Impending death of "sneaker-net" and other reasons for using LANS for pm
PM Software Forum
Harvey A. Levine
Harvey A. Levine
Still working! In the April issue of the PM NETwork, I promised to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of using Local Area Networks (LANs) for project management (if my system survived my experimentation with a LAN, which it did). While I have always been interested in LANs (as well as afraid of them), I was compelled to seriously investigate this technology when I offered to write an article on the subject for Software Magazine (June ’92 issue). Here are some findings from my interviews of several users and developers of project management software on LANs and from my experimentation with putting my own system up on a LAN.
- Most LAN systems were already in place within an organization before the project management application was implemented on the system. That is, the LAN was not installed specifically for the project management application.
- Most of the LANs were of significant size and complexity, often serving users in widespread locations (via wide-area networks [WANs] and/or telecommunication links) and often supporting more than one class of computing equipment. For example, the Ontario Province Ministry of Health has several LAN clusters in three locations, supporting VAX, Micro VAX, IBM-PC and Macintosh computers. In the Ministry of Health's Kingston office, the VMS version of Computer Associate's SuperProject is up on a dedicated MicroVAX 3100 but tied into the office LAN. Users are accessing the program from any of the Digital or PC stations on the system. They are also currently using both DOS and Windows versions of SuperProject and a time tracking auxiliary program, Time$heet Professional, from Timeslips Corp (Essex, MA).
- These were primarily “enterprise-wide” computing solutions, often serving over one thousand users.
- Most of the project management users on these systems credited the LAN capabilities for making a significant contribution to the success of the project management application.
- Several project management software developers have been creating products aimed at exploiting the benefits of the LAN environment.
LANS AND PROJECT MANAGEMENT Made for Each Other
The use of LANs is vital for effective project management using microcomputers. The nature of the typical project is that it involves the participation of numerous individuals in the planning, tracking, and execution of the work. Frequent and rapid communication between several contributors, following a common plan, is essential to project success. Without the connectivity provided by LANs, we often end up with fragmented or duplicate plans and slow, cumbersome communications that do not relate to those plans.
This connectivity had always been available to project teams when they were using mainframes and minicomputers for project management. However, many users found these platforms to be too unwieldy and expensive for anything other than megaproject type work, often requiring dedicated staffs and computers. With the reduction of such megaprojects and with the introduction of fast, graphic, and user-friendly microcomputers, the past decade has ushered in a major shift from bigger computers to the PC. With that shift, many project management software users have given up this important capability (connectivity) to gain the cost and usability benefits of the PC.
Today many project management software developers have recognized this loss of connectivity and the loss of key project management functionality that it represents. Hence, there is considerable development going on to take advantage of what LANs can bring to project management applications. But at what price? Does the complexity and cost of the LAN environment put us right back where we were before? Will the typical PC user be required to seek frequent technical and administrative support in order to operate in a LAN mode? With instant and widespread access to the data, have we removed the “personal” from PC? Are we talking about LANs that are only practical for the dedicated, megaproject applications?
In recent discussions with LAN-based project management software users, we have found that the LAN has gained strategic importance in corporate computing and that project management applications are taking advantage of the availability of the LANs. While there is sufficient justification to set up a LAN just for project management applications, the almost universal situation is that the LAN is already in place or has been committed before the project management application has been implemented.
Users are moving to LAN-based project management software from three directions... Some have used project management software in a stand-alone environment, and are looking for the connectivity afforded by the LAN. Some are starting out on the LAN as their first configuration of project management. Still others have moved to a LAN-based environment from previous mainframe operations. At the First Interstate Bank, where they have recently consolidated their data centers at two locations (Portland, OR and Tempe, AZ), and replaced a mainframe system (PC-70) with MicroMan II from POC-IT Management Services (Santa Monica, CA). Moving from the mainframe to the networked PCs resulted in a significant improvement in responsiveness and control. The former PC-70 system was a batch processor. Project updates were submitted to the system and were run overnight. They noted the slowness of such a system, which was often worsened when the results, received the next day, indicated an error that required resubmittal and another overnight run. With Micro-Man II on the LAN, they are able to plan and status projects in real time. They can get immediate results of changes and immediate appraisal of “what-if” scenarios. Yet, they have not lost any of their connectivity.
