Over the past several years, IT departments have made heroic (and costly) efforts to transform their organization's operational data into strategic business intelligence (BI), seeking to leverage enterprise-wide information to improve the quality and efficiency of business decision making. Vast sums have been invested in data warehouses, data marts and the associated analytical tools (OLAP, reporting, and query and analysis tools), and vast amounts of time and effort have been expended in the process.

Unfortunately, while many of these projects have become operational, only a very small subset of users ­ "power users" and IT administrators ­ have benefitted. The vast majority of end users ­ around 95 percent of all users at a typical corporation ­ either lack access to the analytical tools required to gain business value from the data warehouse or simply lack the expertise required to use them. Moreover, even the fortunate five percent ­ the power users who can generate their own business information ­ still lack full "decisional information," because they have no access to unstructured data ­ the data that lurks outside of structured data stores in end-user documents, spreadsheets and e-mail as well as in live feeds, video and audio format.

At the same time, end users have never had a greater need for fast, on-demand access to corporate information. In the modern, decentralized organization, end users are being given an unprecedented level of responsibility for corporate decision making, and they are demanding self-service access to the information they need to make those decisions. Complicating the situation further, businesses are finding that as they optimize the supply chain and streamline operations they must also share corporate information in a timely manner with users outside the firewall: subsidiaries, distributors, suppliers and even customers.

In order to achieve ROI on its data warehousing, data mart and BI initiatives, IT needs to provide end users with self-service, personalized access to the entire corporate data store ­ including both structured and unstructured data. The technology that will meet these needs, analysts agree, is the enterprise portal ­ a customizable, secure, browser-based single point of access to the entire corporate BI infrastructure. Like consumer portals, enterprise portals empower mainstream corporate users ­ the 95 percent that traditionally have been underserved by BI tools ­ to find the decisional information they need to do their jobs. Through enterprise portals, users can "help themselves" to a myriad of reports from data marts, real-time feeds, Web content, text documents and more ­ quickly navigating to the specific information they need and making informed decisions on the spot.

This article describes the business intelligence technologies that have laid the groundwork for enterprise portals and identifies the characteristics of effective enterprise portal technology.

Information Access

In a very short time, businesspeople have undergone a radical shift in the way they use and think about information. The advent of the World Wide Web has transformed information from a scarce commodity, available only from "experts" or through painstaking research, into an easily accessible resource, available to anyone who knows how to use intuitive, graphical browser technology. Not only is the information on the Web generally free, it is also indexed, searchable and conveniently organized by subject matter enabling users to quickly "surf" through related information stored anywhere on the network via hypertext links.

However, when the same Internet-savvy user goes to work, he or she finds a very different situation. Frequently, critical business information needed to make decisions is not available in a timely and efficient manner. Either the user didn't receive it, doesn't know it's available or doesn't know where to look for it. He or she may not even know it exists. The typical large corporation maintains hundreds of separate data stores (SQL databases, ERP systems, data warehouses, data marts, etc.) and runs applications that generate tens of thousands of different reports in a wide range of formats. That does not include the information being generated every day by end users in the form of word processing documents, spreadsheets, groupware, e-mail or output from analytical tools (such as OLAP cubes).

Corporate intranets may make it somewhat easier to find relevant information. However, the typical corporate intranet maintains only a small subset of information. Users must navigate to multiple internal Web sites (each with its own security) to find information; and the information tends to be poorly indexed, unsearchable and not standardized among the various departments and business units. Even when a user has found the information he or she seeks, there is no ability to drill down to detailed information, update the data, create new reports synthesizing the information or publish results in a format accessible to other users.

The problem becomes even more acute when the information recipient is a third party. Many companies must regularly collect, consolidate and distribute business information to distributors, partners, subsidiaries and customers resulting in a significant burden to IT.

