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A hosted 'Web 2.0' requirements management experience

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I make no secret of the fact that I think requirements management and analysis are just about the most important parts of the development process. If you understand the business requirements, producing a system that can be shown to satisfy them (or miss some out) is comparatively trivial. In fact, it’s programmable – the process can be automated (although producing a usable, maintainable, well-performing system is less trivial, without skilled manual intervention, of course).

But if you work to the wrong set of business requirements, or miss requirements out, you simply produce the wrong system – no matter how skilfully you program it, or how rigorously you test it against the requirements.

The fly in the ointment, of course, is that requirements analysis and management isn’t easy. Often, the business users can’t express their requirements completely and unambiguously (often, they ask for half-thought-out code changes that may or may not relate well to their actual requirements) – and sometimes, business users don’t really understand their own business process fully. So, we need tools and process to help us and sometimes these are frightening to developers and managers who aren’t used to them (sometimes they aren’t very well designed, either) – and quite often they are very expensive, and need a lot of expensive investment up front.

But there is hope – Telelogic DOORS Fastrak, for example. And now there’s another low ceremony requirements management tool called Contour (evaluation available), which also promises to provide a low-entry-cost hosted solution (as well as licensed options).

In Europe, Contour comes from Xeau, a requirements management specialist that was born out of Starbase when Borland took over. When I talked to it, it was familiar with state-of-the-art tools such as Caliber (Borland) and OptimalTrace (Compuware) – but claimed that it could provide requirements management support more cost-effectively than the usual players.

Its emphasis is on actually getting people to use the tool - which usefully links into project management (compare MKS perhaps) not just the development process. Contour can link requirements artefacts (models etc) to project milestones – and not just document what is required but who is doing it as well.

The tool itself comes from Jama Software in the USA and is web-based, built on Ajax, and designed to target all sizes of company – even small players. It claims to have an open architecture and Eclipse and VSTS plugins are on the roadmap.

It runs on most operating systems and within most J2EE application servers (default Apache Tomcat) and maintains a single repository in a range of relational databases (default is MySQL). Its customizable interface uses industry-standard cascading style sheets (CSS). The client needs Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.1 service pack 2 or higher; or Mozilla Firefox 1.5 or higher; but Mozilla Firefox 2.0 is recommended “as it provides the fastest user experience”.

I haven’t actually used this tool yet, but I hope to look at it in more detail in Reg Developer at some point in the reasonably near future.®

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