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RationalPlan review – A budget alternative to MS Project?

Microsoft Project has been the 800lb Gorilla for Project planning software for years now but it is not the only contender in this field. Young whippersnappers like RationalPlan provide an alternative to Microsoft Project.With it’s budget price, step by step guide to piecing together your project and automated reports, it could be the solution that simple folk, like ourselves, yearn for to throw together and manage projects.  In this RationalPlan review I will cover the main aspects of this software and what it offers Project Managers.

Rational Plan
9 Reviewer
Pros
• Excellent Price
• Sufficient features
for most PMs
• Most features within
1 or 2 clicks
Cons
• Tabular based resource
leveling
Bottom Line
The intention of Rational Plan was to offer a low cost alternative to Microsoft Project. I believe it has satisfied that goal. It does not have all the bells and whistles of MS Project but many PMs would be satisfied with the essential core features that Rational Plan provides.

Introduction

“Young whippersnappers like RationalPlan provide an alternative to Microsoft Project”

Let’s consider for a moment you have an upcoming project that you need to plan. What tool are you going to reach for? 99% of the time it is likely to be Microsoft Project. You may start off by Mindmapping it, sketching out an outline view or creating a work breakdown structure. But, ultimately when it comes to working out resource requirements, dates you will probably resort to the big dog, MS Project. It has been a stalwart for project planning for years now and for good reason. It provides everything that most managers need, and often a great deal more….at a price. Now consider if you will, that a much lower cost alternative was available that,

  • Spans multiple operating systems, Mac, Windows and Linux
  • Provides all normal project creation and easy reporting functions
  • Comes with a viewer so all team members can view the plan

Attractive offer n’est pas? Well that’s what RationalPlan seems to be offering and not just that. The price is also pretty good, especially the Linux version which comes at the hefty price of $0. Yes you heard me right, $0. The Windows single user version comes in at $57 which also does not break the bank and is certainly a lot further south than MS Project at $590. Those kind of numbers are enough to make even an Infinity Credit card wince. This RationalPlan review will cover the Single Project version, the low cost project planning terrier that bites at the ankles of Microsoft Project Standard.

RationalPlan User Interface

The user interface of RationalPlan is pretty easy to get to grips with. It consist of three main areas,

  • Project Guide, on the left side of the main screen takes you step by step through the creation and controlling of the project plan
  • Project, Resource Views occupies the centre of the screen
  • WBS / Gantt / Resource / Task shortcut icons on the top right of the screen

For reference, let’s just show the standard Gantt view so you get some feeling what you will be working with. This is shown below.

Rational Plan Review: Gantt view

The main RationalPlan User Interface

The expectation is that when creating any new project that you will follow the “Project Guide”, on the left of the screen to ensure all the relevant project information has been added. To some extent you can take a short cut and skip a few of the steps and that is fine….until it’s not. One exception I observed for that was the resource entry. If you did not enter the resources at the “Define Resources”, step then you cannot allocate any resources later for any of the tasks. But, this is not really a biggy, as you can quickly hit the Resources icon on the top left of the window and enter the resources as needed before switching back to the Gantt view to enter that resource for the task in hand. The video below shows the user going through this standard step by step procedure.

 

 

My only other thought about this is that is unnecessarily creates steps. For example you have the “Create WBS”, view which only shows the tasks – no dates or resources allowed. Then there is the “Schedule tasks”, which is the same view as “Create WBS”, but now with start and due dates. Then there is “Assign resources”, which has a few more columns tagged on. Perhaps the different steps could have been incorporated into one. Perhaps I am a little pedantic here, especially given all of these views the columns displayed can be tailored as desired with columns added and hidden. Not a major issue but a preference I noted.

In terms of the look and feel of the User Interface I found myself completely at home here. Everything was easy to find and simple to implement. The only issue I spotted was the resource leveling view. For that the only view available was a table with over allocated resource days being highlighted in red. If you are coming from MS Project you will probably recall this resource leveling being displayed as a histogram with a line across the graph showing the allowable level of utilization.

