3 Of The Best Open Source Project Management Tools

Are you looking for the best open source project management tools out on the web? Well, look no further, because I've done the research for you! In this article, I'll share with you three solid open source project management tools I've seen in my time as a project manager.

But let's begin with a more fundamental question. Why do you need an open source project management tool? Perhaps you already have Microsoft Project - doesn't that meet your needs?

Well, I suspect not.

Let me explain. Back when I was working in a global investment bank as a project manager, one of the things my team ALWAYS struggled with was issue tracking, especially during testing of software applications.

While I could create nifty project plan in Microsoft project, the monitoring and controlling of the project often requires a dedicated software tool. It's just not enough to rely on the project plan alone.

So I hunted for a project management tool that provided task management, file attachment, a forum-like capability for my team members to discuss issues online. I also looked for user rights and the ability to tweak the tool slightly to my preferences.

The answer to these requirements is an open source project management tool.

Definition: An open source project management tool is free-to-use, has the ability to track and assign tasks, attach documents, maintain discussion forums and also open issue tickets. The developers of the tool also distribute the source code freely so that the user community can extend its functionalities.

Online sites like Basecamp and Huddle are, in my opinion, NOT open source project management tools. Those two and other sites like them offer project management tools in the CLOUD. Which means your project data is stored on e.g. Basecamp's servers.

Now I know this is an issue for many banks, especially here in Singapore - where regulation requires that you store bank information on-premise (i.e. on the bank's computers within the bank's building). In such cases, you should go with a project management tool that can be installed and have data stored on-premise.

1. What To Look For

So how do you know if an open source project management tool out there is any good? Well, here is a list of criteria which I jotted down. A good open source project management tool has broad functionalities, is easy-to-use, has great support from the community and is also a mature solution.

Functionalities

For me, a good project management tool should allow me to:

  • Enter project information and background details
  • Create, assign, update and delete tasks / issues
  • Assign and re-assign users and user roles. You can define yourself as Administrator for the project, then add additional users
  • Create a project Wiki or knowledge base
  • Attach project documents
  • Display project meetings / milestones in a calendar view
  • Display a Gantt chart view
  • Display audit trails of what has been created or changed

But this is harder to get right than you think. I've seen many software programs loaded to the hilt with features but they are not what a project manager needs.

And remember - ultimately, a lot of the work we do as project managers centres on collaboration. How many of the functionalities I listed above are “collaborative” in nature? That's right - almost all of them.

So, in terms of functionality, a project management tool will succeed if it focuses on collaboration and also offers a menu of features that is “just right” - not too much, not too little.

Ease-of-use

The tool must be easy to use. I'm not talking about bells and whistles and fancy user interface elements. I'm talking about screens and options which are designed with the user in mind. There are two points here that I think should always be in an easy-to-use project management tool:

  • The user interface is attractive, clean and well-organized
  • User interface menus and controls are easy to navigate and click

User community support

An important part of open source tools is community support. I don't want to see myself tracking hundreds of issues in the tool only to find out they have stopped developing it at some point in the future.

Maturity of solution

How long has the software been in development and how stable is it? Many software solutions are still in “beta” releases - which indicates they are not full-fledged stable releases yet. You'll need to be careful of these developers, especially if they don't have a clear roadmap of the software in mind.

2. The Contenders

Ok, so I surfed the Net, installed some tools on my laptop and went about my quest of finding the best open source project management tool. I eventually picked three contenders:

  • Redmine
  • ProjectPier
  • Achievo

1. Redmine

Redmine is an established open source project management tool. It has some neat features like task management, document attachments, an in-built wiki, among others.

redmine open source project management tool A screenshot of Redmine

I logged on to their very nice demo website and created a test account to check it out.

What I Liked

After trying out the application for a while, three items stood out for me:

  • Clean, well-designed user interface and lots of capabilities - Redmine has a clean, well-designed user interface and it can do many things that a project manager needs to do. The options you need are laid out across the top of the application neatly in a menu bar. Everything that you need to do in the software is accessible here. There's also a very nice Search bar that reaches into items containing the term that you searched.
  • Strong task management and ability to attach files - One of the most important roles of a project manager is to assign tasks and track their progress to completion. Normally, you might do this with a pen and paper - not the best option because you can't broadcast the progress on the task to others in the team. Redmine allows you to create and assign tasks which are viewable or editable to everyone on the team. This ensures information is free flowing and allows better chances of project success.

