Enterprise Information Portals: Tie It Together, Open It Up (Part 1)

The idea of a portal is hardly new -- at least in Internet terms. But the term "enterprise information portal" (EIP) causes confusion. This stems in part from the fact hat so many different kinds of vendors with different backgrounds come at EIP from different directions. Part 1 of two articles to sort it all out.
By Patrick Fitzgerald
Consultant, TechMetrix Research

The idea of a portal is hardly new -- at least in Internet terms. It's a tool or service that brings information together and opens it up to a wide audience. Add some personalization and you've got something not much different than Yahoo! -- one of the most popular portals on the planet.

But the term "Enterprise Information Portal" (EIP) causes confusion. This is most likely due to industry hype -- the attempt by various industry players to define EIP according to their own product offerings.

For the purpose of this discussion, we will define EIP simply and broadly to mean a secure, Web-based interface that provides a single point of integration for and access to information, applications, and services for all people involved in the enterprise -- including employees, partners, suppliers, and customers.

While some industry theorists differ in their conception of what an EIP should include (business intelligence, collaborative functionality, decision processing, content management, etc.), the argument is primarily academic. The above definition is flexible enough to include most EIP products on the market today while insisting on some basic features necessary to distinguish EIPs from other software solutions (Web-based interface, single-point of integration, common access).

Nevertheless, conflicting understandings of what constitutes an EIP exist. This stems in part from the fact that so many different kinds of vendors with different backgrounds come at EIP from different directions.

Some companies have entered the EIP marketplace with backgrounds in data warehousing and analytical applications (such as Brio, Business Objects, Hummingbird). This is a logical migration. Such industry sectors as data mining and OLAP lead to business intelligence -- which for many is a leading benefit of any EIP solution.

Other companies have entered the EIP market from an application server/e-business platform background (Broadvision, IBM, Iona). This is also a natural migration path. As application servers increasingly become commodified, players in this market space have attempted to increase functionality by placing disparate products and solutions on top of the app server -- marketing the package as one overreaching offering. The next logical step is to integrate it all with an EIP.

Not to be out-maneuvered, many of high-tech's big players have added EIP solutions, coming at the market from a more generalized business software background (SAP, Computer Associates, Sybase). These companies have long maintained significant footholds in the markets for ERP, supply chain, sales force automation, CRM, etc.

Still other companies have entered the market with little history at all, providing EIP solutions as their primary focus (Plumtree, Viador, Data Channel). Such bottom-up portal providers are often unencumbered by legacy integration issues and may offer the best pure EIP solutions of all.

Finally to confuse matters further -- there exists another subset of prominent companies who, while not explicitly offering EIP products, provide comprehensive e-business solutions that address many of the issues that Enterprise Information Portals claim to solve. These companies (including Siebel Systems, ATG, BEA, Allaire, HP/Bluestone, and Microsoft) offer products that can manage content management, personalization, e-business transactions, and more.

Developers building Java-based enterprise solutions with BEA WebLogic, for example, have the tools to develop a Web-based interface that integrates information, applications, and services -- in other words they have the tools to build an EIP solution.

Naturally, any given EIP solution will emphasize the core competencies of the company producing it. We can expect Brio's Brio.Portal to stress the advantages of disseminating business intelligence throughout the enterprise. Likewise, we can expect a company like Broadvision, which has a background in e-business, to stress EIP as the ultimate in business Webification.

All EIPs, then, are not created equal. What constitutes quality should be the degree to which a particular EIP succeeds at bringing together all the e-functionality of a given enterprise.

Ignoring vertical industry-specific needs, a quality Enterprise Information Portal should include some of the following features:

  • Integration. In many ways an EIP is really just an amalgamation of business software programs within the enterprise (ERP, CRM, supply chain, Sales Force Automation, Web sites, data warehouses, legacy mainframes, etc.), along with data and services external to the enterprise -- all of which are accessed from a single Web-based interface. One good test of quality integration is support for single-sign on. As business grows, so does the problem of managing multiple passwords, roles and permissions for multiple resources. A portal solution that solves this problem must integrate smart and deep. When it comes to portals, the interface is the easy part. The behind-the-scenes integration of data, applications, and services is what defines true value.

  • Personalization. Users should be able to choose what appears on their window to the enterprise -- within certain role-defined constraints. This includes subscription and notification capabilities wherein users can opt to have information or applications delivered to their desktop, controlling when it is delivered and how it is presented. A business executive, for example, could set up an alert on his desktop indicating when daily reports based on the analysis of business information arrive in his e-mail. A supplier, on the other hand, could have an up-to-the-minute view of enterprise inventory broken down by branch location appearing in a user-defined area on the desktop.

  • Content management. Content management in the EIP context requires directory and indexing capabilities to automatically manage the ever-growing store of structured and unstructured data residing in data warehouses, Web sites, ERP systems, legacy applications, etc. Using meta data to define types of information, good content management can serve as the backbone for a system of corporate decision-making where business intelligence tools mine data and report findings back to key role-players in the enterprise.

    Content management may also involve going outside the enterprise, employing crawlers that find pertinent data via the Internet, incorporate it into existing systems, index it and deliver it to appropriate analysts, knowledge workers, or decision-makers.

    Tomorrow: More features, integration questions, and the future.

    Patrick Fitzgerald is a consultant for TechMetrix Research, a Boston analyst firm focused on e-business application development that is a subsidiary of SQLI of Europe.






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