B2E portals range between two extremes: enterprisewide home pages with limited functionality and targeted portals that seriously address groups of related business processes. "Broad and shallow" portals of filtered news feeds and company announcements have fallen out of favor. Employees tend to shrug them off, deployment often proves harder than anticipated, and IT managers have trouble showing ROI. Instead, narrower and deeper portals have been quietly taking root in the enterprise.
According to a recent Jupiter Research report, 80 percent of companies surveyed has already deployed portals or planned to deploy them in the near future. Yet portal rollouts have been harder than the "simple, out-of-the-box dream that portals seemed to sell in the late '90s," says Nate Root, a senior analyst at Forrester Research.
In part that's because the goal has shifted away from knowledge management where "a portal can just be installed and pointed at a document repository," Root says. Instead, portals typically shoulder the heavier burden of aggregating applications that may be scattered all over an organization -- from an HR function in SAP R3 to a one-off Web application -- and presenting them in a consistent, browser-based UI built around individual user needs.
"The first phase is to integrate with their existing Web apps," says Rick Park, director of portal solutions at Computer Generated Solutions (CGS), an IT consultancy. "It cannot be a rip-and-replace. No one is going to go for that. It has to be pure integration with whatever you have."
In the browser-based portal window, applications surface as "portlets," graphical objects that can be arranged much like users customize My Yahoo pages. Portal servers can also provide an organizing principle for future app dev, offering a consistent graphical environment for Web apps much as Windows does for desktop apps. "The average customer is going to build over 100 Web applications in the next two years," says Plumtree's Kelman. "So they want to have a framework that is going to help them manage that and make that a repeatable process."
Integration at the Glass
When IT develops a portal, one of the first opportunities for quick payback is to expose applications that have already been developed on the application server. The portal acts as a presentation layer for the app server -- plus a UI for interacting with remote applications that may have been integrated with the app server, such as ERP business logic or mainframe transaction systems.
Greg Crider, director of product marketing for enterprise portals at SAP, has watched portals evolve to reflect increasingly integrated enterprises. "I think the biggest trend has been, when people go to deploy mission-critical portal applications, they realize that they need to integrate the portal with other parts of their technology infrastructure," Crider says. "So that the portal itself must provide this presentation layer, this people-centric integration, but it also needs to work with data integration."
Yet portals need not restrict themselves to existing integration. "We can do integration at the portal, user-interface layer," says CGS's Park, whose consultancy typically deploys IBM's WebSphere Portal Server. "You may build a page that pulls in information from SAP, DB2, SQL, and the CRM system. The content is being pulled from five different areas, yet we didn't have to do any integration on the back end. We call that 'integration at the glass.' "