In-Depth

In search of the seamless portal

What do you think of when you hear the word portal? Do you have a specific definition in mind or is it a fuzzy term to you? Although portals have gained in popularity during the past few years, the exact definition of a portal changes "depending on who you ask, the phase of the moon or the day of the week," said Craig Roth, senior program director at research and consulting firm Meta Group's Chicago office.

"Vendor hype surrounding portals is the primary cause of confusion in the market," reports London-based analyst and consulting company Ovum in a white paper. "The diverse range of applications and different technologies currently being used to create portals is also a contributory factor. There are also a significant number of vendors who are using the term 'portal' in their marketing to describe a simple Web interface for their application only."

For its part, Ovum defines a portal as something that "provides personalized access to an appropriate range of information for a particular purpose."

Then there is Roundarch, a Chicago-based CRM consulting organization formed by Deloitte Consulting and WPP Group. Roundarch uses the term enterprise portal "to describe a Web solution that is focused on providing a single, self-service point of entry to an enterprise's applications, information, products, services and processes through which multiple constituents can interact and transact with the enterprise and its business partners."

But according to Meta Group's Roth, a portal can be defined in just one word: context. A portal, he said, is something that has access to multiple information sources and profiles information about users. "Then it combines those two to present a personalized view of that information in a context the user understands," he noted.

Roth points out that there is a difference between a portal framework and a portal interface, although both are often referred to as portals today. "Any application out there can have a portal interface on it," he explained, but that does not make it a portal framework; it is simply a portal into its own application.

With more than 100 vendors marketing portal solutions, discerning what is marketing hype and what is not can be quite challenging. Of the myriad portal offerings available, the vast majority are glorified Web sites that simply aggregate information, rather than provide integration between apps and content.

DataChannel Inc., Bellevue, Wash., classifies the ability to integrate into existing systems as one of the four key ingredients required for a portal-based business desktop. [See "Doorway to data" by Lana Gates and Michael W. Bucken.]

As the IT industry continues its migration to a portal-based business desktop or workspace portal, the importance of integration is rising to the forefront.
Ovum reports that "although no vendor has yet deployed a completely satisfactory workspace portal solution, several are making convincing progress toward doing so."

According to Ovum principal analyst Chris Harris-Jones, the three most satisfying and complete solutions from among those vendors come from SAP AG, Walldorf, Germany, Oracle Corp., Redwood Shores, Calif., and Hummingbird Ltd., Toronto.

"SAP has the best integration of anyone," he noted, thanks to its acquisition of TopTier Software. "All portals aggregate information -- [they] pull it in from multiple sources and display it on screen. SAP can pull data together from multiple CRM and ERP applications and do something intelligent with it. Most portals just display the data and that's all they do."

He believes framework portals will have a difficult time with real integration because they are designed to provide third-party access. He anticipates it will be at least a year before we see any substantial integration in portals.

"It's a very difficult task to achieve," Harris-Jones noted. But it is also a necessary one.

Roundarch, which focuses heavily on corporate portal development, has already taken steps to enable integration for its customers. The company developed the Enabling Technology Platform (ETP), a pre-integrated middleware product that integrates front-office and back-end applications. This integration allows customers to share information and manage multi-application transactions. ETP includes pre-designed integration components into BroadVision, Siebel, E.piphany, Genesys, SAP and EAI platforms. Roundarch expanded ETP in February to include integration technologies for J2EE, XML and Web services.

California is taking advantage of ETP in building My California, the official State of California portal that provides detailed information and services from virtually every aspect of state government. It allows end users to create their own profiles and to build personalized home pages in which they can highlight issues of interest. Relevant information is then sent to users based on their profiles. At press time, the portal offered automobile registration, tax refund status, fishing and hunting permits, hazardous waste disposal directions, and small business information such as tax forms and government contracting.

With 220,000 employees in 140 state departments, plus 80 to 90 boards of commission in California, implementing a portal solution for the state was no easy task. Roundarch helped design a flexible, central infrastructure that delivers a suite of personalized services but also has room for indefinite expansion. The infrastructure includes BroadVision's One-to-One Enterprise, Interwoven's TeamSite software for content management, Verity's K2 Toolkit for searching, and Broadbase Software for online marketing and visitor traffic analysis.

At press time, California had 100 departments up and running with a consistent user experience. While the portal does aggregate a good deal of information, its developers realize that the benefits of integrating applications and content far outweigh simple information aggregation. Developers are currently in the early stages of implementing true integration into the portal.

"The real value-add is not saving one-and-a-half hours of life," noted Arun Baheti, director of eGovernment for the State of California Governor's Office in Sacramento. "The real value-add is when applications start integrating and leveraging the same resources ... [and then] taking departments and merging them online in a way where you only have to fill in information once."

App server integration
Portal vendors and users alike are beginning to realize this truth as well. That is why John Magee, Oracle's senior director of Oracle9i platform marketing, believes the standalone portal vendors of the world are destined to fail in the long term. "You've got to have not just a portal, but application integration on the back end," he explained.

When people were viewing portals as applications rather than frameworks, Oracle realized portals went to a core infrastructure on a Web-based backbone. "It made sense to us to integrate the portal framework with that core application server," Magee said. Thus, Oracle 9i Application Server Portal is built on top of Oracle 9i Application Server and allows users to synchronize windows.

