Plumtree reins in diverse Web apps

Portal package oversees security, content, collaboration, and search

Does your organization often turn to portals in an attempt to manage the sprawl of Web-based applications? If so, you may be all too aware that these projects can fail to deliver their anticipated ROI. That’s because IT managers overlook the need to extend core functions -- content management, search, and security -- to the applications that appear within a portal. As a result, companies often settle for a portal that provides a decent user experience for a few locally hosted functions. However, the portal doesn’t provide an overarching administration framework, nor does it help you lower development and maintenance expenses.

Of the top portal vendors -- Microsoft, IBM, and Plumtree -- the latter appears to best understand these issues and effectively address them.

Plumtree Enterprise Web Suite includes major updates to every Plumtree product. Plumtree Corporate Portal 5.0 offers new community, knowledge management, and administrative functions, most notably the ability to index content and broker security from many systems. Complementing the portal are the Plumtree Search, Collaboration, Content, and Studio (portlet development) Servers that better integrate with the portal. Equally important, you get an architecture based entirely on Web services (either Java or .Net), which simplifies creating portal applications and customizing the user interface.

Getting Personal

Plumtree Corporate Portal 5.0 streamlines setup so deploying this solution requires fewer customization steps and less time compared to Version 4. For example, ready-made configurations for menu layouts and navigation cut my initial setup time to about half a day.

The straightforward tab-based navigation is consistent throughout, which simplifies management and use of the portal. My testing started with user and group administration. I especially liked this version’s support for groups within groups, which I created dynamically by synchronizing with an LDAP directory server. As a result, the only small amount of work at this step was granting groups access to certain portal areas.

Similarly, I had no trouble creating page and community templates, which entailed simply picking the desired task from a drop-down list and then pointing to a specific object. To build a page template, for instance, I navigated to the Collaboration Server folder, selected various out-of-the-box portlets (including calendar, discussions, and task lists) and then dragged and dropped them where I wanted them on the page.

Portals often give each user a “My Page” they can personalize, which is certainly possible with Plumtree. But truly useful portals these days are community-based -- another Plumtree 5.0 strong point. As with other tasks, community-building went swiftly: I merely named my community, selected a template for the Home Page, and applied branding, such as a custom header and footer.

Even in this early stage, I appreciated Plumtree Portal’s granular security. Each object’s access control list determines who may, for example, read and edit it. As a result, with just a few page and community templates along with appropriate security settings, I created a unique portal experience for many users. Case in point: A person logging in with a specific marketing role was automatically directed to a community containing a calendar of trade shows for his interest area along with topical discussions.

Spanning the Enterprise

Nice branding, collaboration, and usability aside, my portal still seemed a bit bare, so next on the testing checklist was creating a knowledge directory. Without difficulty, I created a folder hierarchy for documents, messages, and Web pages. And here’s where Plumtree's additional enterprise strengths surface. First, I placed filters on each folder to limit the content that would enter. Next, I used the WWW Crawler to scan external Web sites for competitive product material of interest to marketing staff and requested the Crawler to save results to the desired folders. Other included Plumtree crawlers import content from Windows files, Novell servers, Documentum, Microsoft Exchange, and Lotus Notes.

The portal’s manual search function worked very well in letting users find information in the knowledge folders. Moreover, I used the Snapshot Query Portlet to automatically search a folder for technical documents and display the results on users’ My Pages and Community pages. As with other searches, users only see links to which they have access.

Although it’s nice to search content in the aforementioned systems (with third-party crawlers, Docs Open, Filenet and LiveLink repositories are also searchable), building content within a portal is just as important. I turned to Plumtree’s Content server for that job. Put simply, it lets users fill in a form and publish content as a Web page. After selecting and customizing the News portlet, I created an approval workflow. The end result was a listing of recent news releases users could add to their My Page -- all completed with minimal time and effort.

There’s another way Plumtree automates portlet development, Studio server, through its poll, survey, and database connection portlets. I chose to try the database portlet, where a wizard guided me through picking the fields in a SQL database I wanted to display and determining whether users of this portlet could update the database.

Lastly, I checked out the Enterprise Web Development Kit (EDK), writing a simple Java portlet that displayed reports from a Silk Road Technologies’ Eprise content management system. For large-scale programming, access to Plumtree Portal authentication, crawler, search, and related services the EDK provides (without having to learn the syntax for each Web Service) should prove very valuable. I say that after viewing a live site where this approach was employed to display only relevant fields from a Siebel CRM system and then save updated records back in the Siebel database -- all with a single Plumtree portal sign-on and while masking the complexity of Siebel.

Plumtree’s implementation of WSRP (Web Services for Remote Portlets) and JSR (Java Specification Requests) 168 is strong. Plumtree Corporate Portal communicates with a container that holds the JSR 168 portlet so the portlet can run on any J2EE or Windows application server. The other advantage with this approach is that Plumtree Corporate Portal can handle a larger number of portlets than if the portlets were running on the Plumtree portal server.

Plumtree sees portals as a way to assemble and manage a large variety and number of Web applications. I think they’ve done a fine job delivering their vision. Compared to other vendors, Corporate Portal 5.0 has more complete search, is one of the few to support both Java and .Net, and the application’s administration is tuned for enterprise-scale deployments.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Manageability (20.0%)
Ease of use (25.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Integration (25.0%)
Implementation (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Plumtree Enterprise Web Suite 9.0 9.0 8.0 9.0 8.0 8.7

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