Enterprise information portal (EIP) was a term coined just over a year ago to describe the evolving industry focused on corporate portal development. Over the past year, the EIP space has gone from nonexistent to overwhelming. Multitudes of vendors and service organizations have jumped on the EIP bandwagon. Both start-ups as well as veteran IT solution companies have something to say about the obvious value of the EIPs. To avoid beating a dead horse, this article is not about the value of EIPs. IT understands the value of personalization, subscription services, single point of entry, collaboration, security and stock tickers. The goal of this article is to cut through the vendor marketing hype about EIPs and to identify what real-world, Web-enabled business solutions end up on your users' desktops (or laptops). Is the EIP the final frontier or will you need to assimilate and deliver integrated sub- components to provide real solutions? At the same time, you can't completely forget about your desktop investment and the processing power contained therein. Finally, this article will also offer suggestions for evaluating EIP technologies.

EIP Definition

For those familiar with the core definition of EIP, please skip this paragraph and continue to the next section. For the rest, here is a quick overview of the base concepts of EIP. There are differing views on the true definition of EIP. Those from the knowledge management (KM) bias tend to feel that unstructured content is most important. Groupware experts feel that collaboration should be the main feature, while business intelligence vendors place BI at the core of EIP competency. However, by definition, an EIP combines all of these features and more. An EIP, per its core definition, requires all of the following capabilities:

Single point of access - One starting point from which all information and features can be presented, integrated and secured.

Personalization - In the sense that each user's experience with respect to navigation, features, data access, utilities, etc., is specific to their profile and preferences.

Subscription - This concept allows end users to select items of interest to be automatically presented and updated for them.

Collaboration - Allows users to view and publish information in a personal or group area to share with colleagues internally as well as externally with customers, suppliers and partners.

Security - Protection of private and proprietary information when appropriate.

Open - Allow access to all types of information and extend access to new types of information when available.

This Sounds Familiar

In this day and age, change is accepted at a rapid pace. There are obviously a few different factors that have allowed EIPs to take off so quickly. When data warehousing was in its infancy, no one knew what a data warehouse was, other than from reading and maybe viewing a vendor demo. It is understandable that data warehousing took a few years to take hold in corporate America. However, from day one, everyone "got it" when the term enterprise information portal was coined. Most people had used a public portal and had probably been exposed to personal portals, such as MyYahoo! I think it only fair to compare the evolution of public portals to the evolution of EIPs to see where things are headed and what to look for in a "winning" portal.

The top public portals today started small and have evolved into feature-rich solutions. They provide customizable home pages with subscription content. They provide instant messaging, e-mailing and club services for collaboration. They provide security via login procedures to protect your private information, yet allow sharing of information when appropriate for your needs. They provide transparent access to all types of information and services. The user is gracefully directed to alternative resources for specialized features and functions without disrupting the experience. The point is that the successful portals have been able to extend their capabilities. By default, the portal itself isn't necessarily the one providing all of the services ­ nor should it be. The capability to transparently allow users to access features and functions outside of the core portal platform is the most important quality of a successful portal. If the portal doesn't display an ability to extend itself, while allowing for utilization of core services, it should be disqualified as a platform for enterprise information deployment.

Naturally, Web applications provide some level of this aggregated mechanism inherently because of the way links within HTML pages work. At the most simplistic level, information can be assimilated in this fashion, which provides introductory levels of integration services. The advanced portal takes aggregation to the next level by introducing advanced integration beyond simple assimilation. For example, platform-level custom HTML tags to identify user, data availability, folders and rights should be available to create a dynamic, yet integrated system.This provides the ability for distributed application development to take place while preserving the centralized repository concept.

What to Look For

Users are expecting intelligent business solutions. Consequently, being able to put a stock ticker on everyone's desktop is cool, but we're not looking to deliver "MyTimeWasters." We're looking for "MyCompetitiveAdvantage" on the desktop. Ultimately, you will need to develop vertical business applications able to hook into the user's desktop in a seamless fashion, such that the promise of an EIP can be reaped. To do this, your EIP platform must be up for the challenge. Besides base components, which most EIP vendors provide, the ability to extend capabilities in a seamless fashion will separate the winners from the losers. Whether your users need to perform Web-enabled category management, sales reporting or project planning, you must deliver ­ seamlessly. At the same time, wouldn't it be nice to integrate core platform features, such as searching, instant messaging, event notification, subscription, etc., into the solution that is being delivered in a consistent fashion? It is then, and only then, that you will truly realize the rewards of an EIP. Limiting your users at this stage of the game is not the answer. You must continue to provide real business solutions for them ­ only the deployment vehicle will be your EIP platform rather than the traditional desktop. Therefore, it is important to make sure the platform contains all (if not more) of the extensibility of the traditional desktop.

The platform should provide an administration utility to administer features and functions in an intuitive fashion. Rights and privileges should be provided at group or individual levels. Search mechanisms should extend into all data types and result sets scoped based upon user rights. For example, if a user has rights to two out of five applications deployed on your portal and searches for a generic term such as "sales forecast," the result set of information should only display detail information from the applications to which the user has access.

Business Solutions

Building business solutions is still the name of the game. Undoubtedly, every techie out there would enjoy spending the next month putting together an instant messaging system that would enable their users to share information discoveries instantaneously. Be assured, however, that the competitive advantage goes to your competitor who spends that month developing and deploying a Web-enabled business solution that utilizes the portal platform's instant messaging feature. Trying to deliver Web-enabled applications without an integrated platform approach is like trying to deliver a Windows application without Windows security, Windows Explorer or the Find utility. You must be able to leverage the platform versus building your own.

So, go ahead, test it. Ask the EIP vendor how you would deploy a collaborative promotion planning application built using Microsoft InterDev that is scoped to a subset of users and provides batch e-mail delivery of presentation output. The platform that provides the most seamless method for building and deploying Web-enabled business solutions should be the one that emerges as your platform of choice. At the same time, integrating core portal services into your application development process will allow developers to focus on the actual business solution and not the bell or whistle that should be a core platform component.

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