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Tools for Teams: A Survey of Web-Based Software Project Portals

Jordi Cabot and Greg Wilson


Web-based project portals are at the heart of modern software
development, but have been studied much less than individual-oriented
desktop tools like integrated development environments. In
July–September 2008, we compared several popular portals and interviewed
their developers in order to find out what needs they were intended to
satisfy, how their feature sets had been chosen, and how they were likely
both to evolve and to shape the evolution of distributed software
development. Our key findings are that (1) most portals are strongly
biased toward agile methods (and in fact may primarily exist in order
to support agile development in geographically distributed teams), (2)
the teams building these portals do not use agile methodologies
themselves, but instead rely on informal collections of best
practices, (3) as elsewhere, there is a clear trend toward hosted
services, and (4) none of the portals studied provided any kind of
support for modeling or user experience design, and only one directly
supported test management.

software tools,
programming environments,
collaborative work,
web technologies,
project and people management.

1. Introduction

If you pick a software development project at random, the odds are
good that its source code, bug reports, mailing list archives, and so
on reside in a web-based portal. Whether it’s a hosted service LIKE
SourceForge OR an installed
system LIKE Trac, IN many ways
that portal IS the project: individual developers might come
and go, but the portal’s contents live on, and with them, the

Despite their widespread use, software project portals have been
studied much less than individual-oriented tools such as integrated
development environments (IDEs) [IEEESoftware08]. To begin to rectify this,
in July–September 2008 we examined the features of several
representative portals and interviewed their developers. Our research
goals were to determine what needs those tools were intended to serve,
how their feature sets had been chosen (e.g, how their developers had
translated perceived needs into functionality) and how they were
likely to evolve. To our knowledge, this is the first general study
of web-based software project management tools, though their
importance was pointed out in [Alshawi03]; for comparisons of
pre-web tools see [Terry98].

We begin below by describing what a minimal portal might contain.
We then explain how we selected and collected data about eleven
specific portals. The remaining sections analyze our findings and
speculate about the likely future evolution of software portals. It
is important to note that for every system we included there were
several others that we left out. Our choices should therefore not be
taken as a judgment or recommendation.

2. What’s (IN) a Portal?

Just AS programmers may use “editors” ranging FROM Notepad
through Vi TO Eclipse, so too do online project management tools range
from shared TO-do lists TO multimedia collaborative environments. TO
be called a software project portal, however, we felt a system must
have AT least a few specific features. The FIRST IS SOME kind OF task
management, such AS a TO-do list, bug tracker, OR FULL-blown workflow
management system. FOR us, this IS what makes project management
tools DISTINCT FROM other kinds OF groupware.

The SECOND core feature IS a document repository. Systems aimed
primarily AT developers typically integrate a third-party version
control system such AS Subversion, while systems
aimed AT broader audiences usually include a simpler file upload
mechanism. BOTH allow stakeholders TO share AND modify content, AND
to see who ELSE has done so.

Conversational tools ARE third ON the list. These include email,
chat, wikis, blogs, bulletin boards, AND other ways FOR stakeholders
to communicate AND coordinate. A growing NUMBER OF systems present
content IN several forms, e.g., by providing RSS notification OF
updates TO bulletin boards, OR wiki transcripts OF chat

LAST but NOT least IS search. One reason people use portals IS TO
link the disparate pieces OF information that comprise a project; one
of the benefits OF doing this IS that a single query can THEN find
email messages, version control CHECK-IN comments, AND wiki pages ALL
at once.

