In-Depth

IT still spending on portals

A single point of corporate access to structured and unstructured data appeals to cautious IT managers. This demand is attracting the attention of IBM, Sun and Microsoft developers. In a technology market that continues to be more bear than bull, enterprise portals represent one area IT buyers and industry observers are still bullish about and perhaps, more significantly, willing to spend money on. The enterprise portal market, though relatively small today, is projected to grow from $80 million in 2002 to $2 billion in 2005, according to Giga Information Services, Cambridge, Mass.

Indeed, the idea of a single point of access to existing enterprise data, both structured and unstructured, where users can collaborate and get a personalized view of data holds appeal as a way to leverage legacy investments and organizational knowledge. It is so appealing, in fact, that platform players like IBM, Microsoft and Sun have the portal market in their crosshairs and have made recent announcements about their portal strategies.

''Whenever the platform players get involved, never discount that,'' said Tom Koulopoulos, president of Boston-based Delphi Group, an industry research and consulting organization. At the same time, the convergence of the emerging Web services market promises to overcome some portal limitations, such as incompatibility among different vendors' solutions.

''Portals are nonstandardized -- that's where Web services come in,'' said Koulopoulos. ''Portals and Web services are the single greatest advance in terms of how we deploy technology and use it -- that's the rationalization behind the enormous interest in portals.''

For companies planning to implement a portal, determining business needs, mapping portal features to business requirements, deciding what content will be presented and in what way, choosing an appropriate solution and personalizing content are all steps to success.

But will portals change your life or your company? The jury is still out, but the odds are high that they will change your desktop. ''The idea is that you can access anything from your portal,'' said Colin White, president of Ashland, Ore.-based Database Associates and the current conference chair of DCI's Corporate Portal Conference. ''They will become the standard Webtop for users; when you power up your PC, what you'll see is your portal. You'll do your complete job function from your portal. More and more business users are pretty familiar with the Web interface; from their viewpoint, the portal is a Web browser interface but personalized,'' he said.

Added Delphi Group's Koulopoulos, ''Portals are meant to give an orientation to a messy desktop ... going forward you won't interact with any system without a portal.''

While portals may change the desktop, they will not change the workplace in and of themselves, cautioned Koulopoulos. Rather, they are a conduit for sharing and leveraging knowledge, which may lead to a better organization. ''Portals will not cause you to work faster. The benefit of portals is in the communities they will create,'' he said. ''Portals are about collaboration. We're not really adding anything, we're connecting. It's about making what we have more responsive.''

Office superstore retailer Staples has deployed portal technology from market leader Plumtree Software Inc., San Francisco. The goal was to improve consistency and make it easier for employees to find information, thus helping associates to be more efficient, said Britt Hed, Staples' IS director.

''We had a lot of internal Web sites and inconsistencies between Web sites,'' said Hed. ''For instance, an intern might develop a Web site, [but] after they left it didn't get updated. There was a lot of time and attention devoted to little 'mushrooms' all over the company, which was not a good use of the Staples associates' time. We wanted people to be able to find things and have that information be current and a good resource.''

Staples also has a custom-developed vendor portal where vendors can retrieve payables and purchase order information, standards, guidelines and vendor metrics. ''This reduces phone inquiries and improves customer service,'' Hed said.

Today, Staples uses Plumtree for both its corporate portal, where employees can access human resource information, for example, and for its store portal, where store employees can access information pertinent to pricing and products. This type of internal-facing portal, often dubbed B2E (business-to-employee), is where many firms begin. Building on a successful B2E portal, organizations may then expand to customer-facing portals (B2C) and partner-facing portals (B2B). Put simply, said Delphi Group's Koulopoulos, ''Portals are a second- or third-generation intranet or extranet.''

What is on a portal?
Today's portals integrate three kinds of content, said Database Associates' White: information, applications and collaborative services.

''The ideal [portal] integrates all three [kinds of content],'' White said, ''but in reality, you tend to get more information-centric portals focused around integrating business intelligence and content management systems. I believe that's where, if the pure-play vendors survive, they'll tend to play. Geared more toward application integration is the e-business portal, where the Web infrastructure vendors will play; that's the bigger job.''

He added, ''It's easy to get ROI centering around information integration and collaboration. A more difficult and longer project to do is application integration.''

