INFRASTRUCTURE Critical to Enterprise Portals

With the proliferation of computer-based information there is an increasing need to manage knowledge — both computer- and human-based — to make organizations run more efficiently. People keep all kinds of information on their computers and in their heads. What if someone does not come to work one day? Will their co-workers be able to access the information they need to do their jobs? Finding effective ways to manage all of this knowledge can therefore be quite a challenge.

The term knowledge management encompasses a broad range of topics. It includes a company’s organization or culture, management and processes, as well as technology. Portals have now entered the market to aid consumers in managing this vast amount of information, but how good are they? And what exactly is a portal?

Like knowledge management, “portal” is a vague term that covers a broad range of topics. According to IDC, Framingham, Mass., a portal combines personalized Web-based access to information and applications with a management or administrative layer. Take Yahoo or Excite, for example. The My Yahoo page on my computer is my portal to the information and knowledge that I want to track. I can track news, sports, movies, weather, air fares and so on. And I can customize the portal to my liking.

There are two major types of portals: consumer portals and enterprise portals. Yahoo and Excite fit the consumer portal-type. These portals provide services designed to attract and keep people’s attention, and also collect information about these people that can then be used to enhance and personalize the customer relationship to drive future sales.

The enterprise portal provides presentation services delivered by a Web browser-based personalized interface. These portals allow users to access corporate information and apps. Enterprise portals can be further broken down into three distinct types — the enterprise application portal, the enterprise information portal and the enterprise expertise portal — according to IDC. The enterprise application portal emphasizes self-service, role-based access to application functions and application-related data. The enterprise information portal integrates, aggregates and presents data from multiple sources internal and external to the business, including the Web, newsfeeds, internal reports, data warehouses, fax, image, file servers and so on. The enterprise expertise portal captures and reuses the human capital of an enterprise. It features dynamic user profiling that automatically tracks what each employee is taking out and contributing to the knowledge base.

Currently, multiple portal types in the same enterprise invoke a need for separate administration of each type. “This system management issue alone should drive convergence to a common enterprise portal,” states IDC in its report Portal Mania: Who Will Lead the Way to Convergence?

Wading through the options
Convergence may be the wave of the future, but firms today have to wade through a plethora of available options. Numerous organizations find themselves dealing with enterprise information portals. Corporations manage these portals themselves to provide pertinent information to employees and partners.

But beware: Not everything that is called a portal is a true portal. Some “portal” products are just glorified reporting products, while other packaged solutions require you to conform to their guidelines. “You can’t develop system-based products off these systems,” explained Kevin Foley, CEO at Web integrator NexusGroup, White Plains, N.Y. “You need to have an existing infrastructure in place in order to implement the package.”

The true corporate portal approach “provides a framework and a structure to organize a lot of things that, up until now, [organizations] were doing in kind of a disjointed way,” noted Simon Hayward, research director in the Knowledge Management and Collaboration Group at GartnerGroup, Stamford, Conn.

These portals have a single point of access that provides system security. That is the first thing customers require when seeking to implement a portal. Another requirement is the ability to access both structured and unstructured information and to make it available to others. Accessing both structured and unstructured data currently presents a challenge in the information portal, as most vendors specialize in one or the other. Few specialize in both.

Other requirements include the ability to personalize the portal, some level of tracking, and a platform on which people can collaborate, share information and note who is accessing what type of information. The key, said NexusGroup’s Foley, is that a “portal should be a strategic component of a company’s operations.”

That is the way Dallas-based Affiliated Computer Services (ACS) Inc. views it. The outsourcing company was looking for a robust delivery of content when it chose the Enterworks suite of content and business process integration products from Enterworks Inc., Ashburn, Va.

“We wanted to be certain that we could provide a framework for content and apps,” said Scott Robison, vice president of e-solutions. ACS manages large mainframe shops and builds client portals.