Other components tend TO revolve around these four core
capabilities. FOR example, SOME include a calendaring tool so that
stakeholders can schedule WORK items (e.g., by grouping them INTO
iterations, AND THEN binding those iterations TO target delivery
dates). Others include TIME-tracking tools TO help consultants WITH
billing AND schedule management; a tagging mechanism; a report
generator; a web API FOR remote scripting AND administration;
customizable fine-grained access control; OR a continuous integration
back-END TO automatically re-build AND re-test code. AS WITH document
repositories, these may be MORE OR less developer-centric, i.e., may
require greater OR lesser degrees OF technical sophistication TO

3. Gathering DATA

Since dozens OF portals exist (OR partially exist, OR may
have existed but ARE now moribund), we had TO decide which TO include
in our study. Our initial pool OF candidates consisted OF systems
that one author had examined WHEN selecting a portal TO use IN
undergraduate software engineering courses. We enlarged the pool by
conducting web searches FOR keywords prominent IN those systems’
descriptions of themselves, by including systems that previously-added
systems compared themselves too, and through word-of-mouth referrals
from colleagues and attendees at various conferences. The list was
then filtered again according to the following criteria:

  • The system had an active developer community.
  • It was being used by people other than its developers.
  • Many or all of its users were software developers using it for
    software projects.
  • Someone central to its development was willing to be
    interviewed. We did not request contact with specific people but
    instead asked for interviewees playing a key role in the tool
    conception and development (founders, CIOs, chief developers or
    similar). To our pleasant surprise, only two of the groups we
    approached declined to take part and thus were removed from the
    study. (Due to confidentiality issues we cannot identify these two
    tools nor provide more detailed information about the names and
    exact roles of the people we interviewed.)

With these criteria, our final list of portals was:

Having selected these systems, we itemized the features offered by
each in the areas of authentication, collaboration tools, document
management, work tracking, and time management, and where feasible
gave it a test drive to validate and fill in gaps in their

We then set up an interview with a key member of its development
team. We originally intended to conduct hour-long structured
interviews, but interviewees perceived their systems and markets in
such different terms that no question script made sense for everyone.
We did, however, cover all of the following areas:

  • When and why did you start developing the portal?
  • Why did you decide to create a new portal instead of adopting
    or extending an existing system?
  • What user needs did you set out to satisfy?
  • What was your initial business model?
  • Does the portal favor any software development process?
  • What software development process do you use yourselves?
  • Who are your typical users, and how do you determine their
  • How do you determine user requirements?
  • Is it open source, closed source, or some mix of the two?
  • Is it free to use or not? (This is orthogonal to the
    open/closed questions, since some groups provide a free service on
    top of closed-source software, while others offer a stripped-down
    version under an open license and a premium version with extra
    closed-source features for a fee.)
  • Is the portal deployed as a hosted service, do users have to
    install it, or are both options available?
  • Can third-party tools be plugged in by end users, and if so,
  • How do you see the portal and the market evolving over the next couple of years?

4. Portal Evaluation

This sections presents the results of our portals evaluation. As we
expected, a core group of portals fit the generic model described in
Section 2 and share a basic feature set
(see Section 4.1 ) but, at the same time,
each tool has its own distinguishing characteristics, that basically
reflect differences in their target markets.

Therefore, as well as making sure it has the right feature set,
every developer intending to use one of these portals must ponder the
following questions: Is the portal biased toward a particular
development process or can it (easily) be used to support many
different ones? Is it open source, closed source, or some mix of the
two? Is it free to use or not? Is the portal deployed as a hosted
service? Does the portal manage user identities itself? Can
third-party tools be plugged in by end users using a well-defined API
or is some combination of reprogramming and screen scraping needed to
create mashups?, to ensure the portal suits his/her needs. It is also
worth to note that even if two tools share the same set of features,
the way they enable or emphasize them may result in a completely
different usage (and with a different purpose).

4.1 Common Characteristics

All portals satisfy the two main conditions stated in Section 2:
they all offer some kind of repository and ticketing system for
managing the project tasks. Support for communication tools (third
condition on the list) is also high: all portals offer email alerts
and RSS feeds to keep team members informed about project
progress. Search capabilities turn out not to be so widespread, basic
(predefined) searchs within the portal data are common but only a few
portals offer advanced search features (see the next section).

Besides this core features, other aspects were found to be shared
by many portals. All portals offer a role-based access control system
with portal-managed identities, external authentication
(e.g. supporting LDAP as Mingle and IBM Jazz do) or both. All also
allow users to group tasks into milestones (though sometimes
milestones are defined just as a special kind of task). Finally, most
support multiple projects to be hosted in one portal (the exception is
Trac, which only supports one) and let managers to roll up information
across them.