    Tip: Always communicate project issues to the broader team. When I assign tasks to an individual team member (e.g. Mr A), I like to also broadcast that assignment to the rest of the team. That way, if they have something on their minds that affects the task, they can let Mr A know. This kind of collaboration is best supported by a project management software tool.

  • Audit trails - One of the struggles I have on the ground as a project manager is that of audit trails. Every single time someone updates progress on an issue, gives me an update or report, I find that I have to timestamp their comments and try to record it somewhere, e.g. in an Excel sheet or hardcopy notebook.

    As you might have guessed, this is NOT a good idea. Project notes and progress updates, as well as any changes to issue statuses should be stored in ONE central location. Redmine allows you to do that by timestamping every action that a user takes in the system.

What I Didn't Like

Ok, what didn't I like about Redmine? Here's the scoop:

  • Tedious to install - I tried the software using an online demo account. I'm pretty savvy when I comes to installing programs on my computer - but Redmine required Ruby, Ruby on Rails and Rack to install. I tried looking on the Net for instructions but it was pretty complicated. In the end, I decided to check out the online demo.

    But somebody should tell the developers to compress everything into a single-click install package! I think that one of the things that stops many people from using open source tools like these is the difficulty of installation. Simplify the installation and I'm sure more people will start using the tool!

  • Gantt chart and calendar - The Gantt chart and calendar are there in Redmine but they feel like an afterthought. I'd much rather pull out my Microsoft Project Gantt and calendar to track events and milestones. Definitely more work to be done there.

2. ProjectPier

Alright, the next open source project management tool I looked at was ProjectPier. It's a simple project management tool but compared to Redmine, it's a little less polished.

projectpier open source project management tool A screenshot of ProjectPier

Let's look at ProjectPier's functionalities.

What I Liked

  • Comprehensive Feature Set - Project Pier has many “modules” which enable you to add wikis, file attachments and so forth into the base application. They also have some nice extras like a bulk mailer, a ticketing (case) management system, broadcast of messages, and even forms you can design for users to input data. The only drawback is the user interface design which is lacking (see below on what I didn't like about ProjectPier)
  • Time Tracking - One of the key metrics a vendor firm has is “billable time” - time spent by my consultants on client projects. I like that ProjectPier has a “time” module to allow the project manager to keep track of time spent on the project by each resource in the team.

What I Didn't Like

  • Tedious to install - Ok, I have the same gripe as Redmine. The software needed me to install the XMAPP web server (containing Apache, PHP and mySQL) into my laptop, before I installed the Project Pier pack. This is slightly intimidating for non-technie users out there.
  • User Interface. The user interface implementation in ProjectPier is, to be blunt - pretty ugly. I'll give you an example. When I checked out the user access rights screen for my project, to I found (to my horror) the security options were laid out horizontally across the top of the screen. Nobody should implement a screen like that! I think this is a high priority enhancement that should go straight to the ProjectPier development team.

3. Achievo

Achievo is advertised as a web-based project management tool. I think it is targeted at small businesses and has a pretty good feature set.

achievo open source project management tool A screenshot of Achievo

It has been in development for some time so expect its features to have stabilized.

What I Liked

  • Somewhat Comprehensive Feature Set - Although it has less features than Project Pier or Redmine, I think Achievo does have adequate features to accommodate to project managers' needs. I liked the fact that many of its functionalities have a consistent look and feel - its obvious the designers gave some thought to the user interface design before coding.
  • Setup - Here's a neat thing I found within Achiveo - the ability to customize drop-down lists (e.g. categories of projects, industry, holidays) right within the web application. I didn't see this in Redmine or ProjectPier.

What I Didn't Like

  • Tedious to install. Again, I've the same gripes regarding the complex install process, similar to the case of Redmine and ProjectPier. I had to install the XMAPP web server before installing Achievo itself. By the time I finished tweaking the config files, testing the web server and launched the main Achievo screen - I was already a little tired out :(
  • Document Attachment. Ok., I didn't observe any document attachment capabilities in Achievo - I suppose it is something they're still working on. The Achievo developers should take note because this functionality is fast becoming a given in applications of this type.

Wrapping Up ...

Ok, in summary, I'll have to say that my votes are with Redmine. The application looks decidedly polished, with a great user interface and impressive project and task management capabilities compared to ProjectPier and Achievo. I also get a sense the forums and development support for Redmine are very strong.

If a cloud-based solution is not suited to your company and you're considering an open source project management tool to install into your company, then do consider Redmine. I think it is especially powerful for small projects that need to get up and running quickly while maintaining a clean, centralized project database.

Until next time, good luck and manage those projects well!

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