But Enterworks is not a true portal. It provides a way to integrate content or information, and portals point to it to gather information. Through a partnership with San Mateo, Calif.-based Viador Inc. and its E-Portal Suite, however, Enterworks claims it is better positioned to provide a more complete portal solution. Enterworks and Viador are jointly selling their leading content integration and enterprise portal technology to customers who require centralized Web access.

“Viador and Enterworks are interrelated for us,” noted Cindy Frie, ACS’ president of e-solutions. “The two are very much related.” ACS also considered San Francisco-based Plumtree Software’s Corporate Portal before choosing Enterworks and Viador. “We were looking for a company a little more sure, and we didn’t want to be washed out with acquisitions,” the firm’s Robison said. Enterworks was a bit more mature, conceded Frie.

The breadth of connectors Enterworks provides is what stood out the most to ACS. “We don’t have to worry about how we connect to IDMS or VSAM,” Robison explained. “They already have that technology on the plate or they’ll deliver that to us. It’s a big plus.”

Added Robison, “It’s simple for Enterworks to come in and attach to structured and unstructured data. It’s always been Web-based, not client/server.”

But, as with most products, Enterworks does have its drawbacks. “When you take a transactional data source, it’s not a relational data source,” Robison said. As a result, making queries with Enterworks is not as fast as making queries with a relational database. Robison noted that you can use Enterworks to take data out of a data warehouse, but the presentation layer has to change in order to do that.

As for the challenge of accessing both structured and unstructured data, Enterworks accesses both, said Frie and Robison, while Plumtree only supported unstructured data. But Claudia Toth, a spokesperson for Plumtree, said Corporate Portal can support structured data. “It can tap into a wide variety of meta data.”

Chicago-based CCC Information Services Inc., a software developer for the insurance and auto-body repair industry, noted that Rio from Bellevue, Wash.-based DataChannel, also accesses both structured and unstructured data. “A lot of portals and solutions can,” said Angelo Funicelli, CCC’s director of product development communication services.

CCC pursued a corporate portal to solve a number of business problems, one of which was rapid company growth over the past five years. The company had no efficient way for groups to communicate with each other. “E-mail, voice mail and Lotus Notes databases got the information out, but didn’t categorize it very well,” Funicelli noted. With Rio, however, the company was able to organize and structure data much faster and more efficiently.

“The whole corporation has access to a variety of information to get the job done quickly,” said Funicelli.

CCC’s original portal requirements included single sign-on; integration with its E-mail system; a powerful search engine to search meta data and to go to its Lotus Notes database; the ability to search selective external Web sites and to notify people when those sites are updated; integration with the existing Novell directory; and role-based personalization. CCC considered products from Plum- tree, Viador, San Francisco-based 2Bridge Software and Brio Technology, Santa Clara, Calif., before choosing DataChannel. None of the vendors, including Data-Channel, was able to address all of CCC’s requirements easily. Plumtree did not fit the bill because it is not a Unix solution and CCC is a Unix shop. Not all the products could provide single sign-on very easily either, which was a chief requirement.

CCC already had DataChannel licenses after purchasing them for another project. After extensive research, the CCC staff discovered DataChannel was a pretty well-respected portal solution. And where some products failed to provide integration with CCC’s Lotus Notes legacy system, Data- Channel succeeded. “We went with a solution we [had] already invested in,” CCC’s Funicelli said. “It was successful enough that we’re moving to their next version.”

DataChannel Server 4.0 includes a powerful search engine and integration capabilities. The older version, said Funicelli, has “no search function and no way of telling you what’s new.” In addition, “the interface is kind of rigid as far as where channels are placed. It wasn’t easy to update the interface,” he said.

Toronto-based Hummingbird has taken a bit of a different approach in the corporate portal arena. With a background as a connectivity vendor, integration is one of the company’s specialties. And with a number of recent acquisitions under its belt, Hummingbird is well positioned to provide document management, business intelligence and risk management. It has the ability, thanks to Extraction Transformation Loading (ETL), to poll data from any source and load it into a target. This means that Hummingbird’s Enterprise Information Portal specializes in accessing both structured and unstructured data.