At the General Electric Company, where a Corporate Information Systems study, eight years ago, concluded that PCs were not adequate for project management applications; several locations are now using Project Scheduler 4 and Project Scheduler 5 from Scitor Corp. (Foster City, CA) on a corporate-wide site licence. At GE's Aerospace operation, over 1000 people are using PS4 and PS5 over a vast connectivity arrangement. A massive Novell system using NFS and TCP/IP file sharing protocols has permitted the local linking of IBM PCs, Mats, Sun SPARCstations and a tie to an IBM mainframe in Cincinnati. Project Scheduler is running on the PCs and Mats and even on the Sun. The SoftPC DOS emulator Project Scheduler plans can be uploaded to Artemis (Lucas Management Systems) and PSC's MAX, on the mainframe. Users are not only pleased with the increased ease-of-use in moving to Project Scheduler, but also appreciate the elimination of the stiff chargeback fees that they had incurred on the mainframe.
People that I spoke with at First Interstate Bank and General Electric mentioned their concern about administration of the LAN. When everything was on the mainframe, system administrators were available around-the-clock and weekly and nightly backup of all data was assured. When the LAN goes down (about twice a month at GE), they must search for a qualified administrator because a resident LAN administrator is not available.
A MOVE TO CLIENT/SERVER TECHNOLOGY
Most of today's PC-based project management software products have been designed as a single user package. LAN versions, where available, have added various security and multi-user functions to allow access from more than one workstation and to allow various degrees of simultaneous use. Some others, such as AGS Management Systems' WINGS II, PlanView's The Intelligent Planner, and Lucas' Artemis Prestige have taken a different route based on distributed processing concepts. Prestige (originally a DOS-based scheduler developed by K&H Professional Management Systems) has been completely revamped as a distributed processing process. The new Prestige, now developed and marketed by Lucas Management Systems (formerly Metier Management Systems), uses a client-server approach to gain increased functionality while providing improved ease-of-use. As designed, the Standard Query Language (SQL) type database would reside on the server, and most number crunching would also take place on the more powerful machine. The user would typically access Prestige from a workstation. The user access portion of Prestige operates in Microsoft Windows, hence offering many of the user-friendly attributes of that familiar graphic environment. PC users of Prestige can opt for either the Gupta SQLBASE or Oracle databases. Prestige is also available for DEC VAX users (Oracle only). The PC version can also be used as a stand-alone, and in fact, a user may have the choice of accessing his or her own database or a Prestige database on one or more servers.
In addition to the access and processing flexibility, Artemis Prestige comes with several added functions. For example, Prestige uses Artemis Presents (another Lucas product) to create and view output graphics. With Artemis Presents, the user can have considerable control over the design of the output and can add text, lines, and use typical “paint” type functions. Also bundled with Artemis Prestige is Gupta's Quest software. This provides the user with a complete SQL query capability. Users may also add third-party database tools to perform additional operations on the prestige database.
Although the Windows interface provides a different texture and feel to Prestige, users of the DOS version will readily recognize the data structure and general operation of the new program. Essentially all of the old functions and structures have been retained. In addition, several new features have been added to this already powerful product. Project coding capabilities have been extended. Added to the old “forms” view are two new views. The “tables” view provides a spreadsheet format so that more than one record can be seen and modified at a time. The user may design several table views and save them for later recall.
The new “zoom” view presents the data in an interactive bar chart (unusual in a high-end product). The zoom view can show the timing of the tasks and has an option to show relationships. Tasks can be rescheduled by just moving the bar with the arrow cursor. While this capability has become the norm for the popular low-end project management software products, most products in the Prestige class use a “batch” rescheduling mode.
