In-Depth

Doorway to data

IT managers look to corporate portals to provide access to masses of data from a single screen; technology is seen as key in progression from Windows to Web desktop.

This age of information has become, according to many pundits, an age of information inundation. Corporate folks are drowning in information on the job—and at home. At most every turn, one is bombarded with unsolicited information—at the supermarket checkout line, on roadside signs, in snail mailboxes, in E-mail inboxes, on telephones, facsimile machines and beyond. Unfortunately, the workplace is no exception. Workers are plagued with unsolicited E-mail messages and are forced to search deeper and deeper for quality information on the Internet.

One solution that has attracted corporate IT organizations' attention for the past couple of years is portal technology, described by its champions as a single corporate Web site that gives users access to multiple applications running on myriad platforms, to documents stored throughout a corporation and to various Internet services. Observers say that Web technologies have matured to the point where Web desktops are ready to replace Windows for many functions.

The promise of portals attracted significant investments from venture capitalists in the late 1990s, and several firms formed solely to build corporate and consumer portal technologies were created. Unfortunately for many of these startups, the venture capital funding well dried up just as major players like IBM, Sun Microsystems Inc., Oracle Corp., SAP AG, and Microsoft Corp. came in and legitimized the market. "These kinds of companies don't enter a market unless they perceive it as viable," said Hadley Reynolds, director of research at Delphi Group, a Boston-based research firm.

Some early portal initiatives—notably those built to offer specific information to special interest groups—have pretty much failed to find ways to generate enough revenue to reach profitability. Such sites are quickly disappearing from the Web.

On the other hand, IT executives continue to express strong interest in corporate portals, which can provide specific data from any corporate system to executives and workers alike. For example, a corporate portal can provide HR, financial, departmental and other information to employees via a single interface. And the portal can be built to display only the information that an individual has the authority to view.

And, said Reynolds, the technology has advanced quickly and can support the needs of large corporations. "The game is shifting to scale up to become enterprise-capable," he said, bringing IT managers a solution to a problem that client/server technologies failed to resolve. "There isn't a convincing client/server answer to bringing together the silos of information and integrating everything. The portal vendors came along with an answer—initially a lightweight one—but over the last year or so the sophistication has increased dramatically."

Other major companies investing in portal technologies include Computer Associates International Inc., Sybase Inc. and Compuware Corp., whose strategies include acquiring and developing portal technologies.

The fundamental purpose of a corporate portal is to provide a single point of access to information, applications and business processes. Portals can arrange and display the information that is most pertinent to specific users—for example, marketing data for marketing executives, financial data for the VP of finance and basic human resources information for everyone—and can manage access to each function. Analysts say the technology can provide a way for workers to more easily arrange information as needed on a day-to-day basis to help them do specific jobs more efficiently. If it works as expected, such technologies can fundamentally change today's Microsoft Windows-based business desktop—a change that even Microsoft is prepared for with its .NET and Web Services strategies.

Portal advocates say the technology can become the corporate workplace by providing all the information workers need in one desktop location. Computer users have generally had to open separate windows to check E-mail, locate documents, link to back-office applications and so on. Observers note that many times users had to open 10 or more different windows to complete a single job. "The portal gives us a way to have all those things open and active at the same time; a way for us to become much more organized and effective," said Carl Hartman, vice president of e-business management for Computer Associates, Islandia, N.Y.

As the move to the new paradigm begins, portals are first displayed as a desktop option for users to help them prepare for a significant adjustment in daily function, observers say. But that is likely to change in the very near future. According to a recent Delphi Group report, portals are quickly becoming "a competitive necessity both for the smaller businesses that make up the value networks for the Global 2000, and for those industries with lower levels of concentration where successful firms will be initiating the transition to digital business practice two to three years into the future."

Portal market growth
Figure 1
Analysts at Delphi Group predict that business portal software revenue will reach nearly $2 billion by 2003.

Workers at Compuware Corp., Farmington Hills, Mich., are noticing a trend in that direction already. "We're seeing that [the portal] becomes much more of a thing you turn on in the morning and don't leave until you go home. It's turning into a desktop," noted Dirk Gorter, director of product management at the software supplier. Thus, user-friendliness and accessibility are quickly gaining vastly increased importance. "It becomes one of your mission-critical applications. If it's not functional, you may not be able to do your work," Gorter said.

As corporate portals focus more and more on employee, partner and customer audiences, the technologies must be much more rigorous than their first-generation ancestors. "Capabilities need to be stronger than they used to be, and portals need to be more dynamic in what they can handle," noted Alex Flenner, director of alliances at Houston-based Internet consulting and development firm Iconixx.

