Tame the information tiger with a corporate portal
Have trouble finding that report from last February? Want to check overnight sales figures from home? Are your systems an information tiger? A corporate portal may be the way to get that tiger by the tail.
By Edward Hurley, Assistant News Editor
Gone are the days of having your IT department slap together a Web page with links to forms and documents and call it a corporate portal. Portals are now sophisticated productivity tools tying together complex information sources.
The value proposition of corporate portals is the ability to access information, applications and systems from literally anywhere through a Web browser, said Mike Davis, senior research analyst with U.K.-based Butler Group.
In fact, corporate portals actually turn traditional thinking about systems around. Portals improve worker productivity by becoming a constant. In other words, a company might outsource its SAP system but users will never really know the machine is no longer downstairs because their portal never changes, Davis said.
"In a lot of ways portals are recession-proof technology. They allow you to leverage what you have, to do more," said Patrick O'Haren, senior director of product marketing for San Jose, Calif.-based BEA. His company sells the BEA WebLogic Portal.
Some companies may scoff at spending limited resources on corporate portals, especially those with Intranets. But most users search or navigate sites to find information on an Intranet. "Portals add a layer of intelligence -- personalization and customization -- that lets site designers and end users tailor pages to meet individuals' needs," said Nate Root, analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research.
Corporate portals started out as a means to share information within an organization, usually at the department level, said David Folger, an analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group. Often a portal was developed in-house or purchased, based on the specific business needs of a department or work group.
Now, corporate portals have become an infrastructure decision that is usually company wide. Accordingly companies must look at the portal's relationship to applications and servers, Folger said. But infrastructure considerations shouldn't overshadow the underlying business objectives of the portal (i.e. online form submitting, collaboration, remote access to applications, etc.).
Buy vs. build? Internal vs. external?
When considering a corporate portal project, one must first ask whether to build or buy. About half of portal projects are still "home-grown," Root said. "The problem with building your own is it probably won't do everything you want," he said.
Building corporate portals from scratch takes a lot of skills as operating systems, Web servers, databases, LDAP directories are all involved, according to Chad Williams, a product manager with portal software vendor Epicentric of San Francisco. "Building your own is also difficult from an application layer standpoint. ERP, content management, collaboration systems all have to tie into a single interface," he said.
Packaged portal software usually doesn't come with tools to build pages but relies on Web authoring tools based on standards like Active Server Pages and Java Server Pages, Root said. But most packages come with pre-built bundles of portal functionality or "portlets." Portlets provide up to 80% of the functionality companies need for deployment.
As a rule, most portal projects using packaged software are slated to take a year or less to implement, Root said. Home grown portals, however, can be quicker because they are usually less complicated and robust.
Another factor to consider in the planning process is who will have access to the portal. The majority of portals are still "within the firewall" of companies but some are being developed for partners and customers, Root said. There are fewer risks when keeping a portal internal as the new technology is tested on employees not customers. "A customer-facing portal would have to be dead-on from the start but an internal, pilot model can grow organically," Root commented.
Pure-play vs. application server vendor
A quick look at the portal software market finds two camps. On one hand, there are IT juggernauts such as IBM, Sun Microsystems, BEA and Oracle who came to portals through selling application servers. But there are also some newer or "pure-play" companies such as Plumtree and Epicentric who specialize in portal software.
Vendors such as IBM, BEA and Sun are targeting customers who are making "architectural decisions," Folger said. Such customers also may need middleware, application servers or EAI servers. Vendors like Plumtree offer "just portals," he added. "You can deploy them a lot quicker as they are more packaged."
There are some pricing differences as well. Most portal servers are based on a per-user model, according to Root. But some of the application server and integration server players will sell the software based on a per-CPU model.
If you have all IBM middleware and application servers then perhaps Big Blue would be a good choice, Davis said. However, it's rare that companies have homogenous environments. More often companies have servers from multiple vendors. A pure-play product may be better as it works with all application servers, Davis added.
Portal software from application vendors may be advantageous for major new projects or for projects that need deep integration in the back-end systems. For example, Oracle's portal product, Oracle9iAS Portal, works only on the Oracle 9i application server. But such a scenario offers tighter integration and easier management, according to Marco Tilli, Oracle's vice president of portals and hosted tools. Security is also much easier when all the components come from the same company, he said.
Yet a vendor like Epicentric would counter that their product is best of breed, not built as an afterthought onto existing technology. "We are the Switzerland of IT," Williams said. "It's important to work with all the databases, operating systems, application servers and single sign-on software because all companies have different IT infrastructures."
There is no easy answer to choosing a portal. "When you are looking at portals, don't only focus on what you want to do today but also look ahead five years," Davis advised. "You need to think of the company you buy the technology from as a partner. And ask yourself `Will they be around in five years?'"
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