Microsoft Project moves into the online world

The vintage desktop application is getting Azure integration, Microsoft Flow, and the Microsoft business applications platform.

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Microsoft Project first came out in 1984, running on MS-DOS, as a tool for business users as much as professional project managers. Over the years, it has become a standard business workhorse, with server and desktop applications, an ecosystem of add-ons and integrations, an online version and mobile apps. Project 2018 added agile methods for tracking projects that use Scrum or Kanban, but Project 2019 was a very minor upgrade (you can label timeline bars and see task names rather than ID numbers, for example).

That's because, although the desktop application isn't going away, Project — like the other Office applications — is shifting more and more to rely on cloud services. If you have an Office 365 subscription to Project, the desktop Project app is even called the Project Online Desktop Client, and like other Office desktop apps it gets new features as part of the subscription.

Some of those features, like integrating with Microsoft Planner, don't work with Project Server. The shift to cloud is especially important for casual or, as Microsoft calls them, 'accidental' project managers, who are just as likely to pick up a service like Trello as they are to think about using Project.

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Microsoft Project has a lengthy heritage.

Image: Microsoft

Common business resources

What businesses mean by 'a project' has changed a lot in the last few years. Large-scale, formal projects comprising schedules and milestones with fixed dates and assigned resources are still common, but so are ad-hoc, short-term projects that a team might work on for a few hours or days. Everyone's a project manager, everyone is working on multiple projects and everyone has tasks that don't fit neatly into Gantt charts — from agile development and Kanban boards to chatops and JIRA tickets to 'micro-work' tasks in platforms like Sapho or Wrike. Integrations with Microsoft Planner and Azure Boards (a Kanban planning service that's part of the Azure DevOps developer productivity service) matter just as much as being able to connect to SharePoint document libraries.

So while Project Online is actually built on top of SharePoint Online, the new Project service that Microsoft is creating to (eventually) replace it is being built on top of the Common Data Service for Apps platform. This is the secure business entity store that underlies Dynamics 365 and is what Power BI, PowerApps and Microsoft Flow tap into for data — because business entities like invoices, customer accounts, business units, financial calendars and even letters are standard resources that you want to define once and reuse over and over again. It's the heart of what Microsoft is now calling its Power platform — and Project is exactly the kind of business application that can take advantage of it.

The kind of entities you need for handling the tasks, resources, milestones and deliverables for a project are already in the CDS for Dynamics project service automation (which handles estimates, cost tracking, billing and resource management), as is the Universal Resource Scheduling service that Project will use.

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Project will still integrate with SharePoint and store documents there, because — as part of Office 365 — it will use Groups and integrate with Teams (which uses SharePoint and OneDrive for Business for storing files). Microsoft Planner isn't part of the new Project service, but because it's part of Office 365 it's easy to integrate and Planner plans will show up inside Project further down the line.

Being built on CDS will make it easy to integrate with Dynamics 365 and CDS already has connectors for over 200 data sources. It can use Power BI for reports and analytics, so you might get a smart dashboard that warns you about overscheduled resources and conflicting projects (or you could build your own). Custom business apps built in PowerApps could use the tasks that make up a Project plan and when you finish a task it could be automatically marked as complete in Project.

The Project service is already available and if you have a Project Online subscription you'll see Project Home, the web portal where you can start creating and managing projects using the basic Project features — managing resources and finances, and tracking both time and expenses. A future update will connect the Project desktop app to the new Project service, and at some point Planner plans will appear here, too. At this stage, it might look similar to Planner, but the Project service is going to have its own scheduling engine, along with the intelligence to handle dependencies.

Roadmap

The first real service for the new Project is called Roadmap, which is designed to be an overview of all the projects you need to know about or keep track of, with unified timeline views of multiple projects with milestones from the projects and key dates (like financial reporting deadlines, launch dates or marketing events) that you add yourself. You can also tag tasks with a status without affecting the underlying project, so marking something as a potential problem or at risk doesn't show up on an individual employee's schedule if that's not something they need to know about.

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To create a roadmap, you add a row for each project you want to include, connect to Project Online or Azure Boards and choose what tasks, milestones and features you want to see on the timeline.

Image: Microsoft

Sharing a Roadmap uses the same modern Groups that underlie Teams, so if you already have a Teams team with the right people you can reuse that. Creating a Roadmap needs a Project Online Professional licence, but you only need the cheaper Project Essentials licence to view them.

Roadmap gives you a handful of basic tools, but this is the first step in moving from simple project management to program and portfolio management.

Initially you can connect to plans in Project Online and Azure Boards (the board planning tool in Azure DevOps), so that covers both agile and waterfall projects. In the long run, this will cover Planner as well as third-party services like JIRA. And because Roadmap is actually built using Microsoft Flow — which connects to a wide range of Microsoft and third-party services, with sophisticated options for transforming data and performing calculations — this should be both flexible and powerful. Once it becomes a Flow service, you may be able to connect services that work with Flow yourself rather than waiting for Microsoft to integrate them. It's also secure, because Flow uses Azure Active Directory to manage accounts and credentials.

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Roadmap has been rolling out since late 2018 and has been available to Project Online tenants (in the 12 regions where the Microsoft business application platform operates) since the end of January. It currently has to be activated by an admin for the tenant, but it will be on by default from 15 March 2019. Roadmap data won't be automatically deleted if your Project Online subscription comes to an end, so you may want to check the data retention options before letting users create roadmaps.

If you can't turn Roadmap on for your tenant and you already use Microsoft Flow, PowerApps or other tools on the business application platform, make sure you've upgraded Common Data Services for Apps — although that will get done for you on 15 March 2019 (and of course that you have a Project Online Professional or Premium licence).

The future, but not yet

Project is planned to be generally available in the first half of 2019. We're expecting that to include connections to Planner, the desktop Project client and some third-party services, plus more sophisticated tools for the online Project service.

That's all included in current Project Online subscriptions, and while the new Project will eventually become Microsoft's 'primary' project management service, Project Online isn't going away anytime soon and you don't have to switch straight away. It will keep getting support, performance and security updates (and most of those will come to future versions of Project Server, which isn't going away). But the new Project is where new features are going to show up.

If you can, Microsoft suggests running existing projects in Project Online and starting new ones in the new Project, so that you move over completely once all your existing project are complete. There will also be migration guides for customers who want to think about moving projects over to the new service (although that will be tricky if you have customised Project Online heavily). Look for those when Project launches, and for really complex migrations, expect to work with a Microsoft partner.

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By Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.