Recognizing the old adage, “there's no such thing as a free lunch,” can we really expect to be able to have a powerful SQL database system with a user-friendly front-end and not have to give up something in return? The answer is no! The laws of physics (or Murphy or Parkinson) still prevail. Although Lucas must be given credit for their approach and what they have achieved, the system is not designed for a total novice. Because Prestige is so heavily based on SQL database protocols, a user will soon find that he or she requires advanced knowledge. Also, it is easy to get locked out of the system and/or data, prompting a cry of help for a system administrator. Users will also notice that the new system tends to be slower than the DOS version.
With the new Prestige, you get a high-end project management program optimized for use on a LAN and utilizing advanced SQL database capabilities. You pay for this by requiring both system administration support and advanced knowledge of database protocols. But once these are in place, the Windows front-end does make it easier to use than you would expect for such a high powered product.
CAN A NOVICE DO IT?
Most of the people that I surveyed appear to have fairly large systems. They often support over a hundred users systems that may comprise more than a single LAN. An advantage of this corporate-wide approach toward LAN-based computing is that the project management application does not require its own system administrators or connectivity expertise. But, I wondered if the novice would have the option of putting up a LAN without external systems support?
To check this out, I decided to network four of the computers in my office. I opted for a DOS-based peer-to-peer system. The LANtastic Ethernet peer-to-peer system (Artisoft, Inc.) that I installed allows me to designate any computer as a server, a workstation (redirector) or both. A redirector can access any server on the network, as well as operate in local mode. But it cannot be accessed by any other unit on the LAN. A server can be used in local mode, can access any other server, and can be accessed by other units. The server access must be setup by the network operating system and can be controlled using passwords setup by the network administrator (if desired).
Installing LANtastic 4.1, the network operating system, was a snap, and the install program creates its own file to invoke the system. LANtastic 4.1 NOS also provides a simple and clear user interface for establishing the system parameters and connections. With help from Artisoft's Technical Support Group, I was able to define all of the connection parameters in a file that would automatically be called up during any computer boot-up. This saved me from having to define the connections each time I wanted access to another unit.
Getting the system to support Microsoft Windows adds to the challenge. This hurdle was successfully cleared with a little help from Artisoft's FAXFacts #211, Microsoft Windows 3.0 Technical Bulletin. For Windows users, the LANtastic network operating system software is now available in a version that operates in the Windows mode (LANtastic for Windows). This enables access to the network commands from within Windows.
The systems connected via the test LAN included:
- 486–33 with 200Mb hard drive, Tape Backup, and CD-ROM (Server)
- 386–16 with 71Mb hard drive and Bernoulli drive (Server)
- 386–33 Notebook with 83Mb hard drive and a docking station
- 386–16 Laptop with 100Mb hard drive
The LAN adapter cards (AE-2) were installed in slots in units 1 and 2, and in the docking station for unit 3. The slot in unit 4 was too small for the adapter card. For situations such as these, Artisoft has a device called Central Station that has a built-in card and connects to the computer's parallel port. All Adapters were connected using thin Ethernet cable.
A Benefits Windfall
Here is a list of the benefits that I was able to gain from networking these four computers:
- The disk drives of the two servers can be accessed from all four computers.
- The Bernoulli removable media drive can be accessed from all four computers.
- The Tape Backup drive can be used to backup files from any other server on the network.
- The CD-ROM drive can be accessed from all four computers.
- With this connectivity, “Sneaker Net” (the process of copying files to floppies and then running them over to another computer) is a thing of the past.
- My printer, which had been accessible to three of the computers via a complex multiple switch and cable setup, now can be automatically accessed from all four computers. In addition, multiple print requests are automatically put in a queue and printed without manual intervention. (Warning: Networking printers in Windows is outright “ornery.”)
- Also available (but not tested) are modem sharing and remote access to the LAN (via Dial-Up Connection StationWare). With modems connected to the LANtastic Central Station and a remote computer, you can dial in to the network and log onto servers, use network printers and share files.
