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

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The OracleAS Integration tool helps developers create portlets that interact with SAP, PeopleSoft, Siebel, and other common environments. For pure J2EE application development, there's Oracle JDeveloper 10g; in addition to its nice visual environment for hard-core programming, a wizard helps nonprogrammers create uncomplicated, custom portlets. And Oracle has arguably one of the stronger partner programs, resulting in a library of more than 400 pre-built and supported portlets.

This portal offers decent content management. Browser-based wizards make it easy for page designers to publish information, and business users can use the same process to upload documents that automatically flow into a predefined content taxonomy. Although it doesn't match Vignette's prowess, Oracle content management goes beyond the basics with check-in/out, item-level permissions, and automatic content expiration.

Oracle Ultra Search indexes documents in databases, file systems, IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) mail systems, and Web servers. Yet unlike many search engines, Ultra Search explores more than one repository at a time -- resulting in better speed and more complete results. OracleAS Portal can initiate a search when users view a page and then display the results of the search automatically -- an interesting twist on customizing content for users (Plumtree is the other portal I reviewed with this capability).

Underneath this lies Oracle Application Server. The servlet engine retrieves portlet content, manages caching, assembles pages, and delivers completed pages in parallel, resulting in very fast response times. Oracle Application Server has a good, industrial-strength design, and because it's included in the package, you'll get decent value from it. 

Sun Java System Portal Server 6.2

Sun has adeptly applied its Java leadership and hardware technology to the portal area, yielding a secure, extensible, high-performance solution. Additionally, Java System Portal Server 6.2 runs on non-Sun app servers and allows substitution of other third-party components, including content-management and development tools.

Sun engineers clearly put a lot of effort into making administration foolproof. A single installer loaded the most up-to-date versions of the portal and related servers; afterward, a common console facilitated the management of both identity and portal services. 

I started my portal project at Sun's identity server, which handles building of role and organization structures. The only weakness I found was the difficulty in adding users, but Sun's late 2003 acquisition of Waveset Technologies may remedy that problem. The Waveset Lighthouse software wasn't available for my tests, but it appears to boost Sun's identity management, filling gaps in password maintenance while adding automatic user provisioning. 

Security, a traditional Sun strength, was very evident; I tied in several types of authentication, including LDAP directories. Sun's support of the Liberty Alliance 1.1 specification (and the upcoming 2.0 release) means you get secure single sign-on throughout multiple portals -- not just those that are Sun based -- as well as business intelligence and other enterprise systems. Of particular note, Sun includes a secure, remote access gateway and unique VPN on demand; this keeps security management within the portal and reduces infrastructure complexity.

Java System Portal Server doesn't skimp on enterprise-class management, from delegating administrators by organization to system tasks such as versioning and rollback. It also has one of the more sophisticated content delivery designs; you can finely target what appears within page sections to specific audiences.

This solution is also at the forefront of delivering personalized content to mobile devices, because the portal supports the JSR 188 specification and J2ME. However, creating the various containers, making portlets available to particular users, and defining rules that aggregate content requires a number of steps spread throughout the administration portal -- not the most streamlined of processes.

Sun's prebuilt portlets cover typical business needs, including Lotus Notes/Domino and Microsoft e-mail, collaboration, secure instant messaging, and bulletin boards. Sun includes a basic version of FatWire Content Server (a popular J2EE content-management package), giving users above-average document publishing functions. Integrated Search uses Sun's robot technology and covers major document and file types. As an extra touch, the search functions also leverage Java System Portal Server authentication, making search results germane to a user's role.

For linking to back-end systems and enterprise applications, Sun relies on connectors from its ISV community, where you'll likely find prebuilt adapters. However, some are sold by outside developers, such as Librados' JCA Plus Adapter for PeopleSoft, so you may need to budget for these extras.

As expected, creating, testing, and deploying JSR 168 and Web services portlets (with the plug-in for the included Sun Studio) is a snap for experienced Java developers. By June, Sun is expected to release Sun Java Studio Creator, with wizards so less-experienced users may create portlets.

Sun delivers solid technology and is the only vendor in these tests that I know to support Liberty Phase 2. With some oversights (such as WSRP support) slated for resolution this month with the release of Java System Portal 6 2004Q2, Sun fields a very respectable portal entry.

