Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Portal Management – Do You Know What It Takes?

A lot of corporate portals still seem stalled at the pilot stage, but
others have swept into full production. According to people working on
projects at IBM, Microsoft and elsewhere, portal development can carry
implications for just about everyone in a company, including network
managers. If a portal does open up near you, how will it change your job?

The roles played by IT specialists like net managers, security managers,
and database administrators vary according to the size and complexity of
the deployment, the type of portal used, and the amount of advance
planning, experts say.

“You can never do too much planning,” advised Jim Murphy, an analyst at AMR
Research. During the planning stages, network managers are often asked to
lend an experienced hand at capacity planning.

“Will we have enough bandwidth? Will we need to add more servers?”
illustrated Greg Sherman, marketing manager in the Advanced Collaboration
Group at Lotus. Adding more servers doesn’t necessarily mean buying more
boxes. Existing servers can be repurposed, Sherman pointed out.

Other issues to consider include numbers of users, how applications will be
distributed, and the impact of the portal on overall network performance,
according to Murphy. “Content sources for the portal might be housed in a
variety of physical locations. You might want to invest in a content
delivery service like Akamai.”

Security managers need to get involved from an access rights perspective,
For their part, database administrators need to know what kinds of queries
to anticipate, the analyst said.

Then, as the initial deployment evolves and expands, you’ll be expected to
stay on top of ongoing modifications to the portal.

Different strokes for different folks

“The word ‘portal’ can mean a lot of different things,” according to
Murphy. Some companies hone in on portal solutions geared to specific
applications, such as CRM (customer relationship management), ERM (employee
relationship management), SFA (sales force automation), or document
management, for instance. “Actually, some of the application-specific
portals can work out quite well,” he maintained.

Many of the deployments in these specialized categories are being farmed
out to ASPs. SFA outsourcers include SalesNet.com and SalesForce.com, for
instance, observed Barton Goldenberg, president of CRM/ERM consultancy ISM.

Also available are specialized software packages with all – or, at least,
much of – the needed functionality built in. Examples range from the
Plumtree Portal Solution for Employee Services to Conjoin’s sales portal
software.

Other organizations are taking a more do-it-yourself approach, customizing
broader portal frameworks such as IBM’s WebSphere Portal; Novell Portal
Services; MySAP Portal Services; and Microsoft’s SharePoint.

Unicco Service Company, a $600 million facilities management outsourcer, is
using Novell Portal Services, Lotus Notes, and a potpourri of other
products to create a series of portals for the external marketplace, first tier
customers, and internal users, said Jeff Peterson, Unicco’s VP of IT.

APT’s doc management portal

Somewhere in between are organizations like Applied Printing Technologies
(APT), a $100 million printing company which has used Extream’s Dialogue
document management software to do the bulk of the legwork in building its
own CRM portal. Exstream also sells Dialogue to banks, insurance firms,
utilities, and retail concerns, for instance.

APT implemented its CRM portal almost entirely on its own, after only a
“little bit of a head start” from Exstream, affirmed Kelly Sloan,
Exstream’s VP of corporate marketing.

APT’s new digital printing division is using the Dialogue-based portal to
integrate and present customer data in both online and printed documents.
The documents can range from newsletters and promotional brochures to
customized 401K enrollment books.

Customers accessing APT’s portal include AT&T Wireless, for example, said
Nicholas Brusco, senior VP/GM of the division, speaking at the recent CRM
Expo in New York City.

APT decided on Exstream due to Dialogue’s support for PDF files and
workflow solutions, PostScript, and IBM’s new AFP (Advanced Function
Presentation) architecture.

Microsoft & IBM try to show the way

Big enterprises are better off if they start out by “thinking small,”
according to AMR’s Murphy. “There’s always this initial promise, but
companies don’t always take advantage of it. Very often, portals get
backlogged. So the most reasonable projects start out with a small subset,”
Murphy said in an interview.

In enterprises, the best efforts tend to be characterized by
interdepartmental collaboration. Microsoft, for example, is now piloting an
inhouse portal that revolves around its SharePoint product, said Mary Lee
Kennedy, director of Microsoft’s Knowledge Network Group, during a talk at
the recent Internet World show.

Microsoft’s SharePoint team is helping out with infrastructure issues such
as servers, Web services, and establishment of a domain integration
framework, according to Michael Ohata, group manager for product management
in the Knowledge Network Group.

Just getting under way this year, the three-year project also involves the
company’s sales organization, “executive sponsors,” and content providers
from throughout Microsoft. Like some other enterprise portal users,
Microsoft has organized an internal steering committee, too.

“We chose not to centralize the expertise. We do not know our business
organization’s needs,” Kennedy acknowledged. “We are not going to tell
people what they need, (although) we will try to avoid duplication.”

Initially, Microsoft is working on an inhouse employee portal. By 2005, the
software giant hopes to achieve an automated “smart content” system, as
well as Internet-based content delivery to customers, Ohata said.

“Because our consulting group goes out, we want to have a portal, too,”
according to Kennedy. “We are a great testbed for the company.”

IBM Dynamic Workplace

Along the same general lines, IBM has created an inhouse portal known as
IBM Dynamic Workplace, based around the IBM WebSphere Portal, Domino, and
Lotus Sametime and Quickplace, for e-learning.