In the case of RationalPlan you have a table with red text and it is then a manual procedure to reallocate resources or manipulate tasks to balance the utilisation.

Rational Plan Review: Resource Levelling

RationalPlan resource leveling view

Most of the features you want to access can be done on the main screen with a single click to either the main icons on the top left, the “Project Guide”, hyperlinks to the left or the menu bar along the top which allowed various task manipulation features such as indenting tasks, filtering, showing task details and so on. In conclusion, efficient to access the commonly used features.

The only time you will have to access the main menus is likely for report generation and accessing saved baseline plans. So, no problems with the user interface in general so let’s now cover the features and functions in this Rational Plan review.

RationalPlan Features and Functions

Before I get stuck into the finer details in this Rational Plan review, let’s tick off the obvious features that any PM would be looking for. From the most cursory of glances, the key features are immediately apparent such as,

  • Gantt view
  • Resource management and utilization
  • Critical path analysis
  • Custom calendars for defining holidays
  • Resource specific calendars so you can define worker holidays etc.
  • Cost for materials and other miscellaneous resources
  • Task constraints
  • Dependencies
  • Save multiple baseline plans

So immediately we can see that many of the key features that are used on a day to day basis are there. I know want to explore some of the finer features that I picked up on.

One click to Email Tasks

Rational Plan makes it very easy to inform people they have stuff to do. On the main menu bar, there is an icon “Email Assignments to Resources”, which with one click will inform team members of any tasks they have been assigned to. Quick and easy task assignment.

RationalPlan Reporting Features

I quite like that RationalPlan has reporting baked in with pre-defined formats that can generate reports with literally two mouse clicks – go to the Reports menu and then select whatever report you want!

  • Project Info
  • Project Status
  • Project Invoice
  • Project Calendar
  • Critical Tasks
  • Costs
  • Task Details
  • Resource Assignments
  • Task Costs Distribution
  • Resource Costs Distribution
  • Resource Work Distribution

I have shown a couple of the report formats below so you get some feeling for what you get. Basically it is a PDF ready, professional looking document that can be passed as is for reporting project status or providing project team members with a summary of the tasks they are responsible for, as examples.

Rational Plan Review: Project status report

Generated report : Project status

Rational Plan Review: Work distribution

Generated report : Work Distribution

Of course those reports are of little benefit if the plan is not up to date and maintained and there are a couple of nice features to enable that, both readily accessible from the Project Guide Window on the left. These are,

  • Update task completion
  • Work & Cost Tracking

Let’s take the former of the two. The Update tasks completion window gives the simple Gantt view with outline tasks and a “% complete”, to fill in. This will then feed into any automatic report generation.

Update and task completion view

The second tool is the Work & Cost Tracking. Whereas “Update Task Completion”, gave an outline view based on tasks, “Work & Cost Tracking”, gives an outline view based on the resource. So, for any team member you can quickly see their workload for any given day and their utilisation. You can also tailor the display to show the resource information based on work, cost, load or tasks simply by clicking the little icons on the top left of the “Work and cost tracking”, screen.

Rational Plan Review: Work and cost tracking

Work and cost tracking

It is also very quick and easy to get a print your of your Gantt chart to PDF. Simply push the Print icon which outputs the Gantt view to a PDF style page. What I like about this is that from the Print dialog window you can alter the zoom of the Gantt chart or alter the date range. This is a great time saving measure which avoids having to exit the Print dialog window to change the Gantt date range.

Task Filtering

For any large project with countless tasks, some form of filtering is invaluable and

RationalPlan also comes replete with baked in filtering options


RationalPlan also comes replete with baked in filtering options and the ability to define your own custom filters. The pre-defined filters include,

  • Incomplete tasks
  • Late tasks
  • Conflicting tasks
  • Critical path tasks
  • Milestones

 

There are a few more but you get the idea. The custom filter dialog window allows you to set a filter based on your own specific requirements, see below for the allowable variables.

