Methods & Tools Software Development Magazine

Software Development Magazine - Project Management, Programming, Software Testing

 

LibrePlan Open Source Project Management

Javier Morán Rúa, Igalia, http://www.igalia.com/

LibrePlan is an open source web application for project management that allows project planning, monitoring and control. It allows planning the organization in a collaborative way and has a multiproject scope, which means that the allocated resources are shared among projects.

Web site: http://www.libreplan.com
Version tested: LibrePlan 1.3.3
System Requirements: GNU/Linux operating system.
License and pricing: Free software. GNU Affero license.
Support: http://ask.libreplan.org

Main features and differential value

How are the projects planned?

LibrePlan planning is based on Gantt charts. There are many tools that use them, so you can base your first opinion of the tool on them. LibrePlan has however some innovative features regarding to standard Gantt charts. The most important is the fact that, in the project planning tools, the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is bounded element by element to the Gantt diagram. Each WBS leaf element is a task in the Gantt chart and each WBS container is a task aggregate. Nevertheless, in LibrePlan a deeper WBS and a more superficial Gantt can be configured by creating tasks bounded to WBS containers. This is achieved by setting planning points in the WBS and doing it has the advantage to enable the composition Gantt charts that are less complex and easier to handle than the budgeted work requires.

With LibrePlan the company is planned in an integrated way

In the majority of project management tools, projects are considered in isolation. This means that the projects are planned one by one and, as a consequence, the project managers do not have a full picture of the company. In LibrePlan, users are aware of the global situation of their organization by two means:

  • The allocations done in any project are taken into account on assigning activities. This is a very useful feature because it prevents errors due to not realizing that a worker being assigned to a task is already busy because he is booked by another project at the same time.
  • The user is provided with specific screens to analyze the company as a whole. There is the company view, where all the projects being planned in the organization can be seen in a graphical mode, and the resources load view, where the load of the resources is represented over time through a chart. This chart enables the user to detect the time periods where the resources are expected to work overtime and the periods they have spare time.

Advanced resource categorization and group allocations

In LibrePlan workers are classified in a flexible manner according to multiple simultaneous criteria that the users define and manage. The way of sorting the workers is by configuring the criteria that they satisfy over time. The criteria are conditions that are relevant for planning purposes. For instance, the user might create a criterion called company team, to track the department a worker belongs to or another criterion called worker skill, to know the roles that the staff is able to perform.

When it comes to plan, LibrePlan provides the user with two allocation models: specific allocations and generic allocations. Specific allocations are the standard assignments that can be found at any project management tool were specific worker is assigned to a task. Generic allocations are a distinctive feature of LibrePlan. They are a way to do group allocations without being concerned about the specific workers assigned. The generic allocations are configured by specifying the set of criteria that the candidate workers to be assigned must fulfill. When you apply them, the LibrePlan engine selects among all the possible resources the ones satisfying the required criteria those less loaded and allocates them.

Generic allocations allow managing the organization ability to do projects over time without the need to do fine-grained project plans by using specific resource allocations. This is very useful in industrial sectors where it is not required to know the specific workers that are allocated or in order to apply strategies, like rolling wave planning, where the distant future is planned roughly.

Monitoring the project cost in the project plan.

Besides planning the projects, you can monitor and control how the projects evolve during their execution. This is done analyzing two dimensions:

  • The project progress. LibrePlan tracks how the activities progress and when they are finished. Progress values are represented graphically in the Gantt chart through bars painted inside the tasks.
  • The project cost. This is an important dimension, because a project usually is regarded as a success if it finishes on time and with a cost equal or less than the initial budget. In this regard, LibrePlan supports the following cost variables per task: the budget, the number of dedicated hours and general expenses (materials, trips, etc). The project cost measurement, either in hours or in money, is also represented graphically in the Gantt chart by using bars on top of the tasks. They allow to control in a very intuitive way how much the task is costing.

Advanced project management techniques: earned value management (EVM) and Monte Carlo simulation

It is worth mentioning that LibrePlan incorporates two valuable and advanced techniques in the project management field: earned value management (EVM) and Monte Carlo simulation.

The EVM is a standard method to analyze how projects evolve over time from two points of view: time and cost. On one side, it measures if the project is ahead of or behind schedule and, on the other side, it allows to compare the costs spent so far with the budget to achieve the current work completed (progress measured). But what is more interesting is that the EVM does not feel satisfied with providing these pieces of information for the current situation but it makes a projection into future with the current trend. The project manager can see how things will evolve and if he does not like what he sees, he has enough time to react and make corrective decisions. The EVM technique is incorporated transparently in the Gantt chart screen through a bottom chart.