4.2 Portals’ Distinguishing Features

Beyond the pricing AND licensing, the major differences BETWEEN
them reflect differences IN their target markets. FOR example, Rally
and VersionOne have been built by AND FOR developers. They ARE used
by SOME organizations’ marketing and customer support groups, but
their typical users are more likely to use CruiseControl than
PhotoShop or Excel. BaseCamp, on the other hand, primarily targets
small organizations like print shops that are staffed by
non-programmers working on short- or medium-length projects; software
developers are a minority of its users (though there are still many of
them). It therefore offers an easy-to-use file upload and
synchronization service rather than a full-blown version control
system. In what follows, we briefly describe each portal focusing on
their main distinguishing features.

The two leading commercial portals, Rally and VersionOne, match
each other almost feature by feature. Both target medium-to-large
agile teams, and both companies offer extensive training and
consulting as part of the sales and deployment process to, in their
own words, help groups using more “traditional” development
lifecycles “go agile”. They support template-based project creation
with customization so that teams can quickly start using local
adaptations of different agile processes, and project and task
hierarchies with roll-ups for reporting. Rally decomposes user
stories (i.e., a very high-level specification of a system
requirement) into tasks, tests, and defects, while VersionOne allows
project managers to redefine the schema of work items (i.e., the
fields to be recorded for each task) at will.

These core features are complemented by predefined connectors to
legacy ticketing systems and build tools. In particular, both accept
Subversion and Microsoft Team Foundation Server as source code
management (SCM) tools and JIRA} and Bugzilla (among others) as defect
management systems. Both also offer web services-based APIs to create
additional connections and mash-ups.

Mingle is younger than these two systems, but similar in most
respects: it uses Subversion and Perforce for SCM, and programmers can
manually link cards (i.e., work items) and source code by including
the card ID number in the commit comments of the code. One
distinguishing feature is that requirements, tasks, and bugs are
represented as hierarchical cards whose types and attributes can be
adapted to the needs of each project. Another is that report
generation is based on an SQL-like query language, which makes it easy
for users to set up filters so that they can track what they are most
interested in.

Acunote and Assembla are aimed at small-to-medium teams. Acunote
offers a simple task management system for Scrum-based
projects. Unlike some systems, tasks can span several Scrum sprints,
which its creators feel reflects how projects unfold in real life. It
emphasizes the use of time-tracking and burndown charts (type of chart
that shows the remaining work in the current sprint) for monitoring
progress. Tasks can be hierarchical but their structure is fixed.
Assembla is a hosted version of Trac and Subversion supplemented with
custom permission, ticketing, and team management modules, though it
also offers built-in milestone and ticketing systems. It also includes
a job/recruitment section and a time tracking system, which is
important to the independent contractors and job-specific teams it is
meant to support. In particular, the executive at Assembla commented
that Assembla is designed to support the whole development process,
including the billing and payment processes and that, as a result,
time tracking is one of their most popular tools since it is how
managers decide how to pay people.

The granddaddy (and inspiration, as many interviewees acknowledged)
of all portals is SourceForge, which offers a free hosting service for
open source projects (though credit should also go to Richard Hipp’s
CVSTrac, the FIRST widely-used
self-hosted web-based portal). Unlike the agile-oriented tools above,
it IS neutral WITH respect TO development process—in fact, the
interviewees reported that most of the projects it hosts don’t really
have a “process” per se. Despite including a bug tracker and other
project management tools, it is primarily used for project releases,
hosting version control repositories, and managing its mailing

According to the interviewee from Google, “Google Code was created
in part to provide an insurance policy for the open source community
in case SourceForge ever shut down”. Its design is loosely based on
Google’s internal development tools and practices: for example, it is
the only portal we examined that natively supports code review.
Authentication is managed through GMail; like messages in that system,
tasks have a predefined set of fields, but users can attach arbitrary
labels to classify each task and use Google’s free-text search
technology to search this metadata. Projects can be connected to
Subversion repositories but no other predefined integrations are
available. A single issue tracking system manages software defects,
change requests, technical-support requests, and development

