Microsoft Word, Excel Employed As Systems Interfaces

It's that interface in Proliance 3.0, due out on June 6, that helped persuade the large architectural and engineering firm DMJM to license the upgraded software to manage $2 billion worth of construction at the Los Angeles Community College District, one of the nation's largest community college systems. "It was probably what tipped the scale in favor of Meridian," says DMJM executive VP Paul Steinke.

The Proliance upgrade combines project- and portfolio-management tools that let organizations manage capital projects, including schedules, budgets, and contracts, costs, and resources. Built on a service-oriented architecture, Extensible Markup Language supports a workflow engine that lets authorized users create, enforce, and automate best practices and processes across the enterprise. Proliance 3.0 also has a business-intelligence layer that gives managers visibility into the entire portfolio of projects, programs, and facilities.

But the Office 2003 interface is a key feature that distinguishes Proliance 3.0. Though many businesses use Microsoft Office or its individual components Word and Excel, which are considered de facto standards for office productivity apps, the majority haven't upgraded to Office 2003. And, non-Office 2003 users can't use Word or Excel as an interface.

The big difference between Office 2003 and earlier versions of Office is native support for reading and writing data directly to databases via XML and Web services, using the Internet as the transport mechanism. Office 2003 employs Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server 2003 technologies. SharePoint lets developers create an environment in which Office 2003 documents can be shared, usually stored on a server and not a desktop.

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For instance, using this services-oriented architecture will let a system such as Proliance track, automatically collect, and input metadata in Word and Excel 2003, something earlier versions of Office cannot do. For a user to use Word or Excel as an interface, they must have the 2003 software installed on their client, even though the document resides on a server.

Analyst Paul DeGroot, of IT advisers Directions On Microsoft, says he's somewhat befuddled that Meridian would develop the interface using Office 2003 because most users don't have the latest version. Still, he says he likes the capabilities the 2003 suite offers, noting that with a little code placed on the client, users can easily work with back-end applications.

DMJM's Steinke says he likes the Office interface in Proliance 3.0, which his company will deploy in July, because thousands of employees and business partners who'll use the system are familiar with Word and Excel. "Our users have varying degrees of sophistication in using software packages," Steinke says. "Using a Word-based [interface] simplifies matters. We don't have to spend a lot of time training people in the field to input into the system. And, they're less likely to make inputting errors that can become time- and cost-prohibitive."

Proliance 3.0 will help DMJM manage legal contracts written in Word, according to Kim McAvoy, DMJM Management's enterprise-project-management support manager, who began testing Proliance 3.0 three months ago. The Word document, populated with fields that need to be filled out by specific users, will be routed to authorized individuals. They will be alerted of the documents via E-mails that contain hyperlinks to the files. After filling out the appropriate fields, the document can be checked back to the server and routed to the next person. "The application makes the process not so scary," McAvoy says. Those without Word 2003 on their desktop can view the file. If they're authorized to change or approve the document, Proliance 3.0 offers a Web interface using XML, which Meridian president John Bodrozic says it a bit more complex to use than the Office 2003 front end. "It's not like we're banking all of our eggs in one basket; there're always other ways to get at the data," he says.

Bodrozic hasn't ruled out Meridian looking into other types of interfaces to incorporate into Proliance, such as Adobe Acrobat, which Adobe is making less static by developing fields that can be populated using XML. "We have to determine how much of our existing marketplace would use those tools," he says.

Microsoft is pleased with Meridian's incorporation of Office 2003 as a Proliance 3.0 interface. Tom Litchford, Microsoft industry manager for its retail and hospitality group, couldn't identify another ISV that employed Word or Excel as an interface in their products. "It's a great example," he says, "of how to use XML and Web services to reduce the complexity of enterprise applications."