Enterprise Information

Businesses have always made an effort to extract strategic business information from their operational systems. In the old days, this meant running green-bar reports off the host database, then laboriously sifting through the reports for the few numbers required and comparing those to a document stored in hard copy somewhere else. In the modern, distributed environment, most business information is online in one form or another; however, extracting useful business information from databases has proven a daunting task. Data is generated and stored across the enterprise ­ by mainframe systems, ERP and other operational applications. These applications each have their own internal business logic, store data in different formats and may be located anywhere across the corporation.

Data warehouse projects represent an effort to address these problems by extracting, scrubbing and consolidating data from across the enterprise in a single database (or, in the case of data marts, a number of smaller marts). In theory, by unifying all corporate data in a single, standard database (or, in the case of data marts, several smaller databases), users can extract business information at the enterprise level, not just on an application-by-application basis.

The problems of this approach are well known: difficulty in extracting usable data from an application's underlying business logic, problems in reconciling data stored in different formats by different applications, and the time and expense of the project. Moreover, because data warehouses and data marts cannot include unstructured data (anything from blueprints to product manuals to online video presentations), they offer ­ at best ­ another corporate data store that may or may not be useful, depending on how (and by whom) it is accessed. Finally, as previously mentioned, users typically do not have access to the analytical tools that would enable them to answer questions based on the data in the warehouse.

Thus, while data warehouse and data mart technologies have served, and will continue to serve, a valuable function as a source of consolidated corporate data, they are merely one component in an enterprise information solution. Indeed, new technology under development by vendors of ERPs and other business applications may reduce the need for new DW projects. The new technology will provide APIs that enable analytical tools (and enterprise portals) to interface directly with the application's data through the business layer, obviating the need to extract, scrub and consolidate the data in a separate location.

The Enterprise Portal Model

In order to offer end users true decisional information and leverage all corporate data, structured and unstructured, organizations are moving toward a new technology layer that unites all business intelligence technologies under an intuitive GUI. This is the enterprise portal.

The enterprise portal offers a Web-like solution to the problem of distributing business information, consolidating business intelligence objects (reports, documents, spreadsheets, data cubes, etc.) generated anywhere in the enterprise by any application and making them easily accessible, subject to security authorization, to non-technical users via standard browser technology. The portal serves as a window, providing transparent access to "information objects" generated by various applications and stored in a central repository as well as to analytical tools and to the applications themselves for "dynamic execution" of predefined reports or generating new reports.

The key features of enterprise portal technology include:

Scalability: An effective enterprise portal solution must be supported by a multitier, distributed architecture in order to scale effectively. The portal must scale to support a huge number of discrete information objects without affecting availability or response time ­ a significant requirement, when companies may generate a hundred thousand reports in a year and when individual reports can consume hundreds of megabytes. In addition, the portal architecture must be capable of scaling to support a large number of users (up to hundreds of thousands) and to support users and applications on a wide range of platforms, from mainframe hosts and UNIX and NT servers to desktops, mobile PCs and hand-held devices.

Search/Navigability: Like popular Web portals such as Yahoo!, an enterprise portal should offer multiple ways to identify potentially valuable information including a search engine for text-based searches, an indexing system that is standard across all information objects and hypertext linking within documents to enable "jumps" to associated information objects. For example, a report showing sales for a particular product might contain links to a Word document detailing sales strategy for the year and to an Excel spreadsheet with a hard-dollar forecast for the quarter.

Security: One of the most crucial features of the enterprise portal is enforcing security for the hundreds of thousands of information objects that can be accessed. Most BI objects are assigned security levels when they are generated by the business application. To avoid undue administrative overhead, the enterprise portal must be capable of plug-and-play integration with existing authentication schemes. Security enforcement at the portal enables users to login once to access all business information objects for which they are authorized. It has the additional effect of increasing customization and ease of use, since users need not sift through objects to which they have no access.