Trac is a self-hosting portal that was originally designed as a
replacement for CVSTrac. Each Trac installation can host a single
project, though an extension allows a single project to span multiple
version control repositories. Work is defined by tickets and
milestones; the attributes of tickets can be redefined, but unlike
other tools, this requires some programming effort. While it is very
popular, its development has slowed in the past few years: each new
release has largely been the effort of one dedicated volunteer, who
usually then moves on to other interests (according to the interviewee
from Trac: “We cannot really say that we plan ahead for some big
features and they get done”). Like SourceForge, it is neutral with
respect to the development process.

BaseCamp is an example of how a system aimed at a broader audience
can be used in software development. It offers a file upload system
instead of a version control system, to-do lists instead of tasks and
tickets, and makes it easy to add external stakeholders with limited
permissions to projects. On the other hand, it deliberately does not
offer more sophisticated tools such as burndown charts, and instead of
providing connectors to defect management and control quality tools,
it focuses on integration with third-party invoicing, billing and
accounting applications. Its developer explicitly aimed to support
certain collaboration and project management practices, and to keep it
so simple that, in his own words, “…learning to use the application
was not a project in itself.”

The self-hosting portal DotProject lies somewhere between BaseCamp
and Trac: it has a fine-grained Access Control List (ACL) based
permissioning system and hierarchical task management, but only
limited support for releases or milestones (milestones are just a
special kind of tasks), and does not attempt to manage code.

Finally, IBM’s new Jazz project is more an extensible technology
platform than a portal (e.g. Rational Team Concert, the IBM
collaborative software delivery environment, is built upon it). Its
design draws heavily on IBM’s experience with Eclipse, which is also a
platform that happens to be very good for building IDEs. Unlike the
other systems we studied, Jazz has a custom two-level version control
system: each developer can commit changes to a local repository, which
can then be dumped into the shared public one. It is also the only
portal that allows multiple branches (called “development lines”)
for the same project. As fully-distributed version control systems
such as Git and Bazaar become more popular, we expect to see other
portals move to a similar model.

5. General Findings

Beyond the descriptive comparison of the previous section, our
comparisons and interviews uncovered some unexpected patterns. The
first was that portals mainly target agile teams: five of those we
studied said so explicitly, and none explicitly encouraged more
traditional development processes. We do not believe this was due to
selection bias, though the co-emergence of SourceForge (which inspired
several tools) and agile methods may be a factor.

The emphasis on agile methods had a strong influence on features
offered, as many of the portals were built expressly to allow agile
teams to scale up and (crucially) spread out geographically. We
believe this explains why they emphasize asynchronous communication
(e.g., bulletin boards) over synchronous (e.g., chat).

Three of these companies also offer consulting services to help
customers who aren’t agile make the transition. As the Rally
executive said:

You go back three years, we were doing a lot of explaining
what agile is to our customers, and helping them understand why this
is a good idea. There’s a lot less need — now there’s a lot more of
the “how”.

Those same companies acknowledge that they have included some
features in their tools that aren’t strictly “agile” in order to
support big or cross-disciplinary teams. All said that simplicity was
crucial, but felt that this pragmatism reflected the growing maturity
of the agile community. For example, one interviewee said people had
realized that methodologies like Scrum [Scrum] weren’t really
about developing software, they were about identifying and fixing
problems in software development processes. It was therefore natural
for different groups to evolve different “best” practices, and for
tools to follow suit.

Another noteworthy point was that almost all of the groups we
interviewed acknowledged that they didn’t use any well-defined process
themselves (not even the agile methods they preach). When asked, “Do
you use XP [XP]?” or “Do you use Scrum?”, they invariably
replied that their developers used a mix of best practices that didn’t
strictly adhere to any published rulebook. None of the interviewees
were defensive about this; all clearly believed that they had
above-average developers who could be trusted to use pair programming,
test-driven development, and whatever else was appropriate in context.
This emphatically does not mean that their processes were
chaotic: in all cases there was close and frequent coupling between
development on one hand and requirements gathering and feature
prioritization on the other. However, the day-to-day mechanics of
actually producing high-quality code was trusted to developers and
their consciences. It remains to be seen whether the users of the
tools do follow specific agile methods or, as the tool developers’,
they just use their own mix of agile practices.

