Enterprise Information Portals: Tie It Together, Open It Up (Part 2)

Our survey of the business portal landscape continues, focusing on: content management, collaboration, and business intelligence features; problems of integration; and the future of portals.
By Patrick Fitzgerald
Consultant, TechMetrix Research

As discussed in Part 1, top-notch enterprise information portals -- Web interfaces that act as a single point of access to business data, applications, and services for employees, partners, suppliers, and customers -- should include the features of integration, personalization, and content management.

We continue today the list of essential features by wrapping up the content management discussion.

  • Content Management (cont.). Two other important areas of consideration are subsumed under the category of content management: search and publishing. Search capabilities should allow users to get at appropriate data based on criteria entered into an engine. It also includes easy navigation of corporate information (organized by the content management system), providing the ability to drill down through data to get at the information required by specific users.

    Publishing capabilities, on the other hand, should make it easy for workers in the enterprise to put business information into the e-business system. It should support all the main data types and give users the ability to classify access to the information being published according to defined roles or individuals within the enterprise.

  • Business Intelligence. As many of the vendors who come to the market from a data warehousing background know, an EIP without business intelligence is of little use to an enterprise trying to turn their business data into competitive advantage. Traditional business intelligence involves tools and technologies that perform data warehousing, data mining and online analytical processing (OLAP). EIPs can bring these tools to appropriate individuals scattered throughout the enterprise in an integrated manner.

  • Collaboration. One of the advantages of EIP is increased workflow productivity and interaction between and among employees, partners, and suppliers. Collaboration can range from tracking e-mail to developing workplace communities. Some EIPs might allow workers in different parts of the world to create virtual meeting rooms where they can conference by chat, voice, or video.

EIPs as Horizontal Portals

Many of the vendors in the EIP space have experience developing vertical portals with some of the functions described above. The problem with these independent portals has been integrated them so that all business divisions can use them.

A sales department, for instance, might use a CRM solution that has no way of communicating with data mining tools used by marketing. Or there may exist different ERP systems for each branch of a retail enterprise, which may help branch managers see the inventory for their store but do little good in giving that manager a view of all enterprise inventory.

A true EIP can be seen as a horizontal solution bringing together the vertical functions of these portals and integrating it into one system, accessible by employees, partners, suppliers, and customers.

Yet out-of-the-box, packaged EIPs can also be seen as vertical in the sense that vendors will target certain functions to specific industries. The portal needs of the customer-care-intensive health care industry, for example, will certainly differ from those of a manufacturer doing business in an exclusively B2B context.

Integration Matters

Integration capability is one of the differentors in the EIP marketplace. Vendors tending to stress out-of-the-box portals address this issue with prepackaged and extensible adapters that go by a whole host of names (including gadgets, mini-apps, portlets, e-clips). While these adapters help deliver applications, information, and services to the presentation layer of the portal, they do not necessarily achieve interoperability among applications across the enterprise.

Other vendors tending to characterize themselves as "portal infrastructure providers" stress the importance of integrating applications at a lower level. This kind of integration enters the territory of Enterprise Application Integration. While more costly and time-consuming to implement, it promises deeper functionality in a way that can allow for features such as single sign-on functionality and universal search and categorization across all enterprise resources.

In our estimation, at this early stage in the EIP marketplace, a lot of attention is being focused on the quality and quantity of prepackaged adapter libraries bundled with portal products. If this becomes the primary arena of competition for EIP vendors, we can expect the pure EIPs to win the game.

One of the leading vendors in this regard is Plumtree Software. Their corporate portal uses "Plumtree Portal Gadgets" to deliver applications and content to the portal user.

According to its Web site, Plumtree has "established partnerships with over 60 systems integrators and 30 technology and content providers" to develop Gadgets that embed "content and services from applications of every major class." Plumtree has also created a Web site that developers can access to download new Gadgets as partnerships grow.

Plumtree is not alone in providing these kinds of adapter libraries. Other vendors include Viador, Hummingbird, Sybase, DataChannel, and SAP.

As the market matures, however, larger organizations will increasingly realize the competitive value of going deeper than front-end integration. Few vendors at this point offer their own complete front-to-back-end portal integration product -- and beware of those that claim they do. For this kind of solution it would be wise to investigate a vendor's partnership network and prepare oneself for a long implementation.

One so-called "portal infrastructure" provider is Verity. Offering "Portal One" as an out-of-the-box solution, Verity provides "connectors" for integration at the presentation level.

But with a background in full text search and knowledge management software, Verity tends to push for deeper integration using "gateways" that tie enterprise systems tightly together, allowing for the kind of searching the company specializes in. Verity also offers an extensive partnership network to round off a portal solution in areas that exceed its core competencies.

The level of integration that best serves an organization can only be decided on a case-by-case basis. Where the very notion of an EIP may face organizational skepticism, it may be best to start with an out-of-the-box solution that has the flexibility to grow as its value becomes apparent. And unless your enterprise is already fully dependent on a specific software vendor, beware of portal solutions that depend too heavily on proprietary application or e-business frameworks. This would be counter to the future direction of EIPs in general.

The Future

The time is coming when increased use of Web services will change the way EIPs are made and operate. Already, many EIPs are using XML to a great extent because of its increased interoperability. With the standardization of SOAP and a growing level of comfort with distributed Web services, the very notion of applications and application servers is becoming increasingly abstracted.

Thanks to the widespread adoption of workable Internet standards, traditional concerns over operating system interoperability are now being thwarted. Applications themselves will be pieced together by components or Web services to create individualized applications on the fly.

This makes the Enterprise Information Portal a vital piece of business software -- now and for the future. With a focus on integrating applications, services, and information, EIPs make sense out of the vast wealth of corporate information and provide users with both a manageable window to the enterprise and a powerful tool for making the decisions that will keep the enterprise competitive.

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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