Dynamic Execution: The portal must provide the ability to execute reports from production systems or databases in real time giving users access to the most up-to-date information. Moreover, this must occur transparently to the user. For example, when a user clicks on a report object, that report might update automatically from the underlying application and display the most current data. Enterprise portals can even serve as user-friendly front ends to business applications, enabling the user to generate a report from, for example, financial applications based on queries formulated in the browser window and delivering that report back to the user via the browser.

Ease of Use: Perhaps the greatest benefit of the enterprise portal is its ability to make decisional information available to untrained users. Enterprise portals employ standard browser technology (i.e., Navigator, Internet Explorer, etc.) as the interface, eliminating the learning curve for anyone who has ever surfed the Web. Effective portal technology meets users at their skill level, providing a basic interface with simple choices for the novice and a range of interactive BI analysis and reporting tools for power users. The portal should also enable intelligent report viewing ­ formatted as in a static report but offering interactive features such as drill down and hypertext linking.

Ease of Administration: Ease of use must also extend to the tools used by administrators and power users to create reports, to file and index business information objects in the repository and to administer the repository (deleting obsolete objects, ensuring standard tagging of new objects). In addition, to be effective, the enterprise portal must leverage existing data and existing business logic rather than requiring the company to rebuild their data store as with data warehousing technology.

Extranet Support: A crucial feature of an enterprise portal is its ability to function on either side of the corporate firewall. This enables a corporation to effectively open its business information object repository to mobile users, customers, distributors, subsidiaries, partners and any other parties who need access to company information (subject to security clearance, of course). In addition to reducing administrator costs (since the outside companies are retrieving their own information), this free exchange of information is a key enabler of corporate electronic commerce. Third-party users must also be able to administer their own users ­ for example, assigning and deleting passwords.

Personalization/Customization: In order to offer true self-service access to business information, the portal should permit customization by the end user including the arrangement of the browser (incorporating real-time Web feeds, headlines, notification of report availability, etc.). The portal must permit both "push" and "pull" report distribution, so that users can "subscribe" to information based on interest (for example, all sales reports for the Eastern region) or by "exception" (for example, receive an inventory report when levels of item X dip below a user-defined level) or call up information from the repository upon request. They should also be able to work on documents cooperatively with other users.

Business Information Architecture

The new model of information access will feature enterprise portals as a window into a complex business information architecture that includes data warehouses, data marts, SQL databases and other data stores; OLAP, reporting tools, query and analysis tools, and other analytical applications; and the vast amount of unstructured data that exists across the enterprise. The portal will make the underlying architecture transparent to the end user meeting him at his level of expertise.

Improved ROI on BI Projects. Enterprise portals enable IT to easily extend the benefits of data warehouse, data mart and other BI projects to end users across the enterprise, maximizing the business value of those projects in terms of improved decision making.

Increased business efficiency. When users spend less time looking for information, they are able to spend more time on income-generating activities. Additionally, administrators are able to spend less time assisting users.

Increased productivity. Better information leads directly to improved decision making which has a clear effect on the bottom line. In addition, the ability to make quick decisions can often mean the difference between making a sale or losing it. Some organizations are even selling business information back to their customers, making the enterprise portal a profit center in its own right.

Reduced costs. The self-service portal model reduces costs by offloading administrators from spending hours generating reports and documents for end users.

End-user empowerment. While empowering end users has ancillary benefits, such as reduced burden on IT and better decision making, it also has a positive effect on the users themselves ­ increasing their confidence and independence while reducing frustration.

New perspectives on information. When users have easy access to information, they frequently hit upon solutions or insights that would otherwise have eluded them ­ again, with clear impact on the bottom line.

E-commerce. The ability to efficiently and securely share data with third parties enables increased efficiency in the supply chain as well as improved relationships (and easier, faster negotiations) with suppliers, distributors and customers.

These advantages, combined with the proven effectiveness of portals in the Web environment, demonstrate why enterprise portals will soon be considered a necessity for corporations seeking a competitive edge and a knowledge-empowered employee community.

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