All of the people we interviewed also acknowledged that their own
needs had been and were a major force in the tool’s evolution. This
is unsurprising for free open source tools like Trac, whose developers
were also all users, but the vendors of commercial systems (both
closed and open source) felt that their developers’ experiences were
“representative” enough to be mined for features. Mingle, Rally,
and VersionOne also all felt that they were ahead of the curve in
adopting the agile practices that their tools were intended to
support, which also legitimized the recycling of their own experiences
instead of following a more formal requirements elicitation

One clear trend in the portals we studied was providing a hosted
service. SourceForge pioneered this, and only Mingle (among the
recent portals), does not primarily use “software as a service” (SaaS)
model (“primarily”, because several commercial vendors offer a
customer-hosted option, though uptake is slight). DotProject and Trac
did neither primarily use this option but we believe their choice of a
more traditional customer-hosted model can be attributed to them being
(comparatively) older systems, and because volunteer-authored systems
lack the resources to provide scalable hosting. Mingle’s authors, on
the other hand, believe that enterprise clients would not want to put
their data on someone else’s servers, though competitors such as
VersionOne and Rally have demonstrated that many will.

All of the vendors who focus on SaaS claimed that not having to
install and configure the portal lowered their customers’ costs, and
allowed them to roll out new features in small, incremental steps.
Some also pointed out that it made fixing bugs (particularly security
bugs) simpler and more reliable, since in-house experts could do it
for almost all customers in a single step.

A corollary to being a hosted service is the use of a subscription
model. Most portals charge by the month based on the size of
projects, as measured by number of users and/or file upload and
storage requirements. (Many of them offer free accounts for open
source or non-commercial projects.) In most cases, month-by-month
payments actually cost clients more than an annual subscription would,
but as two interviewees independently pointed out, it’s easier to get
approval for a few dollars a month, with the illusion of being able to
cancel, than it is to get the accounting department to sign off on a
one-time expense of several hundred dollars.

We say “illusion” because none of the portals we examined makes it
easy for users to export their projects for backup or use elsewhere.
The contents and history of version control repositories can be
relocated using third-party tools (e.g., svnadmin dump
and svnadmin load for Subversion), but the tickets, wiki
pages, and other content stored in portals can at best be dumped as a
big blob of XML for parsing and interpretation. The high cost of
switching means that customers are effectively locked in once they
select a portal.

What the portals we studied don’t include is equally
important. None of those we studied supported modeling or user
experience design, and only one (Rally) directly supported test
management. Several advertised requirements management and
traceability, but in practice this turned out to be nothing more than
specially-labelled tickets manually linked to code or simple product
backlogs. Finally, integration between portals and IDEs was weak
(with IBM Jazz being a notable exception). This cannot be blamed on
technology—the Mylyn plugin for Eclipse (which integrates
information from Bugzilla, Jira, Trac, and other systems) has been
available for several years, and equivalent connectors for other tools
would be straightforward to build. We suspect this is simply a matter
of an idea not having reached its “tipping point”, and predict that
IDE-to-portal linkages will be commonplace within three or four

6. The Future

In the short term we expect project portals to focus on improving
the functionality they already offer. As this paper was being
written, for example, SourceForge announced that it will host
virtualized versions of third-party open source applications so that
teams can use them in a secure fashion without having to set them up.
Other issues mentioned by several interviewees included scaling the
portals to handle larger teams and heavier-weight development
processes and better support for the needs of “non-geeks” (e.g.,
marketing and sales staff). We also expect to see much better support
for peripheral awareness, such as the task context model provided by
Mylyn [Kersten06].

