In the last six months, an extraordinary amount of press has been devoted to the concept of "business portals." Beyond a couple of core ideas, there is no broad-based agreement on the definition of a business portal or its architectural components. For the time being, a business portal is the newest release of any product shipped by a vendor that has been remotely involved in providing tools or services that help gather, store or analyze information for business users. Okay, that's a tad cynical, so let's get to the root of a business portal. Here are some fundamental concepts:

One-Stop Shopping. A business portal is designed to alleviate the information overload affecting knowledge workers. It filters out just the information users need and shields them from having to know where to look to access that information. A business portal is similar to a shopping mall, which puts a dozen or more stores under one roof and provides a directory to guide shoppers to the stores of their choice. In the same way, a business portal provides a single location on the Web where knowledge workers can get the information they need, regardless of where the information physically resides or what program was used to generate the information object.

Easy to Use. A business portal should be designed primarily to support the needs of "casual" information gatherers who want quick and easy access to consistent sets of data. It should be intuitive to use and should minimize the need for training. A Web browser and HTML are appropriate methods for accessing the business portal. Most have adopted a Yahoo!-like user interface, reflecting the success of consumer portals in providing Web surfers access to information resources. In essence, a business portal fulfills the promise of self-service business intelligence for casual users.

Universal Data Access. A business portal should provide access to any type of information inside or outside the organization. Whereas data warehouses have consolidated and integrated structured data for end-user analysis, business portals should extend end-user access to unstructured data as well. Thus, a business portal should be able to deliver reports, queries, charts, news feeds, documents, images, video clips and so on.

Moreover, a business portal should provide dynamic access to these information objects. For example, users should be able to refresh an existing report to get the most up-to-date results. They also should be able to interact with the report by adding columns or records or applying a new formula to calculate data.

Personalized Information Delivery. The business portal provides each knowledge worker with a personalized view of information contained in the portal's repository. Much like MyYahoo!, a business portal lets knowledge workers subscribe to objects in the repository that interest them. As part of the subscription process, users should be able to define the time, format, delivery channel and notification method for receiving the objects. In the same way, predefined groups of users (such as the marketing or finance department) can set up a single subscription on behalf of its users. A group subscription is often called a "channel" because it delivers subject-specific information to a predefined group of users.

Collaborative. The business portal provides several means for enabling users to share information and knowledge. First, users can share the results of an analysis by publishing a new object to the portal's repository. They can also define the users and groups permitted to view that object. Second, users should be able to distribute an object to a specific user (i.e., to their "in" box maintained by the business portal). Third, a business portal should let users set up intelligent workflows to route objects ­ such as a report or document ­ to a predefined set of users who need to review and comment on the object. Finally, a business portal can maintain discussion groups or chat sessions on topics of interest to users.

There are three core architectural components of a business portal: a meta data repository, a publish-and-subscribe engine and an integrated business intelligence engine.

Meta Data Repository. The meta data repository describes the attributes of the information objects in the repository. These include the author of the object, the program that generated it, the format, type, content description, its subject area classification and so on. If desired, users should be able to browse objects in the repository.

The repository maintains security information about which users are authorized to access different objects and at what level of granularity. It also maintains subscription information ­ which users and groups have subscribed to which objects and channels. Finally, it maintains publishing rights ­ which users are authorized to publish new objects to specific folders or channels within the repository.

Publish-Subscribe Engine. The second major architectural component of a business portal is a publish-and-subscribe engine. This engine enables users to publish new objects into the repository as well as subscribe to those objects. It then manages the distribution of objects according to users' subscription information. Thus, the publish-and-subscribe engine works hand-in-hand with the meta data repository to generate and distribute objects to users across a variety of media, including Web, e-mail, file server, fax and so on.

The publish-and-subscribe engine should be integrated with Web crawler technology so that the system can automatically publish new objects into the repository based on predefined search criteria. Web crawler technology can automatically search specific Web sites, analyze the contents and collect any objects in predefined topic areas. The engine should be able to automatically categorize and store these objects (or object references) and incorporate them into the appropriate channels for distribution or notification.

Business Intelligence Engine. To access structured objects, a business portal needs an integrated business intelligence engine that can access relational databases and generate a variety of static and dynamic reports. The engine should let power users generate their own queries, if desired. The engine should deliver traditional formatted reports as well as OLAP-style reports that let users slice and dice data across multiple dimensions and hierarchies as well as apply a variety of sophisticated calculations against the multidimensional data set.

In addition to these three technologies, a business portal needs to provide extensive security services and a robust server-based processing environment that potentially can handle hundreds of concurrent requests. It also needs integrated administrative and management tools as well as open interfaces to support the development of custom applications.

The concept of a business portal is still evolving, as are the products that support this new market. Most business portals today are simply business intelligence tools, document management products or search engines tools with a glossy new interface. However, this will change. Business intelligence vendors will incorporate Web crawler and filtering engines, while document management vendors will integrate query, reporting and analysis capabilities.

We suspect that the business portal interface (or rather the Yahoo!-style interface) will become universal. What will distinguish one business portal from the next is the degree to which they provide dynamic access to all types of information objects and the ease with which they allow users to access and share those objects in a collaborative, knowledge-enhancing environment.

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