Use Microsoft Project to Manage Network Operations

Microsoft Project can be intimidating, but with a little time and effort it can provide you with a powerful tool to manage network operations.

By Michael Burton | Posted Dec 24, 2008
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For network technicians who have had no exposure to Microsoft Project, the prospect of managing a network installation using this tool can seem daunting. You are presented with what looks like a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and many unfamiliar icons. This article will provide an introduction to Microsoft Project and a few standard project management concepts to aid in managing a network installation with it.

Start up by Breaking It Down

The first step in properly managing any project is identifying all the individual tasks you’ll need to complete to be successful. A standard project management tool to accomplish this identification is called the Work Breakdown Structure, or WBS.

Figure 1 - Arranging information in Microsoft Project The WBS is simply a hierarchical representation of the work needed to complete the project. The first step is to ask “What are the major objectives of the project?” These are generally multi-step deliverables required for the project to be successful. The next question to ask is “What tasks are required to complete each objective?” The third and final step is to arrange all of your information as in Figure 1.

Note that a task is a discreet unit of work, generally able to be completed between eight and forty hours. If you document tasks less than eight hours, you can end up with too many tasks to be manage. If your tasks are greater than forty hours, then you should consider breaking that task into smaller units to more accurately track your progress.

The numbering system used not only uniquely identifies each task, but also places that task into the context of the rest of the project. We’ll be using the WBS Number for each task throughout the this exercise.

In our example project, we have asked to complete a network switch hardware upgrade. To complete this project we will need to meet two major objectives; managing our customer relationship and managing the network gear. Our customer management requires us to get initial customer approval to the purchase, to schedule a downtime to complete the upgrade, and to communicate to the customer after the change is complete. For gear management, we will need to order the gear, program the gear for our environment, and complete the physical installation.

Figure 2 - Diagraming a project in Microsoft Project

Using the WBS model, we can diagram our project as in Figure 2.

Our next step once the WBS is finished is to figure out in what order the tasks need to be completed in. We cannot order the gear, for instance, until our customer has approved the project. To complete this requirement we will build a network diagram.

For our project, we know that work element 2.1—ordering the gear—cannot be completed until element 1.1—customer approval— is complete. In our example, we also decide that we are not going to get schedule approval until both the initial customer approval is given and the gear has been ordered. Finally, we cannot complete a post-installation update communication to customers until we have actually installed the gear.

Figure 3 - Building a network diagram in Microsoft
  Project

Considering these dependencies, or as they are referred to in Microsoft Project, Predecessors, we can build a simple network diagram like Figure 3.

We have a very bare-bones WBS and network diagram, and can now begin to enter this information into Microsoft Project.

We will need to make two changes to Microsoft Project’s default settings: the addition of a WBS Column and a WBS Predecessor Column. To add these new columns, we simply do the following:

  • Right click on the column header “Duration”
  • Select “Insert Column” from the context menu
  • Select “WBS” from the Field Name in the Column Definition dialog box
  • Click on OK!

We will follow the exact same process to add the “WBS Predecessors” column.

Msp_Figure_ 4 - Microsoft Project ScreenshotWe can now begin to fill in the columns with our data gathered from the WBS and the Network Diagram. We will first fill in the Task Name and WBS Number using WBS, and we will enter WBS Predecessors identified in our WBS diagram. If a task such a 1.3 has multiple predecessors, you can enter them separated by a comma. For example, “1.1, 1.2”. The result should look similar to Figure 4.

Note that Duration, Start, and Finish are entered automatically. Microsoft Project makes the assumption that each task takes one day. To the right of the data entry pane where you have entered your project’s information you should see a graphical representation of your project tasks with arrowed lines showing the dependencies.

Figure 5 - Indenting a list in Microsoft ProjectOur final step is to indent our tasks so they are properly formatted like our WBS. Click on the row headers (1, 2, 3, etc) for the WBS Tasks; using our example project that would be 2,3,4,6,7, and 8. We will then click on the green right arrow button (just above the blue cursor in Figure 5) in the toolbar which will properly indent the second level tasks under the top-level objectives.

Note that WBS elements 1.0 and 2.0 can be collapsed or expanded by clicking on the minus-sign next to their text in the Task Name. Also note that instead of having a blue placeholder in the graph the WBS Objectives have become a black line covering the entire length of time their tasks are scheduled for.

You now have you network switch installation fully inserted into Microsoft Project! To start seeing what time requirements the project needs, you can fill in the Duration column for each specific task. Microsoft Project will automatically populate start and finish times for all tasks taking into consideration the predecessor requirements you entered. Microsoft Project is also kind enough not to work you on weekends by default, either.

This is a very foundational introduction to the capabilities of Microsoft Project. With some practice and experience you can track multiple personnel hours planned for and spent, create complex network diagrams and even identify your project’s overall success at any point in time using Earned Value Analysis. Like any tool requiring data however, Microsoft Project will only be as accurate as the information you enter. Many new project managers will make the mistake of not keeping their data accurate over time, which drastically lowers the Microsoft Project's usefulness.

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