IT still spending on portals
- By Colleen Frye
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
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
''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
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,
* 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
* pure play' portal solutions like those from Plumtree and Epicentric Inc.;
* portal technology built into packaged apps like those from SAP and
* 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
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
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
See the related story 'Web services and