All of the above benefits are gained exclusive of all of the additional benefits of networked project management software.
Is There A Downside?
As you might expect, these benefits do not come without cost. Although the penalty is clearly less than the benefit, there are some notable negatives.
- The entire operation of the system becomes more complicated. Most of the complications apply to the system setup, but there are other adjustments that must be made, as noted below.
- The LAN software will use some of your RAM. With LANtastic, this amounts to about 13KB as a redirector and about 30KB as a server. Artisoft provides instructions for optimizing memory use (shifting TSR programs to HMA or UMBS) using HIMEM.SYS and EMM386.EXE programs in DOS 5.0 This does help some. Occasionally, I run into a situation where a program will not have enough room to run with the system configured for the LAN. I deal with this by having two bootup configurations (CONFIG.SYS and AUTOEXEC.BAT), one for LAN one without LAN. I have two simple batch programs to switch between the two configuration sets.
- In order to make the server drives available to the other computers on the network, they must be given “logical” drive names. For instance, the hard drive and CD-ROM drive on unit BW are called I: and J:. The C:, D:, and E: drives on unit CA are called K:, L:, and M:. The Bernoulli drive is called N:. The renaming of these drives may require reconfiguration of the defaults in some of the programs that were already loaded on the system (i.e., C:\ changed to I:\).
- There is a noticeable slow down of some operations under simultaneous multi-user access.
- There are hardware and software costs. The LANtastic configuration that I set up would cost about $1500.
- If you are going to have multiple users on the system (which is the normal situation) you will need to have someone available to address administrative, security, and access concerns, as well as handle periodic updating of the system and applications and provide help for the users.
What are physical drives as opposed to logical or virtual drives? What is the difference between a client and a server, or a redirector? Or between a file server and a print server? What is Ethernet and Token-Ring, or coaxial cable and twisted-pair? Trying to get up to speed on the subject of LANs can be quite frustrating. There is so much to know! You need to learn a whole new set of terms addressing software, hardware, and the general issues of connectivity. And even the things that you thought that you understood, such as operating systems and printers, are significantly changed and more complicated. Today's software developers have come a long way in providing instructions, via improved embedded help within the programs and by well written manuals that accompany the products. Yet, I found that even the best documentation left me starving for a more complete understanding of the area. The texts tended to concentrate on specifics, assuming a certain level of knowledge about the overall environment.
This tendency toward insufficiently clear documentation has spawned a plethora of third-party publications to support the thirst for help. To gain understanding of the LAN environment, I turned to the PC Magazine Guide to Connectivity by Frank J. Derfler, Jr. Published by Ziff-Davis Press (Derfler is Director of PC LAN Labs and writes for ZD's P C Magazine), this book provides a clear look into all types of connectivity available for PCs. Derfler discusses all of the alternatives and notes the advantages and disadvantages of each. The extensive discussion of LAN structures and protocols, wiring schemes, DOS and non-DOS operating systems, and other connectivity items provides the base level of knowledge one should have when setting up a LAN system. The book also provides an extensive glossary; annotated list of providers of LAN equipment, software, and accessories; and two floppy disks with LAN utilities.
A CLEAR ADVANTAGE
Those organizations with a LAN system already in place should strongly consider running their project management software on the LAN. It provides most of the advantages of both mainframe and PC environments with virtually unlimited connectivity potential, lower costs, and few negatives. If you are using project management software and are not yet up on a LAN, you should look into implementing one of the simple systems, such as Artisoft's peer-to-peer LAN. The connectivity of a LAN is almost essential for effective use of a computerized project management application.
Harvey A. Levine, president, Project Knowledge Group (35 Barney Road, Clifton Park, NY 12065) has been a practitioner of project management for over thirty years, primarily with General Electric Company and is a past chairman of PMI. Mr. Levine has been adjunct professor of project management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, N. Y., and is the author of the book Project Management Using Microcomputers swell as several articles.
JULY 1992 pm network