Buyer's Guide: SaaS Project Management Tools

We rounded up nine top cloud-based PM systems. Here's how they stack up in key areas, including features, pricing, and security.
To effectively manage a growing slate of IT projects, you need tools that can make sense of all the moving parts. In our InformationWeek 2012 Enterprise Project Management Survey, 60% of the 508 business technology professionals who responded said their companies have formal project management offices, and nearly as many use specialized commercial project management software.

For the 40% of companies that are, presumably, winging it, project management software-as-a-service can help them gain control quickly with minimal up-front investment. However, when comparing SaaS products with on-premises software, project management and security teams will have to ask the following questions: How safe will our data be? Will the service be online when we need it? Will there be unforeseen fees, or will costs rise unacceptably over time? Can we get our project data back in-house if we decide the service isn't a good fit?

To help you make this decision, we put out a call to providers of SaaS project management tools; nine completed our questionnaire: Alcea Technologies, CA, Daptiv, HMS Software, Innotas, Metafuse, Métier, Onepoint, and Visionera AB. Nearly a dozen other vendors either didn't respond or didn't return materials by our deadline.

Buying Checklist

When reviewing vendors' responses to our questionnaire, we focused on six areas: administration, platform, reports and dashboards, features, pricing, and security. These should form the basis of any buying checklist for SaaS project management software. Let's look at each briefly here; we go into more depth in our full report. There, we also offer all nine completed questionnaires and our original, which can be customized for your needs.

>>Administration: You want a product that can handle the number of project managers and other users of the system and that enables you to granularly control access to data--critical for regulatory compliance. Also important is how often the software will be updated. Regular upgrades ensure that you have the latest features and that bugs and security vulnerabilities are addressed promptly. All the vendors responding to our guide provide regularly scheduled upgrades, from monthly to quarterly to annually. All of them also provide role creation and authorization mechanisms to control who can access which data.

>> Platform: Today's business users are mobile, and they're not content with just the enterprise-standard BlackBerry. Mobility equals agility, so ensure that any SaaS project management vendor supports the platforms in use in your company. We asked about various browsers (Firefox and Internet Explorer) as well as devices and operating systems. Most of the vendors offer products that run on multiple platforms. The exceptions are Alcea, CA, and Onepoint, which at the time of the survey didn't natively support the mobile devices (Android, BlackBerry, iPad, and iPhone) listed in our questionnaire. CA says support is forthcoming, for an additional fee, while Alcea and Onepoint emphasize that their browser-centric strategies will appeal to IT organizations as HTML5 matures; Metafuse notes its support for Safari and Chrome.

>> Reports and dashboards: A successful project manager is an informed project manager--we've seen initiatives go off the rails faster than you can say "scope creep." One advantage of project management software in general is that it keeps key stakeholders continuously informed about the health of the initiative through reports and centralized dashboards.

3 Key Factors
1. Support for Android, BlackBerry, iOS Six of the nine support mobile platforms, the rest stress HTML5 or have mobile operating systems on the horizon.
2. Reports and dashboards All offer editors and templates. Less common: home page dashboards and ever-helpful burn-down charts.
3. Features All offer notifications and multiproject management. We'd like to see more-uniform calendar integration and SLAs with some teeth.

All of the vendors that responded to our questionnaire provide what we consider adequate reports and dashboard functionality. Note, however, that Innotas and Metafuse don't offer burn-down charts, which show what work remains in the context of time to project completion.

>> Features: Quality project management software makes stakeholders' lives easier via features ranging from calendar views to notifications to critical-path calculations to templates. We also put service-level agreements in this bucket. The key is not whether the project management SaaS vendor offers an SLA. Seven of the nine vendors that responded to our questionnaire do. What matters are the penalties that are levied in case of a violation. Five of the vendors say they're liable to pay no penalties, making their SLAs not worth a wooden nickel.

>> Price: This is a key component because, after all, a big reason organizations go to the cloud is to lower costs. The pricing methodologies of the vendors participating in our buyer's guide vary widely. Some offer a site license, while others price based on the number of users. Most charge add-on fees that buy you such niceties as additional storage space and training. Most provide free test runs.

>> Security: For some companies, the bottom line on SaaS is that they're handing over data to someone else. While you're probably not storing information such as Social Security numbers or customer lists in a SaaS PM tool, you will likely be entrusting personally identifiable information.

For example, standard data captured in a project management tool includes employee names and email addresses. Optional information could include personal phone numbers. A criminal could pull off a social engineering attack with name, place of employment, email address, and phone number.

When considering a SaaS project management tool, put on a security hat. We asked about 16 security considerations and were pleased overall with the responses. All the vendors back up data at set intervals. VPN support is mixed, but all except CA and Onepoint encrypt backed-up data, to protect you in case the provider suffers a breach.

chart: SaaS Beats On-Premises Options

Our full report on SaaS-based project management tools is available free with registration.

This report includes 20 pages of action-oriented analysis. What you'll find:
  • Full responses from nine SaaS PM providers, plus a customizable spreadsheet
  • A guide to auditing vendors, writing contracts, and more
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Karen Quagliata works in the financial services industry as an information security analyst, specializing in risk management and third-party vendor assessments. You can write to us at [email protected].