The Monte Carlo simulation purpose is to tackle the uncertainty that the real world has. Most of times what we plan is not exactly what finally happens. There are so many variables that it is impossible to have everything under control. As we cannot do anything to change this situation, this technique proposes to face up with it by calculating the probability distribution of the project end date. To do it, the user provides the optimistic, pessimistic and average times of the project activities belonging to the critical path. LibrePlan there has a dedicated screen for calculating the Monte Carlo simulation.

Collaborative and real-time planning

LibrePlan was created with the goal to allow all the stakeholders to access easily the project plan to see how projects evolve and to contribute to their planning/monitoring. They do it by interacting with the application and by feeding it with the data under their responsibility.

Several mechanisms to enable collaborative planning are included in the project:

  • There is a comprehensive permission system with individual permissions and profiles that are a collection of permissions. Users can be granted with profiles and permissions.
  • There is a specific permission system for projects. The administrators can grant the users or profiles with the permission to access a project in read-only mode or with a permission to read and update the project.
  • There is a special type of resources, called bounded workers, which are attached to users. These users perform the role of real workers who are assigned to the project activities over time. Besides, these users have a personal area, called personal dashboard, where their personal planning information is visible: the tasks assigned to them, their personal timesheets, where they can store the work hours they dedicate in the tasks over time, their expenses, etc

LibrePlan collaborative and real-time capabilities provide transparency with customers. This can be a valuable differential factor for the organization to stand out over their competitors. Project managers might create one or more users for the customers with the right privileges to enter in the LibrePlan installation and to check in real time how the project is evolving.

Outsourcing capabilities

Nowadays more than ever companies are used to collaborate to carry projects on. They usually outsource some tasks because they do not have suitable or free resources to do them on their own.

In this scenario, where outsourcing is a common practice, the success of the projects depends for an important percentage on the capacity of the subcontractors to deliver the work on time. For this situation, LibrePlan has a built-in module with outsourcing capabilities.

The project manager has the option to configure an activity in the project Gantt charts as outsourced instead of allocating it to internal employees. If the subcontractor has LibrePlan installed too, he can send the outsourced work automatically to the LibrePlan customer deployment. Customers and providers can exchange several data related to the outsourced projects: the provider can send progress reports that are transparently integrated in the original Gantt chart, the customer can request changes in the deadline date and the providers, in turn, can report the actual date when they will finish to their clients.

Easy integration with other software

A project management software is only an additional piece in the ecosystem of the IT architecture of a company. The standard situation is that there are often other applications in use like a CRM to manage the customers, an ERP program, issue trackers for operations management, time tracking systems, etc. As a consequence, it is common that the application data sets are not completely separate but that there is some level of data redundancy.

When the above situation happens there are two approaches to proceed: synchronizing all the programs which share a piece of data when it is created, modified or deleted manually or developing some automatic way of synchronization. This last approach is initially more expensive, because of the time needed to program it, but it is the winning strategy in the medium and long term because it saves a lot of time and avoids a many frustration due to performing synchronization in a repetitive and error prone way.

If LibrePlan is one of the systems involved in the synchronization task, it is important to know that it is already prepared for being integrated easily with other tools. In this way, choosing the automatic way to do the synchronization is likely worth in most cases.

The freedom of a bluntly full free software solution

Although there is out there a wide shared body of knowledge on project planning, it is also true that not all the companies do the same when it comes to plan. Planning is a complex task and the different procedures to accomplish it are influenced by many factors: the sector the company belongs to, the type of projects that the company do, the organization idiosyncrasy related to the importance given to planning, etc

Thus organizations have often to customize the chosen planning tool if they don't fine one that fulfills exactly its expectations and needs. When this happens, choosing a free open source software solution is, without any doubt, the best option: you have access to the source code and you have the right to modify it as you wish. LibrePlan is licensed under AGPL, the license recommended by the Free Software Foundation for web applications.

Summary

LibrePlan is a free software project planning, monitoring and control tool that comes with a lot of features and that is a valid alternative to proprietary solutions that still dominate the project management solutions market. LibrePlan runs on the web, is collaborative and can be adapted to satisfy the specific needs of the organizations. Definitely, it is a serious candidate to take into account when choosing a project planning application.


More Project Management Content


Click here to view the complete list of tools reviews

This article was originally published in the Spring 2013 issue of Methods & Tools

SpiraTeam Agile ALM


SQE Training
Software Testing Magazine

Scrum Expert