Diving into portals' distinguishing characteristics
More than a single access point to enterprise data sources, portals are evolving into the Web application framework of the future
Portals are no longer just jazzed-up intranets. Now that many applications are Web-enabled, portals are becoming the enterprise desktop and replacing the familiar browser. Dive below the surface, and you'll find a portal's distinguishing characteristics: Rich functions that enable swift information exchange for employees, partners, and consumers.
According to Gartner, a wise portal deployment can help enterprises realize millions of dollars in productivity savings, because it often reduces days of employee workload to a few hours. Further, Meta Group reports that portals can return your investment in 18 months or less.
Yet for IT managers, reaching this nirvana is far from certain; there's a long list of information- and system-architecture issues to be resolved first. In the end, choosing a portal isn't about infrastructure -- it's about how a portal addresses and handles the tasks your business deems most crucial.
For example, a basic portal won't automatically lessen information overkill; that takes support for strong identity management along with role-based customization and personalization. If this support is executed properly, users log in once and interact with information tailored to their jobs -- whether that data is fed from a legacy database; content- or document-management system; another portal; or a new, Internet-based application.
Moreover, portals are redefining the way new applications are created, deployed, and managed. At the core of this movement you'll find Web services and related open standards. Microsoft .Net, Sun's Java System, WSRP (Web Services for Remote Portlets), and a number of Java Portlet Specifications -- JSR (Java Specification Request) 168, 170, 188, and 207 -- may help disparate systems freely interact (see "PortletStandard Predicament"). This openness and modularity provides the option of purchasing third-party portlets for specific functions. Development efforts -- based on existing .Net and Java skills your staff likely holds -- can then be focused on an enterprise's unique portal requirements.
The top portal solutions will run on common J2EE app servers, such as IBM WebSphere or BEA WebLogic, or .Net, or both. Here's what differentiates otherwise closely matched products: whether a portal runs best on a vendor's own platform and how well it truly integrates with existing enterprise systems, such as directory and security.
There are three portal formats. One favors a tightly integrated APS (application platform suite) approach. Here, the application server, integration framework, and portal are combined into one platform. BEA, Oracle, Sun, Microsoft, and IBM(reviewed in October) follow this model.
With the APS approach, developers can more easily leverage existing databases and reuse business logic. However, you can get locked in to a particular vendor's method of deploying applications or server management.