In the longer term, interviewees speculated that project portals
would merge or integrate with social networking tools such as LinkedIn and personal life
management tools such as Google Calendar. People
already put much of the information project managers require, such as
skills and availability, into these systems, and are unlikely to
duplicate that information manually. Thanks to the open APIs offered
by most of them, web-based portals are already becoming software buses
for aggregating all kinds of project-relevant data; we predict that in
the end, the system that does the best job of balancing ease of
configuration with privacy protection will win.

Even before this happens, portals are adopting “Web 2.0” ideas as
quickly as they can. For example, most tools support alerting of
changes by means of RSS feeds, many offer some kind of wiki related to
the project and some portals integrate a (limited) tagging mechanism
and allow search across projects based on those tags’ “folk”
semantics. Others have expertise advertising and rating systems to
help members of an organization locate useful people [Ehrlich08].
Use of social networking may facilitate team and improve the quality
and quantity of communication channels between team members
[Chang07], resulting in higher-quality software

Some portals are also considering the addition of modules for risk
analysis, finance, and/or HR (e.g. the interviewee from Assembla
pointed to the development of their recruiting system module as a
distinguishing feature). Some of these extensions will likely be
driven by new laws enforcing stricter policies for software
development for government agencies (e.g., the stringent auditing
requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in the United States). This
will also drive portal vendors toward the software bus model, since
organizations may need to satisfy very different jurisdictional

Finally, while this is still a young market, tools are already
expanding their initial niche market (e.g. going from a specific agile
process to a generic support for all kinds of agile-like processes and
even to an initial support for non-agile teams) and competition for
high-value niches is fierce, and we believe that it is likely that
mergers (and failures) will soon leave only a small number of dominant

7. Threats to Validity

Some threats to the validity of this study have been avoided by
complementing the tools’ evaluations with a set of interviews with key
members in the tool conception and development that gave us a better
understanding of each tool and of its development and
commercialization context.

Nevertheless, there are still some threats to the validity and
generalizability of our conclusions that should be considered when
reading this paper. First of all, the huge number of tools prevent us
from studying all of them, and thus, our results are biased by the
tools we finally selected. Second, there is also a bias in the opinion
of all interviewees, always favourable to this kind of tools (since
all of them were directly involved in their
commercialization/development). An additional possible bias is the
fact that we did not formally include in the study the opinions of the
tools’ users (beyond our own experience and the informal feedback
comments from colleagues we contacted in different kinds of companies
and locations). (Both authors are active users of this kind of tools
and one author (Wilson) created a mini-portal suitable for classroom
use based on Tract.)

Despite these potential biases, we believe that our tool selection
process and the key role of our interviewees in their companies makes
our results representative enough to be useful for all software
engineers thinking in adopting a web-based project management portal
in their new development project.

8. Conclusions

Web-based project management portals are now the heart of many
mature software development projects. In this paper we have presented
the results of our study of these tools’ origins, features, use, and
likely evolution. The most noteworthy results are the fact that the
creators of tools meant to support agile processes do not strictly
adhere to those practices themselves, but instead trust their
developers to use good practices when and as their own best judgment
dictates, and the general lack of support for non-code-centric
activities such as requirements management, modeling, user experience
design, and test management.

Both observations raise questions about the focus and direction of
much current software engineering research. In particular, we now
wonder about the real importance of requirements elicitation and
structured development process in the success of a development project
(at least when all team members can be classified as expert software
engineers). We also wonder if other niches of tools are developed in a
similar way.

Other possible research directions derived from this work could
focus on understanding how these portals are really used. For example,
it would be interesting to analyze the ways in which ticketing systems
are configured by their users (i.e. what information do they track,
who (and when) enters that information, whether the information in the
portal is enough to carry out the tasks or teams still rely on
personal communications not electronically recorded in the portal, and
so forth) in order to learn more about their actual development
processes. This could influence how the next generation of portal
tools is shaped to better satisfy the real users’ needs.


We wish to thank everyone who agreed to be interviewed for this
study, and apologize in advance for any over-simplifications in this
paper. Jordi Cabot’s work was supported by the Catalan Government
(Grant 2007 BP-A 00128) and the Spanish Ministerio de Ciencia y
Tecnologia (TIN2008-00444 project).


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