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.

An alternate method -- fusing diverse systems through the portal application -- is the path Vignette and Plumtree(reviewed in February) follow. With this method, you may sacrifice some ability to manage applications throughout their life for the freedom to choose the best application server and other components to meet specific needs.

Lastly, ERP vendors such as SAP provide portal access to their own application along with some additional integration capabilities. SAP was invited to participate in this roundup but declined.

BEA WebLogic Platform 8.1

By folding WebLogic Portal (and the optional WebLogic Integration product) into its WebLogic Platform 8.1, BEA delivers an outstanding unified platform for building and integrating not just portals but also enterprise applications. Developers can work on familiar programming turf and deploy their apps to the portal using Web services, while Web-based tools let business users quickly assemble and configure new portals.

A single installer loads all parts of WebLogic Platform 8.1 for quick and trouble-free startup. Using the included Portal Designer, I assembled prebuilt elements into a portal and programmed portlets; the Design view made it easy to insert, rearrange, and remove portlets.

Common services, such as collaboration and search, are available, along with several specific to e-commerce that make storefronts relatively easy to build. If you need more, WebLogic Integration Server, which wasn't available for testing, has adapters for a long list of third-party applications and legacy mainframe systems.

The WebLogic IDE (integrated development environment) Application palette exposed the Java elements of my portal, which simplified adding navigation to portlets and performing related jobs. I also liked the unified user profile; it let me construct a single sign-on for users that allowed access to the general portal and passed their credentials to a custom content-management system and Oracle financial system.

Because WebLogic Portal is XML-based, you have great flexibility in changing a portal's look and feel. I easily altered themes, menu structures, and layout in WebLogic Workshop. More complex tasks, such as building Java portlets from the ground up, are equally straightforward; Workshop automatically generates JSP code based on information entered in a Java control's palette.

I found that this approach reduced low-level coding, saving time and effort. What's more, the Portal Resource Designer let me define the properties, rules, and actions that display personalized content to users -- and quickly create campaigns to send e-mails or product discounts.

The Web interface is clearly organized into major tasks, such as portal and content management, which should reduce training. Plus, resources may be customized by user roles, decentralizing portal management. Skilled developers can use Workshop to code portlets and perform elaborate portal template design, and the WebLogic Administration portal allows business users to build and modify portals in parallel.

WebLogic Portal's content management is adequate. Users can view a folder hierarchy and upload various types of files. Similarly, search locates information within the BEA repository -- but it doesn't extend to as many external sources as some of the other portal products, such as Microsoft SharePoint Portal.

On the flip side, the Administration portal doesn't skimp on what BEA terms "interaction management" or personalization. For instance, using the Content Selector Editor, I had no trouble specifying which documents appeared in the portal based on a visitor's role and other criteria. End-users also receive traditional portal functions, such as customizable My Pages.

For rapid assembly of custom-fit portals, especially those that need to integrate with existing commerce and other complex apps, WebLogic Portal 8.1 is a good fit.

Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server 2003

For organizations invested in Microsoft technology, SharePoint Portal Server 2003 (and underlying Windows SharePoint Services) provides the best out-of-box experience of the portal products tested.

Installation requires Windows Server 2003 and works best with SQL Server 2000 and Active Directory. With those requirements met, the portal installs in less than an hour, yielding a functional site complete with search, topics, and news. What's more, setup loads various Web Parts (portlets) that end-users can immediately hook up to desktop applications such as Microsoft Excel 2003, thereby lowering development costs.

SharePoint Portal Server 2003's usability is apparent from the outset. I had no trouble assigning roles to domain users and defining audiences imported from Microsoft Exchange distribution lists. Similarly, molding the default portal required little more than switching to edit mode and dropping Web Parts into place.

You'll find multiple ways to structure a SharePoint-built portal. I began filling out my portal by creating topics and areas, which appear in a site map hierarchy listing. Or you can build a new site that becomes searchable from the Sites Directory and is automatically integrated with the portal's navigation. In either case, uploading files from the default document library can start immediately.