"When you look at a new piece of data in one window, it can be set up so it will update other windows simultaneously with corresponding data from each individual system," explained Ovum's Harris-Jones.

New York City-based ECOS Technologies was looking at application servers when it decided that a portal solution would be much more appropriate for what it wanted to accomplish, noted Adrian Iosifescu, CTO. Why? Because in developing its comprehensive Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) knowledge management platform that allows Global 500 companies to address environmental issues, ECOS wanted to achieve functionality beyond the current capabilities of an application server. It wanted more than content management, single sign-on, third-party content integration, reporting, and full-text indexing and search capabilities.

After considering portal offerings from iPlanet, Plumtree and Epicentric, ECOS chose Oracle 9i Application Server Portal because it "provided the best of breed in terms of capabilities and functionality on top of an application server," Iosifescu said. More important to ECOS, however, was that Oracle's portal offering was built using industry standards.

That was significant to the Java shop because it uses Java and EJBs to build business logic. "Oracle is fully J2EE-compliant and at the forefront of the XML wave," Iosifescu noted. Oracle's offering also facilitated rapid deployment, resulting in reduced development and implementation costs.

ECOS also realized that Oracle 9i Application Server Portal could provide integration with third-party content through portlets. A portlet is a component model that allows companies to integrate applications running on different servers. One portlet can send data information to another portlet and process it on the back end. Oracle has partners that have created business intelligence for the portlet component model, including Autonomy, Factiva, Northern Lights, Verity and Sitescape.

Web, non-Web or both
Along with Oracle and SAP, Hummingbird's EIP portal is one of the more complete and satisfying offerings on the market, according to Ovum, because it provides integration for both structured and unstructured content. In fact, that is one of the reasons legal company McGuireWoods LLP, Richmond, Va., chose Hummingbird EIP as its portal solution.

McGuireWoods was looking for a portal that could provide tight integration with its DOCSFusion three-tier document management system and Fulcrum Knowledge Server.

"We were not just looking for an application that could serve up a bunch of different Web pages within one window," explained Tim Golden, McGuireWoods desktop architect. "We wanted a solution that could integrate Web- and non-Web-based content and applications and provide enterprise searching and navigation capabilities."

The firm considered portal solutions from Autonomy and Plumtree, but chose Hummingbird EIP because of the way it tightly integrated with McGuireWoods' existing Hummingbird and third-party in-house technologies.

"A lot of people see portals as simply a way to take a bunch of content from outside an organization and internally static Web pages and [to then] serve them up in one big application. That is not the business problem we were trying to solve," Golden said. "We wanted to provide our end users with one place to get to the applications and work they needed to get done during a day, while eliminating the need to log in to multiple systems many times during the day."

With that goal in mind, integration is paramount to McGuireWoods. But Hummingbird EIP provides integration only through some tweaking at this point. "We have our different applications talking to one another through custom back-end solutions we've written and using third-party products," Golden noted. "Currently, our accounting system talks to our other applications not using Hummingbird EIP." If Hummingbird could provide that type of integration out of the box, McGuireWoods would be quick to adopt it. "Having a portal that integrates disparate apps where we don't have to code it ourselves is great," he said.

Make mine mobile
Integration is not the only thing gaining in importance in portal offerings. Mobile device access is another. Ovum's Harris-Jones noted that the majority of portal vendors are trying to do something in terms of transmitting information to other devices. The technology for doing so at this point leaves much to be desired, however. Presently, the best offering in this arena, says Ovum, is Coreport from Boston-based Corechange Inc.

Coreport delivers a single e-access framework platform for both wired and wireless devices. While other vendors have some mobile device access capabilities, Coreport offers it out of the box, noted Jim Popp, vice president of Odyssey Reinsurance, a member of Fairfax Financial Holdings in Stamford, Conn.

Odyssey was looking for a portal to solve the challenge of sharing information and resources across its 14 independent operating company boundaries. The firm was not specifically looking for a portal offering to address mobile device access when it found Coreport to be perfect for an enterprise offering without requiring much work, Popp said.

The issue with mobile devices, he explained, is that it is impossible to jam all of the portal information onto these small devices. Although mobile device access will become more prominent in the near future, integration is imperative to Odyssey today. "It helps people think more about what they specifically need to do," Popp explained. "It makes people much more productive because they have so many resources close to their fingertips."

Integration will continue to be an important issue in the portal market, and mobile device access will follow shortly. Certain applications have a very high demand for mobile access. That demand will drive the market to address wireless technologies with regard to portals. Currently, the small footprint of mobile devices limits some of their ability for content and personalization, just as Popp said.

That is why when My California launched wireless access in June, it provided only limited information about the California electricity crisis, traffic information, news updates and lottery numbers. The challenge of wireless access is to decipher the most important information to present to a user. "The shakeout is finding where and what makes sense," said Baheti at the California Governor's Office.

McGuireWoods' Golden agrees. "Serving up the portal to our wireless users is not as important as providing the applications it holds," he noted. So for now, McGuireWoods is concentrating on putting apps on its portal for customer access. Golden added, however, "I use a portal like Yahoo! or whoever serves up information on my phone every day. I would eventually like to have most of our enterprise content available via Web-enabled devices for our users."

That is essentially where the market stands right now. The majority of organizations implementing portals are still in the process of getting them up and running with the breadth necessary for their employees, customers, suppliers and partners. Once that is mastered, they can tackle the next hurdle -- making that same information available in a wireless fashion.

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