What makes a portal a true portal, say observers, is the personalization of content. Just like large, general-purpose portals like Yahoo! allow users to personalize their own ''myyahoo'' home pages, enterprise portals personalize the view for users based on their 'role' in the organization -- whether it is salesperson, human resources professional or financial analyst.

''An enterprise portal will show you multiple communities,'' said White, ''but what information you see is defined by a personalized interface: You log on, [and since] you're already assigned with a role, it then decides what content you can see. The UI is personalized to your role, and the role defines what content you see.

''We're heading toward federated portals, where you [have] multiple portal communities accessed by a single enterprise portal,'' White said. You do not want to log on to multiple portals, he added.

In their role, White said, a user may want specific information that is user-driven, so they must define the role and what content they want. ''The other thing we're starting to see is application-driven personalization,' he said, 'where the system learns what content you're interested in.''

For example, he said, ''let's say it's a Web storefront. Amazon is a good example of personalizing what you see in the storefront. Different types of portals may be project- or content-based; some organizations may want role-based portals, while others may want the system to learn what you want.''

Personalization, maintains White, is key to getting ROI from a portal. Not all portal products support role-based personalization. But ''the way you get ROI is by personalizing information,'' he said.

Delphi Group's Koulopoulos is a bit more blunt: ''If your portal doesn't support roles, get a different portal,'' he said. In addition to personalizing content, firms can develop different types of portals based on their needs. Many start with a second-generation intranet targeted at employees (B2E). Delphi Group defines some additional portal types:

* Data access -- business intelligence (BI), B2E
* Customer-facing services -- B2E, B2C 3Sales - B2C, B2B
* Process support -- B2B, B2C, B2E
* Collaboration and projects -- B2B, B2E
* Industry communities -- B2B, peer-to-peer (P2P)
* Online exchanges -- B2B, P2P
* e-learning communities -- B2E, P2P

Database Associates' White said at seminars he always polls attendees on what types of portals they are building. ''Initially, about two-thirds were building internal portals and one-third were building e-business portals,'' he said. ''But the growth on the e-business side has been quite substantial, and we're now heading toward a 50/50 split.''

Choosing a solution
In choosing a portal solution, Delphi's Koulopoulos recommends evaluating a product based on the following features: presentation, personalization, collaboration, process, publishing and distribution, search, categorization and integration.

''If you buy a portal, it should have all of these features to some degree, and security applies to every level,'' he said.

Koulopoulos suggests using these features and functions to help identify the requirements of an organization's portal, and to then rank them in importance. Companies should map these priorities to vendor capabilities, he said.

Database Associates' White suggests organizations determine how a particular solution may fit with existing technology strategies. ''You need to fit the solution to the infrastructure of the organization. If you're a Java organization, you're probably not going to buy a portal based on [Microsoft's] .NET. Also, look at issues like content management - what is the strategy there and how does that relate? What is your business intelligence strategy? There are three pieces to look at: user requirements, how the solution fits the technology infrastructure, and how it relates to your other technologies.''

When it is time to look at vendors, White divides the market into three segments:

* pure play' portal solutions like those from Plumtree and Epicentric Inc.;
* portal technology built into packaged apps like those from SAP and PeopleSoft;
* and enterprise integration or infrastructure software like IBM's WebSphere Portal, Sun ONE Portal Server (formerly iPlanet Portal Server) and Oracle9iAS Portal.

An infrastructure approach was the right fit for Perficient, an Austin, Texas-based systems integrator and provider of e-business solutions to Global 3000 companies in the central United States, said Andy Sweet, the firm's chief technology officer. The company has more than 180 full-time employees spread out across the country and abroad, with six Solutions Centers in the central U.S., Toronto and London. Perficient turned to Plumtree for its first portal, then changed direction for its second iteration.

''We had expense reports, capacity planning and a number of other apps we needed to tie together. We wanted to deliver those to our consultants with a consistent look and feel. These applications were not integrated on the back end; we integrated them at the desktop through the [Plumtree] portal,'' Sweet said. ''We built gadgets [Plumtree's term for connectors] around them, so you might have an expense report gadget, a time-entry gadget and a stock price gadget. We did not have to rewrite apps, but if we made an update to the back end, you would have to replicate the information to the different applications. That's an issue that came up pretty early on.''

Sweet said when IBM announced WebSphere Portal and Perficient evaluated it, ''it became obvious that was [the] route to go, not just for us but for our customers. For our second-generation portal, we're going with a portal that's built into the application server and is more a part of our overall application infrastructure. Plumtree was an appendage to our infrastructure; we spent a lot of time trying to integrate the portal into the infrastructure. Application servers are the backbone and entry point to applications, so it makes sense.'' (Truth in reporting: Perficient is also a reseller of WebSphere portal in addition to a user.)