“It’s nice to be able to search in one area and find both [structured and unstructured data],” said Keith Berkland, applications development manager for Dickstein Shapiro Morin & Oshinsky. The Washington, D.C.-based law firm implemented a knowledge management initiative in the past 18 months, and also implemented and built enhancements to its intranet to combine the two. “We were looking for a common interface to bring those together, as well as our outside business partners,” said Berkland. The firm wanted the same look and feel internally, but also wanted to look outwardly toward its clients.

Dickstein Shapiro considered Lotus Notes and Plumtree’s portal before choosing Hummingbird’s Enterprise Information Portal. “We weren’t given a guarantee in the other two environments that the applications and knowledge store we have could be integrated into their systems,” Berkland noted. And because the firm already had several other Hummingbird products, they felt comfortable going with another of the firm’s offerings.

The feature that stands out the most to Berkland about Hummingbird’s portal is that it allows him to build pages based on user ID. “We can have slices of information we can present to our employees, and we can have different slices to portray to our clients and business partners,” he explained. Hummingbird also offers the ability to combine searching by source and categorization. “Attorneys can see where info is coming from and can choose what source they want to look at,” he said.

Like Hummingbird, Cambridge, Mass.-based Lotus Development Corp. has its own unique approach to corporate portals. Lotus views knowledge management as “a discipline to systematically leverage both the content of the stuff that’s written down at an organization, as well as the expertise, with the specific purpose of making the organization more responsive,” said Scott Eliot, director of the Knowledge Management Products Group.

Lotus likes to think of it as people, places and things. Its new product, Raven, which is still in beta testing at press time, addresses each of these areas. In fact, Lotus’ view of a portal — on which Raven is based — is threefold. First is the presentation layer or user interface, like Yahoo or Excite — a self-service environment. “If you get much more complicated than Yahoo, you’ve pretty much lost 80% of the population,” Eliot noted. Second is the discovery and personalization layer. This includes a discovery server engine that categorizes information, the ability to browse and search, subscription and filtering. Lotus also wants to see here a notion of expertise. “It would be nice to locate individuals that can help me with a specific task or that are like me,” Eliot said.

The third layer is the information access layer. This is where searches take place across any content or source type.

Convergence on the horizon?
The challenge Lotus and other vendors face is in bringing a whole host of technologies together in a single product and then providing knowledge services. It is that convergence IDC refers to. While some vendors today focus on content, others concentrate on classification. Still others focus on expertise. And there are some firms that even cover two areas. But the big challenge is covering all three aspects.

In addition, portals need to be more dynamic. “A portal that was more process- and event-aware would say, ‘You have a role in doing this particular event,’ or [would] flag something that I should pay attention to,” noted Henry Morris, vice president for data warehousing and knowledge management at IDC. Event monitoring and workflow are sure to become more important in portals of the future.

“The underlying tools and techniques are certainly converging,” noted Gartner’s Hayward. Proof of that is the repositioning of information retrieval vendors such as Verity Inc., Sunnyvale, Calif., Excalibur Technologies Corp., Vienna, Va., and Fulcrum (now part of Hummingbird). These vendors are positioning themselves to allow people outside the enterprise to access information, said Hayward. “We’re seeing a blurring of boundaries in terms of technologies.”

This ‘blurring’ is sure to continue in the future, partly because, as IDC’s Morris put it, “A portal environment is only as strong as the infrastructure you have under it.” Infrastructures will improve over time.

As a result, portals will improve as well.

As IDC stated in its Portal Mania report, “The economic and competitive advantages will force a rapid evolution from portal mania where existing silos of information and expertise are simply mirrored onto the intranet, to portal merger where the intranet truly becomes a source of aggregation, community, and efficiency.” The pieces are starting to fall into place; aggregation is sure to follow. 1