Larry Bowden, vice president of portal and Lotus software solutions at IBM, claims that once portlets have been deployed, WebSphere Portal Server actually enables end-users to do their own integration -- a feature he calls a "jaw-dropper" for customers. "They thought they were going to have to go back and write data moving over from one application to another and put a new front end on it and all that. I'd say, 'Wait a minute, just bring them up to the screen in the form of portlets. Let the end-user order them the way they want.' And guess what? The technology senses the other portlets on the page, wires them together, and you've got a little mini process across multiple apps."
Plumtree's Kelman thinks the "at-the-glass" catch phrase is "somewhat derogatory" because it implies that integration at the portal server layer is superficial. "It's really not just at the glass. It's a level in between," Kelman says, where IT can pull together distributed user permissions and profile information, or harmonize multiple content or document management systems. "We have a Web service-based approach for extending the product, so that you're able to take advantage of all of that kind of information and data that's out there. So we're kind of a rationalizing layer above just the data but not merely at the glass. That's a real sweet spot for development."
New Development Paradigms
For portlet app dev, Plumtree provides its Studio Server, a wizard-driven environment similar to IBM's that targets semitechnical managers. For programmers, BEA offers WebLogic Workshop, a Web services development environment that enables convenient access to features across BEA's suite, including its WebLogic Portal, Application, Integration, and Tuxedo servers.
The trend among companies with server suites is to let advanced users take portal customization all the way to simple composite app dev, while presenting an integrated server environment for more serious development.
IBM's Bowden has a rule of thumb for where portal application development should take place. "Where it's a transient kind of integration, and it's an ad-hoc approach to structuring a little mini process, then let that be done in the portal," he suggests. "Don't churn an IT shop writing real code" on such apps -- or worse, he says, require IT to maintain them. Instead, basic composite apps can be saved as templates and shared among people in the same workgroup. But if that workgroup starts relying on the same template heavily, IT might want to replace it with a more robust app built on the back end.
While offering customization features for portal users, mySAP Enterprise Portal (which runs on top of SAP's ambitious, new NetWeaver server suite) distinguishes itself by letting developers exploit the unique strength of the world's largest enterprise application software vendor.
"SAP, unlike other technology platform companies, has this huge body of business processes," says SAP's Crider. "SAP has domain-specific expertise in CRM and ERP and supply-chain and product-life-cycle management in 20-odd industries."