Portal interfaces are becoming the predominant e-business desktop for Web-connected professionals, according to Delphi Group research. The market for business portal software last year reached $405 million worldwide, Delphi Group reported. Their growth is projected to be almost five-fold by 2003, reaching $1.9 billion, the research predicts. Organizations are beginning to realize portals' inherent value in making employees more efficient.

At the same time, the glut of offerings can be confusing to buyers because even in the corporate portal world, class distinctions can be quite murky. With more than 40 companies currently claiming to offer portal solutions, some categorization is necessary.

For its part, Delphi Group divides such offerings into three categories: portal infrastructure software, portal applications and portal platforms.

Examples of portal infrastructure software include content management software, search and/or categorization engines, visualization or presentation software, Web collaboration applications, personalization applications and enterprise application integration tools. Delphi Group says this group includes offerings from Verity Inc., Sunnyvale, Calif.; Autonomy Inc., San Francisco; Documentum Inc., Pleasanton, Calif.; Oracle Corp., Redwood Shores, Calif.; DataChannel Inc., Bellevue, Wash.; and SAP, Walldorf, Germany.

DataChannel officials say there are four ingredients required for the new portal-based business desktop: an open, robust architecture; the ability to integrate into existing systems; the ability to deliver information in a personalized fashion; and platform-independence. "We separate desktop functionality from the desktop itself," explained Brian Crowley, vice president of marketing. "The mobile worker in an airport or hotel is not tethered to their desktop system anymore. The workplace has become very virtual."

When Advantage Sales & Marketing, a food sales and marketing agency, expanded from its one Irvine, Calif., office to 80 offices across the country, it needed a way to tie its virtual distributed teams together. It chose DataChannel Server because of its promised flexibility, scalability, ease of administration and distributed publishing as well as for its XML technology.

Prior to deploying the portal, all of Advantage Sales & Marketing's business information, both internal and external, was distributed via E-mail. "We had no other way really to communicate," explained Kathryn Lemons, director of portal technologies at the agency. The portal provided one solid location for people to get all their information and cut the company's E-mail traffic by 80% to 90%, she said. "We still use [E-mail] as a form of communication," Lemons acknowledged, "but the amount of attachments and data being sent by E-mail has dropped dramatically." Just that result saves significant time and money, she said.

Houston-based Mongoose Technology Inc., another portal infrastructure software supplier, sells a portal life cycle management solution. Mongoose officials said the company was founded to build a framework upon which customers could build any type of portal, including enterprise information portals, enterprise application portals and enterprise knowledge portals. "The portal is replacing the whole information system," noted Lionel Hanley, vice president of marketing. "You can't afford for this thing to go down."

The component-based Mongoose PortalStudio Enterprise Edition can personalize a portal based on the user's business role, location, language and so on. As a framework, PortalStudio is more of a development environment than a portal solution. It allows a user to build a personalized portal by dragging and dropping pieces instead of writing code. "You determine the kind of portal you need and then assemble it," Hanley said. "It's a whole environment for building and maintaining a portal."

Delphi Group's second classification, portal applications, include software offerings that provide pre-integrated facilities for multiple functional "layers" in the portal architecture, more out-of-the-box solutions. The researcher lists Plumtree Software Inc., San Francisco; Hummingbird Ltd., Toronto; Viador Inc., Mountain View, Calif.; Sequoia Software (now part of Citrix Systems Inc.), Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; and InfoImage Inc., Phoenix, in this category.

Computer Associates can also be added to this list. Because people wear various hats throughout a workday, the company's portal, based on its object-oriented Jasmine technology, lets users have multiple workplaces, or different desktops for each role or job function. "In each workplace, the user has tremendous control over the way things look," said Hartman of CA. "The idea is not only to give users the concept they need, but also control over the way the desktop looks. For a portal to be truly effective, it needs to be used and have user ownership."

Then there is the up-and-coming portal platform category, which Delphi says includes software offerings that incorporate facilities that can address the full range of portal architecture functionality. These offerings often include Web servers, database servers and mobile computing infrastructures. According to Delphi, five vendors are currently supplying this type of portal: IBM; the iPlanet unit jointly run by Sun Microsystems and AOL Time Warner Inc., New York City; Oracle; SAP; and Sybase Inc., Emeryville, Calif.

Although the portal platform category accounted for only 2% of overall market revenue in 2000, Delphi Group predicts that this segment will make up 42% of portal market revenue by 2003. So one can expect an influx of activity in this category by other portal players.

Portal market segment growth
Figure 2
While the market will grow overall, growth in the infrastructure, applications and platforms market segments will vary widely.

