Managing Projects with WebCollab
As a network consultant I frequently work with small teams on any IT-related project. For any given job, I have to coordinate with other consultants, clients, data-line vendors and office staff. I am constantly in need of a way to update coworkers on various aspects of a project, and oftentimes this includes sharing files, notes and comments. My corporate days have taught me that this can be done with a combination of the Microsoft Exchange public foldering system and Microsoft Project.
Although the Microsoft products are able to give me most of what I want, they have their limitations. First, Exchange/Project is a proprietary setup geared exclusively toward Microsoft Windows users and, more specifically, Microsoft users within the same organization. Second, Microsoft's Exchange package is not cost effective for most small companies. Third, although MS Project and other Gantt charting applications are the de facto standard for project management applications, they tend to take a macro-management approach to jobs and are a better fit for larger-scale operations like construction. Finally, I wanted integration between the file repository and the project status information, so that a project could be managed by a group of people with the proper collaboration between parties and across organizations.
I stumbled upon WebCollab on SourceForge and was pleasantly surprised. According to its creators, WebCollab is “a collaborative Web-based system for projects and project management; WebCollab is easy to use and encourages users to work together. The software is functionally elegant and secure without being cumbersome for users or graphically intensive.”
I found all of the above to be true. The authors of the software designed with function over form in mind, and the interface is extremely plain and simple with speed and security as its primary goals.
WebCollab is ideal for projects involving small groups of users who have a fairly constant stream of communication. More than simply a multiuser to-do list, each created project carries with it a task list, due dates, color-coded completion status meters, priority settings, message boards and a file upload section. When any task has a change in status, there is an option to notify any involved users or groups by e-mail. Between the continuous message board banter, the file exchange and status e-mails, WebCollab creates an interactive environment for project management. A manager easily could use this as a tool to delegate tasks and keep tabs on exactly what is going on by having a constant dialog with employees, all through this software.
WebCollab has quite a few great features, and coupled with its simple install and nonexistent learning curve, it's a great fit for a small office environment or for projects involving people from different organizations. For example, I use this as a tool to keep my clients updated on the status of my work for them, as well as a tool to communicate with the other engineers and technicians I may be working with.
The software consists of an Apache-hosted PHP front end to a database back end. Once the PHP pages are made available with the Web server, any computer with connectivity, a Web browser and user credentials can access WebCollab.
I found the optimal configuration to be a Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP box, but any operating system capable of running Apache, PHP and either MySQL or Postgres can be used. The database can be hosted on a separate server if necessary. I am currently using a Pentium III 500MHz workstation with 256MB of RAM and a 20GB hard drive without issue, and I probably am overdoing things for my load of about 15 users. This software is perfect for the old system you have been meaning to use for something productive or as a lightweight service on an existing server. All personal biases aside, I'd recommend using Linux over Windows, or even Mac OS, because of the ease and security of Linux remote administration and its lower cost. To set up WebCollab, you need the ability to create a database and change a few permissions within the WebCollab directory. Depending what your file upload traffic is like, you shouldn't need more than a few hundred megabytes of space in your Web directory, because the individual file upload size is limited to 2MB.
With Apache and MySQL under the hood, I have had no stability issues, and the quality of the PHP code seems, in general, very solid. That being said, this is not a software package I would recommend for an enterprise-level organization. With a small user base, WebCollab is unproven under heavy load. Most corporate firms also put an emphasis on support when choosing software packages. With WebCollab's current status as a small open-source project, there is not a programmer standing by 24/7 to help with any data catastrophes.
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