Defining a custom filter

RationalPlan Import and Export

The import and export of Rational Plan is a little limited although at least the essentials are covered. In addition to its own native files it can open MS Project files which I would regard as a must, given than PMs may be migrating from MS Project to RationalPlan. Furthermore, it is good to be able to share files with other PMs who are still using MS Project. .xml files are also supported which pretty much covers many other import scenario.

For exporting, unfortunately MS Project files cannot be written in their native .mpp format but it is still possible with .xml.

RationalPlan vs. Microsoft Project

No doubt some of you will be weighing up RationalPlan as an alternative to Microsoft Project


No doubt some of you will be weighing up Rational plan as an alternative to Microsoft Project, so let’s also deal with that topic head on in this RationalPlan vs. Microsoft Project section. I won’t go into small details regarding the user interface details otherwise I will be here all day writing this RationalPlan review but I will list the main topics you would certainly notice.

Macros and Equations. Like all the MS Office suite applications, MS Project supports Visual Basic scripts which can be a life saver for repetitive task automation. You may also not be aware that fairly fancy equations are also possible in MS Project. If you want more details on that and some cool examples, head over to the Practicing IT Project Manager site for Microsoft Project Hacks.

Advanced resource leveling. While RationalPlan has resource leveling at a basic level, MS Project displays it and debugs it at a more advanced level. Essential to relieve those overworked Project Team members!

Reporting. Both RationalPlan and MS Project has PDF style reporting functionality. What differentiates MS Project is the synergy with other MS Office suite applications, notable Excel. In MS Project you can also have one click functionality to get your reports exported and formatted in MS Excel.

Sharepoint. While on the topic of Microsoft synergy, MS Project can also export plans to Sharepoint for all the world to enjoy.

Task Inspector. Some of you may use the task inspector in MS project for weeding out problems and if so you will have no such troubleshooter in RationalPlan.

Linking Projects and sub projects. It is possible to create dependencies between projects in MS project or even subprojects within a master project. In RationalPlan you will have to look at getting the Multi-Project to get this kind of functionality. That said, comes in at a pretty reasonable price, $98.

RationalPlan Price (*)

There are a few different products available under the RationalPlan banner. This is the Single Project, Multi-Project and Server. I only covered the Single Project version in this RationalPlan review. The prices and differentiating features are shown below along with links for direct purchase.

  • Single Project, $57. Free for Linux. Everything you need for creating and controlling a single project.
  • Multi-Project, $98. All the features of the Single Product with additional functionality for Portfolio Management. So, you can look across several concurrent projects to see inter project dependencies, shared budgets and shared resources.
  • Server, price on request. Most features of Multi-Project plus notifications (deadlines, late tasks etc.) and multiple concurrent users

I find this to be quite reasonable pricing and if you are buying in bulk you can get it even cheaper!

RationalPlan Review Summary

In general I find RationalPlan to be a competent Project Planning and Controlling tool. It has all of the functionality that most Project Managers need for day to day activities with the bonus of having baked in reporting features for churning out PDF reports in a mere two clicks. The functionality and UI is certainly better than free alternatives such as Gantt Project and the asking price of $57 is very reasonable. Here is the link to Get RationalPlan Single Project. It is even more reasonable for Linux users who can pick it up for $0. So, certainly good value for money. I would certainly recommend you have a look at RationalPlan if you are considering alternatives to Microsoft Project.

I hope you found this article useful and if so make sure to share on your choice of social network using the little Social Network buttons on the left.  Cheers!

* If you purchase those items through my links in this RationalPlan review I may earn a commission. Not much, but perhaps enough to get two sips of beer, cheap beer. You will not pay more when buying a product through my link.

Brendan Toner

Let me welcome you to this alcove of the internet. In this little productivity blog, I detail the trials and tribulations of trying to use my time more effectively utilising the latest productivity tools and techniques. I hope you enjoy the articles, cheers! Brendan Toner, author of Done Before Brekky

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