A Guide To Open Source Project Management Software

When it comes to project management software, there are all sorts of opinions about what is most desirable. I think the majority of people, even those who would describe themselves as technology nerds, most often prefer to use applications that work well enough on their own and do not require deep knowledge of coding to use and understand. We want a kitchen knife that is sharp, comfortable in the hand, and dependable for chopping ingredients. For us, the point is not the knife itself, but the beautiful food we make with it. And the same principle applies to our project management tools.

But not everyone subscribes to this view. In the software world, particularly, there are those who prefer to write their own code and design their own applications. They use self-made computers and run operating systems like Linux. Whenever they can, they use open-source applications so they can dig into the code and make sure it is doing just what they want it to.

As with most kinds of web-based software, the project management world contains a number of open-source options. If you are anything like me, you have probably heard the term “open source” before, and it filled you with a vague apprehension. Do I have to write the code myself? Isn’t this why I paid for someone to design this software in the first place? What if I break the code by accident! This is all too stressful!

Fortunately, I can offer you respite from those fears. There are a number of advantages to using an open-source software for task management, though there are some complications that can arise from that choice. Is it worth your time? Let’s dive into the facts to find an answer to that question, and then take a look at some good open source project management software programs.

What Is Open Source Software?

In general terms, open source software refers a program or application with a source code that is accessible by any user. Now if you are like me, the term “source code” makes your eyes glaze over, your head tip back slightly, and re-runs of “How It’s Made” start playing behind your eyes. But fear not! The term is far less intimidating than it might seem. As you probably know, all software runs on code, and open source software just makes that code available for editing by anyone. As my father is fond of reminding me, “just because you can do something doesn’t mean you have to.” So if you are content with your software just how it is, you do not have to play with it.

Another misconception people have about open source software is this: If anyone can edit the source code, isn’t it easier to hack, sabotage, or otherwise ruin by mischevious antagonists? Effectively, the answer is “no.” When you purchase or download open-source software you are creating your own version of that software, and the only people able to modify the code will be people within your own team. It is no more vulnerable to attack than other software you might consider using.

More specifically, open-source project management software tends to include applications that are designed to meet project management needs (task lists, project portfolios, Gantt charts, Kanban boards, etc), while allowing users to customize their experience both in the mechanics of how the app functions (do you want recurring tasks? Templates? Timesheets?), and the visual interface (want a bright pink background? Company logos?)

Buying or subscribing to open source project management can be like going to the hardware store and buying lumber, nails, and a hammer, rather than simply buying a pre-built table. Alternatively, sometimes it is more like going to IKEA for a flatpack table that just requires a few steps to assemble. So how much of a DIY-er are you? And what are the concrete benefits of that trip to the hardware store or IKEA, rather than just getting something ready-made? Let’s take a closer look.

Benefits To Open Source Software

The most obvious benefit of open-source software of any kind is the higher level of control you will have over your application. This goes deeper than the cosmetic jokes I made above, meaning you can drastically modify the inner workings of the program. You can add entirely new features that were never present in the original, though the quality of these features will sometimes depend on the skill of your in-house software engineers. Some providers, however, have marketplaces that users can browse, shopping for community-designed features that slot into the code perfectly. A great example of this concept is OrangeScrum, hosting a diverse market with all sorts of additions to choose from.

Another big draw of open source software is that these options tend to be available for free! Most open-source creators don’t see the point in charging for a product that their customers are likely going to modify up the wazoo anyway. Access to the source code is usually free or comes with a one-time cost, rather than the monthly subscription model common to other, cloud-based project management software. If you are wondering how companies like the aforementioned OrangeScrum and others (like Taiga or MyCollab) make money, it’s simple: they tend to charge for customer service, though some also offer standardized versions of their software as well.

Downsides To Open Source Software

In some ways, the most prominent advantages to using an open-source project management software — control and customizability — can be the biggest disadvantages as well. You may have noticed above my repeated references to coding and software engineers, both of which will be needed to take full advantage of apps like OrangeScrum and the rest. If your small business lacks an in-house IT or computing division, open-source might be too large an undertaking.