“This is a cross-IBM initiative,” Sherman said in an interview. Key players
at IBM include Larry Bowden, IBM’s VP of e-portal solutions; Lotus CEO Al
Zollar, and top brass from IBM’s hardware and software divisions.

“An early step in portal development is to get your intranets together. IBM
Dynamic Workplace has 8,000 internal users. Dynamic Workplace also becomes
a good reference for us,” he admitted.

Content managers in business departments such as human relations, finance,
and public relations work with “corporate librarians” to help decide now
content should be shared among various groups of internal users. “If we’re
interested in putting our stock information up, for instance, there are
certain rules about that.” Meanwhile, HR has placed its benefits enrollment
and travel expense accounts online.

Right now, IBM’s human content managers are doing manual data tagging. “Our
goal, though, is to move toward automatic tagging.”

Internally, IBM Global Services fulfills the role of network manager. IGS
also consults outside customers about portal development.

“IGS has subject matter experts in areas like retail, manufacturing, and
financial services. Sometimes, IGS will just go in and do a study. IGS,
though, is also willing to outsource and host everything for a customer,”
according to Sherman.

IBM customer Unicco is using offerings from IBM as well as a number of
other vendors in its three portals. The total list of ingredients is
expected to include Novell Portal Services; JD Edwards’ OneWorld; Maximo’s
e-procurement application; an opportunity management product from
SalesLogix; Lotus’s Domino, Domino Doc, Quickplace, and Sametime servers;
desktop tools from both Lotus and Microsoft; and Elcom’s materials
management ASP service.

“Technical problems are the least of their concerns”

Integration of multivendor hardware and software is sometimes a challenge,
particularly in multiplatform environments. “Almost everybody says, though,
that technical problems are the least of their concerns,” according to
AMR’s Murphy.

“Portals can have a huge impact on how people throughout the company do
their jobs. Often, the middle manager gets stuck in the middle. Let’s say
you’re a PR manager. Ultimately, the corporate portal becomes epicentric.
Everything you do needs to be deployed through the portal,” he said.

“Network managers and other IT people get saddled with a lot of
responsibility. They have to select the products, and they sometimes need
to step up their capabilities to support the portal. One idea (behind a
portal) is that IT can delegate tasks out to the business departments. But
that can be a pretty hairy proposition. Issues like workflows – and
sometimes access to data – are not necessarily easy for business
administrators.”

Business administrators also need to lean on security managers, according
to Murphy. “Decisions need to be made such as, ‘Do I govern security
through the portal, or do I let the application govern security?’ There are
pluses and minuses, either way. Portals usually call for some degree of
(IT) development, as well.”

Collaboration at Unicco

Unicco initially tested a portal product from Computer Associates, but ran
into some integration issues. Overall, however, integration hasn’t been
much of a problem, according to Unicco’s Peterson, who gained experience
with complex deployments through a previous job at Arthur Andersen.

“We have some programmers inhouse You do need to set priorities, though, as
to which applications really need to talk to each other,” he added.

Unicco is pursuing a staged deployment, involving an external Web site,
followed by customer and employee portals, in that general order.

The customer portal, myUNICCO.com, is designed for one-stop shopping,
information sharing, and self-service work requests, using the customer’s
existing Web infrastructure. Customers can also build a knowledge
management warehouse that includes best practices, benchmark/performance
measurements, and trend analysis, according to Peterson.

UNICCO has also started working on the employee portal, dubbed uShare.
“We’ve looked at who’s been getting information in a timely fashion, and
who has not. This is our ‘field of dreams,'” Peterson said.

With the portals deployment, IT staffing at UNICCO has increased from 18 to
20 people. “We’ve added a Lotus Notes developer, as well as a database
administrator/network administrator.” Along the way, Unicco has also
migrated from cc:Mail to Notes.

Unicco’s IT department includes specialists in LAN/WAN management,
production, and operations support. For the portals effort, the 20 staffers
are deployed in two project teams. “The field services team implements the
tools. The internal project team works on internal support and
implementation.”

Peterson said he works closely on portal development with the company’s
COO, as well as the VPs of the business divisions. “There’s a big focus on
what information we’re going to capture, and what we need it for.”

Content “ownership” by business units

Meanwhile, Unicco has been shifting more of the “ownership” of the portal
to the business divisions.

“There was a perception among some of the ranks of end users that the
portal was just ‘fun-to-have’ technology. So business leaders are now
championing the portal, to entice greater use,” according to Peterson.

Portals constitute a slightly different story at smaller companies,
according to Goldenberg. “Companies need to ensure that information is
relevant, timely, and easy to access. Usually, portal administration is an
IT function,” he said.

Portal administration tasks include “receiving prioritized business
functions; looking at what information is required to fulfill those
functions; pulling together this information from internal or external
sources; cleansing and populating the data; and archiving the information,”
according to Goldenberg.

For specialized portals such as sales, however, smaller IT departments
often team up with subject area experts, he said.

“Sometimes, for example, a company will hire a retiree who’s an ex-sales or
marketing person, to sort leads that come in from trade seminars or ads,
and to make some of them available through the portal.”

Regardless of the size of the organization, management needs to be in it
for the long haul, contended AMR’s Murphy. “You can put a lot of time and
effort into a portal. People in every department need to understand that
the portal is a long-term project, with an end goal,” the AMR analyst
added.


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See All Articles by Columnist
Jacqueline Emigh

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