In addition, said Sweet, because WebSphere is built on the J2EE architecture, ''we have options, such as using JCA. We can connect to CICS, IMS COBOL, all different back ends. You can also plug in your own EAI vendor very easily. Finally, it gives you a path to a Web services approach, integrating inside [the] firewall that way, through SOAP, WSDL and UDDI.''

Sweet made a point that some users may miss when designing their portal strategies: Portals do not yet make back-end integration issues go away.

Added Delphi's Koulopoulos, ''EAI and portals go hand in glove -- that's where Tibco has made a market [with its Tibco Portal]. There's nothing about portals that takes care of the EAI issues.''

Changing the culture
Portals are not without cultural pitfalls either, said Perficient's Sweet. Even if the technology selection is meticulous, there is still the matter of getting people to use them. ''You have to take into account the culture, and driving people to the portal. It's a key point if [you] want to get ROI,'' he said.

Peter Auditore, vice president of marketing at Toronto-based Hummingbird sums it up: ''Portals are a real cultural change in the way people consume information.''

At Staples, Hed said migrating from the intranet was a challenge. ''People had several things about the intranet that they were dissatisfied with until they realized there was change in wind. The message here is that change management should not be underestimated, even when you think you are offering a superior product. We spent a lot of time talking to business units and doing little prototypes and pilots. Usability is the key when you do portal work. Listen a lot, get creative about getting feedback, do surveys, focus groups, get the information out there and be customer-focused,'' he said.

One way to circumvent some resistance is to get executive sponsorship. ''You need a senior-level business sponsor,'' said Database Associates' White. ''Then you need to understand who will be the users and their needs, the kind of business content they need and how that content should flow.''

And determining taxonomy for that content is something that cannot be done in isolation, noted Delphi Group's Koulopoulos. ''Creating a taxonomy ... must be done by committee. It's one of the most torturous things you'll ever do. Get records management involved, get the librarians involved. You need facilitators -- this is religious.''

At the U.K. head office of De La Rue, the world's largest commercial security printer and papermaker, the initiative for a portal came from the chief executive, said Andrew Blachford, knowledge manager, group information systems. ''He was very much aware that the resources and capabilities we have at De La Rue haven't been best used, that we can make a better business by sharing our knowledge, so it was driven from the top down. I think at a certain level it has to be; I don't believe these things often succeed coming from the bottom up.''

The process of setting a portal strategy, to be targeted initially at sales and marketing staff, was very inclusive, Blachford said. ''After we selected the portal product [the Hummingbird Portal, which has an XML-based plug-in architecture], the first thing we did was to engage both Hummingbird and Xerox consultants to conduct workshops with key and respected members of the sales and marketing teams. They were shown some of the features that were possible. We got the business requirements, prioritized them, put costs against them in terms of what development work was required, and went back to them with what we could deliver. Final discussions fine-tuned these.''

De La Rue's portal has been deployed for about six months, and has approximately 150 users from the sales and marketing force, which includes the divisions of cash, currency and global services, Blachford said. ''We use [Microsoft] Outlook functionality to create 'stickiness' for them,'' he said. ''We also have business information, news feeds coming in, the corporate telephone directory, discussion forums and a number of databases they look into.''

Even though sales and marketing professionals now have access to information they never did before, Blachford said the portal is not utilized as much as it could be. ''We are having to keep the publicity up on it. If we did nothing, I suspect it wouldn't be very well used even though it comes from their requirements.'' In addition, Blachford said the Hummingbird product does not support the complete functionality of Outlook, ''so people go back to Outlook. We climbed a steep learning curve during the early stages, but now it's looking as though we are addressing the key business drivers.''

While Database Associates' White said some organizations implement portals by taking away the old way of doing things, De La Rue's Blachford said that for his organization, that is ''too Big Brother.''

White suggests user training, marketing and branding to help users recognize the productivity gains possible, followed by a phased-in approach. ''People use things when they gain productivity,'' said White. ''A lot of technology hasn't been successful, but the exciting thing about portals is that we have technology where you can demonstrate productivity and ROI. Once you switch on the portal, more people will want to use it. It's very positive technology.''

See the related story 'Web services and portals'

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