Enterasys boosts productivity with Microsoft SharePoint alternative

Turns to cloud-based Smartsheet app to keep projects on track

Enterasys Networks, the Salem, N.H., maker of networking and security products, found coordinating collaboration among staff, suppliers and partners was cumbersome using Microsoft's SharePoint so went looking for a simpler way that wound up saving money by boosting efficiency.

The solution was Smartsheet, a cloud-based task-management application that was simple enough to learn so teams actually used it and effective enough that it contributed to dramatic improvements in product quality and drops in errors, says Brad Martin, vice president of quality and engineering operations for Enterasys.

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"The time-to-market came down 50%," Martin says about products in his division, "and this tool was a big part of it." The division has reduced the rate of returned materials by 33% reduced software escalation rates by 25% and reduced prototype errors by 30% to 80%. At least some part of the credit for these improvements goes to Smartsheet, he says.

Smartsheet blends the features of spreadsheets wrapped up in a user-friendly interface that includes spreadsheets but also project tools, file sharing, team task management and social collaboration, says the company's co-founder Brent Frei. The application includes features that are usually available only through multiple applications such as Microsoft's Excel, Access, Project and SharePoint, he says.

The primary competition is Microsoft Project, which works in tandem with SharePoint and Office to keep track of what is being done on projects by date. The problem is it's hard for the average person to use in IT shops and professional services.

Frei happens to be a Microsoft alumnus -- a programmer analyst with Microsoft's Information Technology Group who helped to create international customer information systems. Later he co-founded Onyx Software, which was sold to M2M Holdings in 2004.

Smartsheet has the look and feel of a spreadsheet with formulas as well as copy and paste functions. Documents can be attached to any row of the spreadsheet, and creates Gantt charts that track the progress of components of projects and indicate which tasks depend on the completion of others.

Documents associated with projects can be attached to the spreadsheets for viewing by project participants. The actual project documents are stored in a cloud such as Google Drive or Box. The company is working on integration with Drop Box, and it works with Google Apps. This integration is done via public APIs.

It doesn't work with Microsoft's SkyDrive, but Frei expects that within a few months it will. Smartsheet relies on single sign-on for access to documents, and Microsoft's various cloud services hadn't supported that.

To use the service, customers grant Smartsheet access to their data stores and designate who may have access to shared documents. Smartsheet enforces the access rules. Documents are worked on by one user at a time so versioning isn't a problem, Frei says, although the application does have the option to co-edit simultaneously. Smartsheet keeps versions of documents so there is an historical record of changes.

To try out the service, customers go to smartsheet.com and click on "start trial" to gain access to a 30-day trial. There is nothing to download. Customers' browsers accept Java script that contacts the Smartsheet server, which is running in an Amazon cloud. There is a full iPhone application and an Android app is in the works.

Customers sign in and give Smartsheet permission to make SSL connections to their cloud store of documents such as calendars and contacts. Pointers can be attached to documents and relate them to rows on Smartsheet. Individuals can't gain access to the documents unless the manager of the project gives them access privileges.

When Frei was running Onyx he came across the need for project management software to track internal projects as well as the IT consulting it was carrying out for clients. "We didn't have a good solution for managing operations and work," he says.

The Onyx team talked to their customers, who said using spreadsheets was a manual process that needed to be more automated - that needed to be as easy to use as Salesforce.com is for CRM.

At Enterasys, Smartsheet was adopted by the electrical and hardware design teams, Martin says. This is a group that had failed to adopt earlier collaboration tools because they were too cumbersome. "They would work for a week but then they'd fade to their old behaviors and habits," he says. But the teams bought into Smartsheet and have expanded its use to include design reviews, sharing design data and keeping track of key deadlines, he says.

The look and feel is roughly similar to Microsoft Project, but it is Web based and supports collaboration, Martin says. It's used for planning new product introductions, demand plans, and information exchanges with manufacturers in locations as far flung as China, Ireland and Romania. It's used for resource planning for quality assurance services, corporate program management, failure analysis and printed circuit board releases, Martin says. In all, 12 different functional teams now use Smartsheet, and usage as measured by logins per month continues to grow steadily. After using SharePoint for five years, his teams don't use it at all now.

Once deployed, the teams found new uses for Smartsheet, he says. They were more easily able to tie cells from one sheet to those in another to give interrelated projects real-time data about each other. Suppliers -- and suppliers of those suppliers -- can be kept in the loop about how projects are advancing, making for more efficient delivery of needed materials.

An enterprise version of the application costs a flat fee of about $100 per year per person who is allowed to set up projects. These creators, as they are called, can make up sheets that can be shared with an unlimited number of participants. Customers can sign agreements that enable a certain number of creators to start, and at the end of a year they can true-up the account to match the number of creators that actually use the service.

The enterprise plan includes tools for management and provisioning, reporting, access control and backup data. Full copies of sheets can be backed up on corporate servers. Documents shared via Smartsheet can be stored in private networks but access will be restricted depending on file security protocols.

Smartsheet has developed templates for some specific business uses, such as trade-show or editorial calendar. Customers create their own templates, but using one that has already been thought out can save time.

Tim Greene covers Microsoft and unified communications for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at tgreene@nww.com and follow him on Twitter @Tim_Greene.

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