On another note, if you end up with a project management vendor that offers source code for free but customer service for a premium, you might be facing prohibitive costs. Basic customer service plans can go for more than $150 per month, with premium plans costing triple that. Some might consider this money well spent, and they might be right. But I can think of several closed-source, web-based project management apps that you can get much cheaper. If you just want a simple way to manage tasks, you’ll be better off with an SaaS solution like Basecamp that you can use out of the box.

Finally, using open-source software often means wading through poorly designed interfaces. To be fair, several of the ones I have mentioned here have decent designs, especially the folks at Taiga, who have created an interface as nice as the likes of Binfire (read our review) or Streamtime (read our review). However, several of the higher-recommended open-source offerings, like ]project open[, ProjectLibre, and Open Project all feature less-than-inspiring GUI’s. Like it or not, visual design is part of a user’s experience, and good design leads to happier users.

Which Open Source Project Management App Is The Best?

There are so many open source project management apps out there that it would be impossible to cover even a representative sample in a blog post like this. With that in mind, here are my three favorite apps to get you started:

OrangeScrum

As I have already mentioned, OrangeScrum is one of the most well-known apps in the open-source project management world. This is classic open-source software; the options are almost overwhelmingly endless. You can get the cloud option or the on-premise option. You can use the marketplace to modify the app up the wazoo. You can integrate Slack, Google apps, or Dropbox. You can use it on a computer, your phone, or your tablet. If all those options started to blur together in a whirlwind of customization fatigue, keep in mind that OrangeScrum was designed to be an enterprise-level tool.

When you subscribe to OrangeScrum (there are five subscription levels, each of which increases the file storage and user cap), you gain access to a full range of project management features. This includes time tracking for tasks, projects, task lists and to-do lists, Gantt charts, resource tracking, and more. For those of you looking for a comprehensive project management solution available at a decent price with excellent customization options, this may be the task management tool you are looking for.

Taiga

In my opinion, Taiga takes the prize for the most stylish open-source project management app. Comparing Taiga to OrangeScrum is like comparing apples to an apple tree. Where OrangeScrum can be almost anything you need it to be, Taiga is extremely focused on Agile methodology. With a scrum board to highlight what jobs and tasks are falling behind schedule and a Kanban view to help dissect what needs to happen on your own project, this is one of the best interpretations of Agile project management I have yet seen.

There is a free version of Taiga, though it is quite limited, with only one project and three team members available. Fortunately, a subscription comes pretty cheaply, at only five dollars per month. Best of all, for you coding geeks out there, the source code is available to you to customize to your heart’s content.

MyCollab

Of the three apps I am covering here, MyCollab is the tool that best fits the open-source archetype, warts and all. The website feels thrown together, with a couple of copy-editing issues even on the front page. MyCollab does offer some paid subscriptions, but the option open-source fiends are going to be most interested in is the free “community” edition. Note that in order to use this completely open-source version of MyCollab, you will need to self-host the app on your own servers.

If you choose to do that, you get access to issue tracking, email reporting, tasks, project and customer management, and anything else you can dream up; you can alter, modify, and otherwise change the code to your heart’s content. I probably don’t need to point this out, but this option is probably not for you if you don’t have dedicated code monkeys on staff to keep everything straight and track your own bugs. If you are looking for project management that works every time you use it without much effort from you, you should probably look elsewhere.

Final Thoughts

When it comes right down to it, I think that open-source software is going to be valued differently by different kinds of teams looking for different things out of a project management tool. Enterprise-level corporations, with in-house computer engineers, will probably find the flexibility and customization of these tools extremely appealing. Likewise, startup tech companies and smaller teams will probably appreciate the opportunity to tailor their apps directly to their own needs, whether they need Gantt charts, advanced task tracking or simple to-do lists. Experienced project managers will also enjoy the fact that they can tailor their tools to Scrum, Agile, or Kanban-based project planning methodologies.

However, if you are in a small or mid-sized business operating outside the tech industry, you will probably get better value and less headache out of a more conventional cloud-based tool.

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