Vignette Application Portal 7.0

VAP (Vignette Application Portal) 7.0 is based on open standards, which allow standardized custom portlet development as well as portals that run across heterogeneous technology platforms. Yet the product doesn't require an expert technology background to perform most administration tasks, reducing the time required to launch portals and saving ongoing maintenance costs.

The Server Console's hierarchical menus let me manage all aspects of many Vignette portals, from adding components and delegating administration to building new portlets. Wizards walk you through these tasks, contributing to quick site setup. For example, the Site Creation Wizard helped me create new pages, repurpose exiting portlets, and tailor the appearance of each portal.

VAB (Vignette Application Builder), which is part of the enterprise suite (one of three portal configurations Vignette sells), adds an intranet application bundle of more than 100 portlets -- many that I feel are very valuable. My test portal employed the event calendar, internal job posting, help desk, and knowledge-base portlets. These 100 bundled portlets are in addition to the discussion forums, search, and e-mail portlets available in all configurations. 

Portal administration with Vignette is superb. I delegated control over different portals to various administrators by merely checking off permitted options.

All administrators use the common console, which is available in multiple languages. Plus, the application bundles are translated for 144 locales, a major achievement that may reduce site development for multinational companies.

Another VAP differentiator is its "multitenancy" architecture, a structure sometimes used for hosting outsourced IT services. In this case, it allows multiple portals to run on one server rather than an entire server farm. Along with the aforementioned administration partitioning and capability to scale for multiple sites, it positions VAP well for large enterprise deployments.

End-user personalization isn't as robust compared to other portal products, but you can add permissions to portlets so they're only visible to certain groups. The overall look and function of a portal is on par with the other portals tested, offering clear navigation and intuitive controls on each portlet.

VAP supports a tremendous range of application servers, databases, and OSes, and the companion Vignette Application Builder is just as open. For example, with the Vignette IDE plug-in for JSR 168, I created a portlet using BEA WebLogic Workshop in a few drag-and-drop motions. As you might expect, Application Builder also reduces development work on portals that integrate content from other Vignette products, such as Vignette Content Management and Collaboration Services.

The company also takes a realistic approach to third-party integration. Although there's standard connectivity to SAP and Siebel systems, they aren't hardwired as in a typical solution. Consequently, the inevitable customization of these portlets requires less work compared to other vendors' implementations.

The Web Services Manager makes adding Web services into a portal even easier. This tool stepped me through searching for a service (which can be based on Microsoft .Net or J2EE) and wrapping it in an intuitive interface.

Taken as a whole, VAP 7.0 is a scalable solution that permits quick deployment and easy extension of initial portals through integration with existing applications. 

Portal Proliferation

After hefty testing, it's clear that each of these portals have their strengths and weaknesses.

BEA WebLogic Workshop lets developers build apps for the entire BEA enterprise platform and reuse business logic with WebLogic Portal 8.1. Sun Java System Portal Server has the strongest technical foundation and standards support, including security and mobile enablement, but its setup and maintenance will require Java skills.

Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server 2003 has the fastest out-of-box setup and best user experience when allied with Office 2003, but its standards support isn't as robust as other portals. OracleAS Portal 10g evolved from a simple database application into a full-fledged portal with pleasant administration and strong permissions to target content to various audiences.

Vignette's just-released Application Portal 7.0 has a proven J2EE architecture that lets you reclaim investments in application servers, and its easy management and packaged applications enable quick portal deployment.

The two previously reviewed portals also stack up nicely. IBM recently shipped a point release to WebSphere Portal, infusing it with more platform support, improved content management, and ability to run JSR 168 portlets. Although not formally re-tested in this review, I feel these changes put WebSphere Portal 5 in close running with the other top portal offerings.

Plumtree, the traditional pure-play portal leader, maintains its overall top spot. Although it is one of the most expensive products per user, it gets top grades in the most critical test: ease of integrating with other apps, which means reduced IT costs and well as the highest bottom-line return on your investment.

Don't be dismayed if you can't find a perfect portal solution at first glance; often, there isn't one. The close scores of these seven products prove there's no absolute leader. In fact, some of the most successful portal projects combine technology from several vendors for true customization, as long as you keep the fundamental requirements in mind (see "Checklist for enterprise portals"). Once you get below surface similarities, portals are one of the best ways to gain better value from your complex technology infrastructure.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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