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Architect looks at Java portals

By ADT staff

(Editor's note: JDT conducted this interview with Thomas Schaeck, IBM WebSphere Portal architect, via e-mail.)

Q: How does portal technology fit into the broader application development cycle?

A: Portal technology can save a large amount of development effort when creating Web sites. Today's leading portal products already provide many common functions of Web sites like page navigation, aggregation of content, end-user customization of content they want to see when logging in to the site as well as personalization, manageable access control, management for the documents being served, site search capability and many useful portlets out of the box. To adapt to specific customer Web site needs, portal products can be customized to a high degree so that they conform to the look and feel and corporate identity desired, and can be extended by developing custom portlets for any applications a customer may need. Last fall, the programming model for portlets had been standardized through the Java Portlet API (JSR 168), which is already supported by IBM WebSphere Portal and various other major portal vendors in their respective portal products as well as in tools.

Q: How is portal technology evolving to meet the needs of the Java developer community?

A: The Java Portlet Programming model is the primary, standard way for developers to provide components to be used in portals. Portal products differentiate each other in the extent to which they provide useful services and components for implementing portlets and the tooling to support that. IBM WebSphere Portal provides a rich set of services for use by portlets, such as caching, proxied access to remote content, credential vault for secure SSO to back-end apps, click-to-action support as well as support for use of Struts and JSF technology within portlets and back-end connectors. Capabilities like this are key to enable developers to write meaningful business portlets that integrate well with their business applications.

Q: How do you define the role of the enterprise portal?

A: Enterprise portals bring together people, information and processes. They make available the right information and applications to the right users at the right time, to help people do their work and collaborate more efficiently. I believe we will see big steps towards workplace functionality and business process integration this year. These improvements will add a lot of value and boost user productivity.

Q: What trends are you seeing in the enterprise portal development?

A: The early portal products were pretty much focused on providing aggregated information and applications to users. We can now see a shift toward more advanced workplace technology and business process integration. Through workplace technology based on portals, as delivered in Lotus Workplace, users can collaborate more efficiently through additional functions such as team collaboration, instant messaging and Web conferencing, all integrated in one workplace offering. Business Process Integration in portals provides additional value, since it allows end users to participate in business processes without really having to know the processes they participate in. As such, the portal automatically finds out which tasks are pending for each user and lists those tasks in a personal task list from which the end user can launch the tasks. The portal will then automatically display the right page with the right applications to work on the launched task to the user.

Q: How does personalization and click-to-action play a role?

A: Personalization is key to bringing the right information to the right users to ensure that users do not get too much irrelevant information but, instead, are actually able to consume the information that interests them. Through personalization rules, administrators can [know] exactly which information should be delivered to which users. Click-to-action allows user to transfer information from one portlet to one or more other portlets -- e.g. a user might select a customer record in one portlet and trigger via click-to-action that the customer details are displayed in a related portlet.

Q: What industry standards come into play with portal development today? What standards are in the pipeline?

A: Obviously, the Java Portlet API (JSR 168) and Web Services for Remote Portlets (WSRP) are key to portal development and, therefore, are directly relevant. IBM has initiated these standards and implemented them in WebSphere Portal and the Apache WSRP4J and Apache Pluto reference implementations because we think they are essential for the future of the portal business. For the WSRP and JSR 168 standards, we have extensions to allow for interaction of portlets and WSRP services in the pipeline. Another standard that is currently being defined is JSR 170 for access to document repositories; this JSR will allow portlets to access content in a standardized fashion. In terms of business process integration in portals, I think BPEL4WS is a very important standard for the definition of business processes to be exposed through portals as the user interface.

Q: How has portal technology evolved to meet requirements for Web services development?

A: The Java Portlet Programming model supported by most portal products allows access to Web services just like they can be accessed from servlets. In addition, portals have begun to support entire portlets as user-facing Web services to be consumed by other portals, according to the WSRP standard. For example, IBM WebSphere Portal allows both publishing portlets as WSRP services as well as integrating WSRP services for use like local portlets. IBM also conducted interop tests with the Apache WSRP4J open-source implementation of WSRP as well as with various other portal vendors.

One of the use cases that WSRP enables is that content providers can establish channels of content (e.g., news, weather, stock quotes, etc.) that can be received by any WSRP-compliant consumer portal. Another use case is that portals can, in turn, publish their local portlets as WSRP services for use by other portals or by rich clients.

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