prime investor in the product's open-source development efforts—would do well to firm up the Project interoperability by the next version, so people can switch easily between the two. The open-source community is developing utilities for this.

At first glance, OpenWorkbench looks like just another “dumb” utility to build and print out schedules, but you soon realize it has some of the analytical ability of more costly software.


Niku's free OpenWorkbench project-management software has a schedule view that lets you fine-tune key schedule elements, such as resource availability and start and finish dates.

At first glance, OpenWorkbench looks like just another “dumb” utility to build and print out schedules, but you soon realize it has some of the analytical ability of more costly software. Its Auto Schedule feature, for example, takes task dependencies and resource constraints to create the optimal schedule in seconds. Auto Schedule gives OpenWorkbench a resource-centricity that makes its schedules sensitive to people's actual availability, rather than forcing you to enter task-completion times manually. Baselining, earned value, critical path and estimated time-to-complete analysis all give useful snapshots of progress while helping to keep a project's scope within manageable parameters.

Niku says it expects developers will soon integrate OpenWorkbench with other applications and add support for languages besides English. The company will continue to lead open-source development of the product and plans to make the software easier for less experienced managers to use, improve its flexibility and Gantt graphics, and bolster open-source development support.

A number of companies reportedly are rolling out OpenWorkbench in broad-based deployments. They have obviously concluded, as I have, that this is one free program that is anything but worthless. In fact, it's an important new option for fast, easy project management. PM

David E. Essex is a freelance journalist specializing in information technology.

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