The Enterprise Portal from Sybase, for example, can provide the ability to view both business content and business processes that can be tailored to the needs of specific business audiences. "It's hard for me to know in advance what a customer wants, but I can monitor their patterns of usage and understand what they're looking at," explained Bob Breton, senior director of product strategy. "To be successful with portals, you need access to all relative content and business processes."

Some corporate users are certainly finding this to be true. That need for access was a big factor in National Imaging Associates' adoption of a portal. The Hackensack, N.J. medical imaging company provides traditional insurance companies, managed care organizations and health care provider organizations with medical management services and diagnostic radiology. Radiologists need access to certain information, as do physicians and insurance companies. Using a portal provides all of these entities with the appropriate, real-time information they need to do their jobs efficiently.

When choosing a portal for the job, National Imaging Associates wanted the flexibility to include its content management solution from Austin-based Vignette Corp. as well as its existing databases. Company officials said the Sybase offering met both of those requirements and also provided scalability during a test phase. "We're not going to outgrow this portal solution," noted Bob Lagalia, senior vice president and chief financial officer. "We're just going to grow into it." With about 15,000 people to whom to distribute its portal and about 700 already up and running, National Imaging Associates is well on its way to growing into its portal.

Using the portal allows the medical imaging company to distribute information more efficiently, which is changing its customers' business desktops, Lagalia said. Prior to implementing the portal, the company relied on a client/server call center application. Now it is migrating all of those applications across the country to the portal.

"We hope at some point people will find that the portal is a more efficient, faster processing environment, but we will always have a call center," Lagalia added. "I don't think portals are going to replace people." Portals are technology. Although they can reduce the need for people at a call center, they can never completely replace live people.

Like Delphi Group, market research firm Meta Group, Stamford, Conn., also classifies portal offerings into three categories: targeted portals offer a portal interface, providing application integration; standalone portal frameworks provide the full set of portal services, and are easier to use right out of the box; and finally, platform server-based portals offer a whole e-business platform of which the portal is one component. These categories are essentially the same as Delphi's with different labels.

Portal vendor marketshare
Figure 3
Delphi Group finds no clear leaders in infrastructure or applications, and smaller vendors account for a significant portion of each.

Missing link?
Executives at FireSpout Inc., a Belmont, Mass., software vendor, believe corporate portals and intranets are unable to deliver on the promise of easy information access and interaction among employees, partners and customers. To date, portal technology is suffering from missing functionality, in the view of FireSpout officials, because a computer does not know where information is embedded. For example, when one searches a corporate portal for documents dealing with a certain topic, the portal does not know how to distinguish where the information is embedded within the document—in the title, in the body, in the menu bar and so on.

To alleviate this problem and make portals more efficient, FireSpout developed a set of algorithms that can distinguish patterns in documents on various sites. Its server software sits between the corporate portal and the databases, constantly crawling the databases and file systems in search of patterns. "When a search engine looks for documents, it accesses our software that guides which documents to retrieve," explained Simon Dao, founder and president.

Compuware takes a similar approach. The company's philosophy is that the business of a portal is to provide the right information at the right time. Its OptimalView portal does this on four levels: information, application, process and collaboration. People need to be able to measure how well they are doing and how well their business is running. "If a portal is the central point of focus for executing business processes, then it can also measure key performance indicators to allow people to see if they're meeting their objectives," said Bart Oostlender, product manager for portals at Compuware.

There is a significant business trend toward undertaking justifications and return-on-investment calculations in the industry these days, according to Meta Group. There is an even bigger trend toward consolidation, observers note. It seems around every corner is another portal vendor involved in a merger or acquisition. This is perceived by many as a sign that the portal space is maturing. "There's not room for a large market of small independent players," explained Craig Roth, senior program director for Meta Group in Chicago. This is survival of the fittest. "Like any market, we're in the midst of a consolidation," said Reynolds of Delphi Group.

The maturity of a portal product is generally in inverse proportion to the maturity of the vendor, Roth noted. Plumtree and DataChannel, for instance, although they are on Version 5 of their products, are still relatively small companies. Large companies, such as IBM, Oracle, Sun and Microsoft, on the other hand, have more staying power but are still in earlier versions of their products. Either way involves risk. "If you pick a mature product, you have risk," Roth said. "If you go with a big vendor, you still have risk because you're buying into a 1.0 product. You don't know how it's going to evolve."

Be that as it may, expect the consolidation to continue as the market matures. Citrix recently acquired Sequoia. Iona and DataChannel just entered an alliance at press time. Who will be next?

No matter what happens, said Reynolds, portal technologies have become the next "big thing" in the effort to create an integrated desktop. "There's no question at this point that portal technologies will be key over the next couple of years as we transfer the desktop from Windows to the Internet."

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