Probably the most over-hyped, overused and misused word in the vocabulary of many IT people these days is the term "portal." It seems as if every ERP and business intelligence (BI) vendor hawks an enterprise portal solution. Further, it seems as if each supposed portal vendor has different criteria for defining a portal.

Fortunately, there are burgeoning industry standards defining what really constitutes a true portal. If you know the criteria, you can separate a wanna-be from a true portal vendor ­ and save yourself time and headaches in the process. Stamford, Connecticut-based Gartner has established base criteria for portals. These criteria include:

Robust search capabilities. Portals should have the ability to search both structured and unstructured repositories, and the portal shouldn't be vendor- specific.

Taxonomy support. Portals should provide for robust categorization of information content.

Content management and aggregation. Portals should offer the ability to manage and coalesce information for deep analysis and reporting.

Personalization. Portals should provide for multifaceted, changeable personalization of information in the user interface.

Lightweight application integration and development. The portal should be nimble. Developers must have the capability to develop portal applications using technologies such as scripts and active server pages.

Web-based architecture. Portals should not be dependent on mainframe power. Developers should be able to develop robust applications using Web servers.1

These are base-level criteria only. Unfortunately, some BI and ERP vendors tout ­– as portals ­– products that don't even meet these criteria. For example, some ERP vendors will not let you integrate legacy applications that are not proprietary.

Search capability is another sticky issue with some would- be portal vendors. Many BI vendors are advertising their products as mature portals. However, many BI tool suites lack the ability to perform complex searches across many repositories or the ability to perform united searches across multiple indices. Further, many BI vendors' tools have weak content management capabilities, as well as limited personalization and application- development abilities.

The upshot is that many BI vendors' products may squeak by the bare minimum standards to be called portals, but in reality are more executive dashboards than true, robust portals. That's not a knock against the BI vendors or executive dashboards. It's just that many BI vendors have a long way to go before they can capably meet the minimum criteria for portals, let alone perform at the level of mature portals.

Gartner has created a criteria list for what they term "Generation-Three" portals. If you are investing the time and money to buy and implement an enterprise portal solution, pick a vendor whose product suite offers most or all of these features. Advanced portals should have:

Cascading portals. The ability to create portals within portals to serve multiple and multilevel user needs.

Extensive Web-services support. The ability to call Web services and be called as a series of Web services.

Abstraction. The ability to serve as a true, transparent-to-the-user layer between complex back-end databases and a user- friendly analysis tool.

Process integration. True process integration must take place, not just workflow mapping. All partners in the value chain should be able to integrate their processes to ensure smooth information flow.

Community knowledge management and collaboration capabilities. The portal must enable value-chain partners to coalesce and channel community knowledge so that they can participate in collaborative ventures.

Advanced analysis features. The portal should enable users to analyze clickstream data to analyze past behavior and make actionable predictions about future behavior.

Offline support. Users should be able download information to PDAs or laptops and upload changes.2

These criteria are not exhaustive. Best- in-class portal products (such as Plumtree Software, Inc.'s Plumtree Corporate Portal, Netegrity Inc.'s Interaction Server, Microsoft's SharePoint Portal Server, Computer Associates' CleverPath, BEA Systems Inc.'s WebLogic Enterprise Platform and iPlanet E-Commerce Solutions' Portal Services suite) have many more sophisticated features. Vendors are also adding new features at a rapid pace. These features are merely a starting point for gauging a true portal product.

You can't ever have too much information. Talk to prospective vendors. Ask a lot of questions. Construct product-to-feature matrices. In the end, choose the product that best meets your needs today with an eye toward future expansion. Above all, choose a vendor partner that meets your needs ­ both technically and personally. Building a portal is not an inconsequential endeavor; you'll need a worthy partner to guide you through it.

References:

1. Phifer. G. "Generation- Three Portal Products: Unification." p.1. Stamford, CT. Gartner. 25 May 2001.

2. Ibid. p.3.

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