The new enterprise portal

The browser-based portal is fast becoming the enterprise UI and the nexus for a new breed of integration and app dev

Nothing makes a job tougher than having to scrounge for the right information. Glenn Kelman, vice president of marketing and product development at Plumtree, likes to cite Mazda Motor as an example of how employee-facing enterprise portals provide a convenient toolbox for people who would otherwise waste time gathering scattered resources.

To evaluate a car dealership's performance, Mazda field managers were once forced to compile green-bar printouts, conjure up the right spreadsheet, and have an assistant create a report from raw data supplied by a third-party service. "The process of preparing to visit a dealer took two days," Kelman says. Now that Mazda has deployed a Plumtree portal that consolidates all that information in a single, browser-based dashboard, the process takes field managers roughly an hour, he claims.

That little tale, with its dramatic productivity boost, illustrates how the enterprise portal has evolved from vague '90s notions of "empowering" employees with a document library to practical, tailored solutions for departments or jobs hobbled by a lack of integration. According to portal vendors, customers, and consultants, the trick to successful deployment is identifying related business processes, aggregating related apps and data within the portal framework, and establishing individual user identity as the organizing principle -- all while avoiding new coding as much as possible.

That conservative approach may explain why, without much fanfare, portals have kept rolling through the economic downturn. "In the last couple of years, when IT budgets were flat or down, one of the projects that was still being pursued was the B2E [business-to-employee] portal," says Gene Phifer, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner. "It offered a vehicle to save money, to consolidate Web resources, and to minimize the resources required to maintain fat-client components for traditional client-server or mainframe applications."

Over that same period, portal server offerings have matured, bundling their own simple app dev tools, content management, search functionality, collaboration apps, and even Webified versions of desktop applications. IBM, BEA, Microsoft, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, SAP, PeopleSoft, and Novell all offer portal servers as part of their application server stacks, which include an integration server and a scheme to implement single sign-on so that one log-in provides access to all the apps and data a given user requires. EAI vendors such as Tibco, webMethods, and SeeBeyond all sell portal products, while Plumtree, Epicentric (which was recently acquired by Vignette), and other "independents" distinguish themselves by providing portal solutions that operate on multiple platforms.

Features vary widely, but portal offerings tend to have roughly the same objective: serve up composite, user-customizable control panels built from existing apps and data -- similar to what Sun once termed the Webtop. Just as the forthcoming Longhorn version of Windows seeks to deepen desktop connections to the enterprise fabric, B2E portals are advancing on the desktop from the opposite direction, pushing thin enterprise clients through the browser and wrapping them around the needs of individual users.

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Portals From the Bottom up

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.' "

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."

According to Crider, developers can "componentize" these pieces of functionality, reaggregate them, and create new business processes -- although the resulting applications must run on the NetWeaver platform. But there's nothing to stop portal servers on other platforms from drawing on apps built on SAP business logic. Nothing, that is, except incremental cost. Although the licensing details are still hazy, Gartner's Phifer notes that enterprise application vendors now view portals as a grand opportunity to grow revenue by exporting the functionality of their apps to more users.

And how does the world's largest software company fit into the portal picture? While most agree that the latest version of Microsoft's SharePoint Portal Server is a good product, the company is clearly ambivalent about enterprise portals. And no wonder, Phifer says. "If the Webtop became a reality, Microsoft has the most to lose because right now Microsoft owns the eyeballs of corporate Earth," he says. "And if I suddenly switch over to a Web browser with a portal being displayed, my eyeballs are focusing on the portal and not on the Microsoft desktop."

Portal to the Future

As a countermeasure, predicts Phifer, Microsoft will eventually launch a desktop portal application that will integrate enterprise portal functionality into Windows. Meanwhile, other portal servers continue to bulk up on features, particularly search, content management, identity management, and collaboration (including instant messaging). The latest version of WebSphere Portal Server even bundles browser versions of Lotus applications, including Notes, a text editor, and a spreadsheet.

Third parties are also enriching the portal environment. IBM and Plumtree have been particularly effective in cultivating third-party portlet development, so that instead of building portlets, IT can license them for specific applications at minimal cost. Until recently, portlets were specific to the platform for which they were written. But thanks to new interoperability standards, that situation is changing. Standards will accelerate the development of third-party portlets, which already address a broad swath of vertical applications.

IBM's Bowden likes to say that this is the era of "leveraging" the portal. In other words, when one department deploys a portal, others follow. "All of the sudden your sales team wants one, your partner network wants one, your services team wants one, your financial officer want to use it," he says. And when the infrastructure for one departmental portal is in place, adding others requires only incremental effort. IBM is accelerating adoption by creating prebuilt portals for vertical applications --such as a recent collaboration with KPMG that resulted in a portal devoted to Sarbanes-Oxley reporting. In 2004, Bowden says he plans to roll out 60 new vertical portals.

We're still a long way from the late '90s dream of an overarching enterprise portal, where everyone logs on once over their first cup of coffee and immediately gets a perfectly tailored Webtop with all the applications and data necessary for work. Instead, IT is discovering that the integration and development frameworks provided by portals offer practical, even elegant, solutions to common business problems.