Like most Microsoft products, SharePoint Portal provides a rich end-user experience thanks to especially accessible functions. A MySite is built for each user when they first access this feature, and users can easily populate a MySite by dragging and dropping Web Parts. MySites may either be private or have a public view with shareable information -- the tenet of teamwork. 

Microsoft's proprietary search engine performed very well in returning relevant results for documents in SharePoint Portal sites, Lotus Notes, Exchange public folders, and file shares. And because SharePoint is deeply integrated with Office 2003, I was able to create a new Word document and save it directly to my portal's Document Workspace. This opens up a world of basic content management features, including versioning, simple routing, and approvals.

Likewise, the portal sites are basically FrontPage 2003 Web sites, so I could change the look of my portal with minimal effort. For developers, FrontPage 2003 is a good option for creating SharePoint site templates; I also used FrontPage 2003 to build a data-driven Web Part that displayed information from a SQL 2000 customer database.

At the next level, IT professionals can create Web Parts with Visual Studio .Net to interact with applications and Web Services. The .Net object model helped me build a custom Web Part more quickly and with fewer lines of code than with ASP. Furthermore, SharePoint stores user credentials so you can create a single sign-on for users to access multiple applications.

On the downside, JSR 168 is not supported. And of course, it helps to be a Windows shop: The Office 2003 focus means there's a list of functions that won't work (or are of limited value) with Office 2000 and Office XP. However, SharePoint Portal Server 2003 can use any of the 300 Microsoft BizTalk Server application connectors, and SharePoint ships fairly complete code samples to integrate with SAP, Siebel, and PeopleSoft.


Overall, SharePoint Portal Server 2003 has advanced significantly from the last release. The seamless integration with familiar Microsoft desktop and development tools helps offset the potentially higher cost of implementing this solution if you don't already use the latest Microsoft client and back-end products.

OracleASPortal 10g

Oracle has built an interesting software deployment model. Instead of an à la carte approach, Oracle Application Server 10g includes OracleAS Portal and a variety of complementary tools and services, including OracleAS Reports, Oracle Single Sign-On, Oracle Ultra Search, OID (Oracle Internet Directory), and OracleAS Integration.

Even with all these parts, the system remains simple to manage and use. The only caveat is that because Portal 10g is so closely tied to all the other pieces of the package, there's not a lot of flexibility to pick and choose alternate components.

OracleAS Portal's built-in portlets allowed me to apply different levels of security to different pages so I could hand over section administration to others. Because Application Server has so many components, Oracle takes responsibility for core service if you use its directory server, which can then integrate with third-party apps. (But you're on your own with a third-party ID product.)

For example, OID stores user and group information; in turn, OID interacts with third-party security management products, including Netegrity SiteMinder. This interaction sometimes means extra administration steps compared to other portal solutions because it creates an extra layer versus just tying directly into an existing directory. However, I didn't have trouble controlling user privileges and synchronizing with an external LDAP directory.

An initial Oracle portal can be populated with little or no programming. A simple wizard walked me through creating pages, assigning layouts, and adding portlets. From there, I specified the amount of customization available to end-users -- entitlements that ranged from rearranging portlets to full page-building options. Built-in functions such as smart links helped me quickly create navigation bars for a pleasing end-user experience.

Similar to the Sun and IBM offerings, Portal 10g allows page templates specifically for mobile devices. Moreover, Oracle has top international options, supports 28 languages, and allows authors to maintain multiple translations of their content.

There's no lack of ways to populate an OracleAS portal. I started with the basics -- WebClipping portlets that display information from a Web page within the portal -- and quickly graduated to a dynamic portlet that charted sales data in an Oracle database.

Building this function and passing data from one portlet to another was relatively easy and codeless. Adding HTML and JSP content to portal areas requires just a few steps. Oracle's remote provider let me include data from outside sources using Web Services by simply searching a public directory for the service I wanted.

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