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Since more than 5 years I use Active Collab for project management. It’s been very easy to use and offers lots of functions to organize small teams and to communicate with developers and/or clients. Active Collab 4 is great, but because of its age and architecture it also has some limitations:

  • the API is quite old, so hooks are hard to implement
  • the design is ok, but a little bit outdated
  • the speed sometimes is too slow

When a51 announced their new Active Collab named Feather and promised a complete rewrite, I was very happy about it and couldn’t wait for the release. This week the self-hosted version got updated on the quiet and here’s my impression of it.

What you have to know about the update

The new self-hosted version has a service named Heartbeat, which uses a51’s servers to send emails and fetch search results. Additionally, it validates your license and sends statistics about your projects. If you’re concerned about your privacy, you must wait for Active Collab Enterprise, which isn’t released yet.

Heartbeat was the main reason, I was skeptical whether I should continue to use AC or try out alternatives. I really don’t want my communication to be sent to a third party server. I’m not only worried about the privacy, but also about the availability. What if a51’s servers are down? Will the software break? Yes, it probably will like a pure SaaS solution. But do I want to continue with a non-updated AC 4? No, I don’t.

Installation

After I purchased the update, the download was available within seconds. To migrate my old AC 4 to a new version, I transferred all the files to my host (~44 MB) and installed it next to my AC 4. Because I renamed and edited the config file before I did the upload, I got a message that AC 5 might already be installed. Deleting the file and refreshing the page made the install script appear.

No matter how many times I entered my credentials, I got a 409 error code. I contacted the support, but they couldn’t help me. To make sure, that it’s not CloudFlare blocking contents, I also did a fresh install on my local machine—with the same depressing result (I spent a whole day on that).

My favorite error message.

My concerns about Heartbeat came true. It might make support requests easier for a51, because critical parts (cronjobs, emails, search) are now handled by their own servers, but if you’re able to set up more complex systems, it doesn’t make sense (my opinion). Even worse: It’s a big limitation on your self-hosted system. This is the first software in years where I had problems to set it up.

On the second day, I started to debug the code and must have been one of the most annoying customers to a51: I wrote about twenty additional answers/hints/questions to the support and got a very bad feeling about the software. But I was ambitious to solve the problems. I want to make it run, just because I can make it run—I couldn’t. a51 solved it somehow and installed it for me. Yet I don’t know, whether Heartbeat will run or not, but this is what the main page looks like:

Fresh new overview. I like the help texts.

The system settings seem to be the same as they are in the cloud solution. I cannot find any web hook functionality, nor other advanced self-hosting stuff to be configured in the admin area.

Update/Migration

When I tried to follow the migration guide, new problems appeared. The script told me to install the project exporter, which confused me at first. The module is meant to be installed on my old system. After I did it and tried the migration again, the script gave me another SQL error:

OK: Application key found in config file
OK: Application key is 'XXX'
OK: Connected to YYY@localhost/YYY (using password Yes)
OK: Backing up current tables
OK: Cloning legacy tables
OK: Reverting
Error #1: Query failed with message 'SELECT command denied to user 'ZZZ'@'localhost' for table 'access_logs'' (SQL: CREATE TABLE `ZZZ`.`access_logs` LIKE `YYY`.`access_logs`)

Due to my hoster, I cannot access databases with different users. So my solution was to prefix all the existing tables (search & replace), add them to the new DB and run the script again. Well, it seemed to work, but I, in the end, got another error (I also got warned by the support before).

Error #1: Migration not possible. Please upgrade legacy system to ActiveCollab 4.2.17 or newer and try again

What the hell? This is 4.2.17?! The process started to frustrate me and I already regret that I bought the update. Also, I started to debug the script, played around and got a step further, but wasn’t able to migrate.

Error #1: Query failed with message 'Table 'ZZZ.executed_model_migrations' doesn't exist' (SQL: SELECT COUNT(id) FROM executed_model_migrations WHERE migration = ?)

I’m confused: But this table is there. It exists in the old system, in the new system and also as temp table while the migration is running. There must be something going on in the back I don’t understand.

At his point, I asked for a refund, which a51 kindly agreed to. I might give AC 5 another try in the future but already spent too much time on the update. By the way: a51 has been very flexible and friendly all the time.

First impressions

It’s been announced, that AC will not support Gantt, Kanban or Scrum out of the box, so it’s up to the project manager to find an own solution. At empuxa, we used labels to define a ticket’s state. This worked very well, so I continued to use this Kanban-like solution after empuxa has been closed with other developers too. But there are some other things you should know before updating:

UX

  • Time tracking is now handled in a different format. In AC 4 you had to enter times (in this example 90 minutes) either like “1,5” or “1.5”. In AC 5 you need to enter “1:30”. When you enter “1.5”, the software transforms it into “15:00”. I guess that many of my developers will enter wrong times (told that to the support two weeks ago; might be fixed already).
  • I don’t see an option to disable the feedback button on the left. Also, I don’t know, if it’s only available to the owner, but I don’t want my clients to see such a button. What happens, when they accidentally send feedback to a51 that is meant to be read by me?

Missing features

  • Support for 3rd party modules has been removed. I’m ok with this since most of the extensions I used were poorly integrated and a waste of money.
  • AC 5 is only available in English so far. Some of my clients might be confused when they have to read English terms after AC 4 was also available in German.
  • Web hooks aren’t implemented yet—I’d really like to use my project management software with other SaaS solutions without coding an own solution.
  • User roles have been made easier: In detail, you cannot create custom roles, but have to use the existing structure (admin/member/client) now. I have set many different user roles, so this might be very hard to migrate.
  • There’s no native time tracker available yet, so all times have to be entered on the website. (The app will be released soon.)

Summary

Right now I have the feeling that AC 5 is not yet ready for production (on self-hosted machines). I never had problems with AC 2/3/4 but wasn’t able to run/migrate AC 5. I think that a51 lost focus on what made their software special and killed the unique selling point (privacy due to self-hosting and third party support) by focusing on their cloud solution. Maybe it’s the way they want to go, but I don’t believe that it’s a good idea. Honestly, there are a lot more SaaS project management tools in their price range, that are much better.

I might have a look at AC 5’s development process and give it a second try in the future—but, for now, I stay with AC 4 or search for another solution.

Update 11/30/2015

I finally upgraded AC. Read about my experiences.

Marco Raddatz

Marco Raddatz

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Marco Raddatz #TechnicalProjectManagement #SoftwareDevelopment #Berlin Back to Overview