An enterprise portal is becoming the standard Web interface for delivering content to business users. In many companies, personalized portals are rapidly replacing generalized Web-browser interfaces to corporate intranets and e- business applications.
When portals first appeared on the market, they were packaged as standalone products. More recently, however, portal technology has been integrated into many types of enterprise software including application packages, business intelligence tools, Web application servers and content management systems. Figure 1 shows examples of portal product packaging. Several other technologies in the software industry have seen this kind of integration. Middleware, for example, initially appeared on the market in a standalone form; however, it gradually became integrated into the infrastructure of other software products. We don't talk about middleware anymore; however, it does still exist. It's there doing the job for which it was designed.
The move toward integrating portal technology into other software solutions has led to industry pundits predicting the demise of the so- called "pure-play" portal products. Will this really be the case? If so, who will be the future winners in the portal marketplace? How do you go about developing the right portal infrastructure in this fast-changing marketplace? These are some of the questions I will try to answer in this review of the current state of the art in portal technologies and products.
Figure 1: Types of Portal Packaging
The Role of the Enterprise Portal
The main goal of an enterprise portal is to give each portal user a personalized and integrated view of the business information, applications and services that he/she needs to do his/her job (see Figure 2). These portal users may be internal or external to an organization.
I refer to a portal used internally as an internal corporate portal and a portal deployed to external users as an e-business portal. The reason for this distinction is that these two types of portals often have different requirements. An internal corporate portal, for example, is often focused initially on providing a better interface to the corporate intranet. Therefore, an internal corporate portal requires good facilities for managing structured, semi-structured and unstructured information. The emphasis of an e- business portal, on the other hand, is often more on providing access to applications and collaborative services. As portal applications mature, however, this distinction is gradually disappearing. Most portal applications will evolve to handle all three key types of business content information, applications and collaborative services.
Figure 2: Types of Portal Business Content
A portal is more than just a Web interface to business content. It also offers a rich set of services to gather, categorize, integrate and personalize this content. Products vary considerably in their ability to support these services, and it is important to match a product's functionality to the type of portal application being developed.
I'll first provide a brief overview of the kinds of portal services found in portal products today and then look at the kinds of services needed for different types of portal application.
The services provided by a portal can broadly be broken down into four categories: user interface services, content interface services, portal management services and Web infrastructure services.
User Interface Services
User interface services sit between the portal user and the enterprise portal itself. Most portals interact with portal users via HTML sent to a desktop Web browser, but there is a growing need for portals to support more sophisticated interfaces (using Java or Microsoft .NET, for example) and to support mobile and wireless users. A key consideration in implementing a portal user interface is whether the product supports a true thin-client user interface, requires plug-ins to be installed or downloads presentation components to the user's Web device. The architecture of the user interface will be particularly important for slow network connections and when supporting external users via an e-business portal.
One key component of user interface services is the security service, which ensures that users can only view the business content they are authorized to see. This aspect of a portal will become increasingly more important as the depth and breadth of business content increases and as this content is made available to external users. It is also vital that the portal provides a single sign-on capability that works in conjunction with the security infrastructure of the organization.
Content Interface Services
Content interface services are used to access the business content viewed through the portal. These services employ adapters (often called portlets) to connect to the back-end systems that manage the business content to be accessed. All portal products come with prebuilt adapters. If the product does not provide an adapter for the content you wish to access via the portal, then you can write a custom adapter using a supplied development kit. The quality of the adapters provided in products varies enormously. Some adapters are simple HTML interfaces, whereas others offer sophisticated interfaces to content and are written in languages such as Java. The industry direction is toward creating portal adapters that can be published as a Web service. Industry standardization efforts here include the Java Portlet API (see www.jcp.org) and Web Services for Remote Portals (WSRP see www.oasis-open.org/committees/wsrp).
Portal Management Services
Portal management services provide key facilities such as personalization, search, publishing, notification, collaboration, workflow, portal meta data directory management, categorization and taxonomy development. Some portals also provide their own content management system in addition to providing portal adapters that can be used to access leading industry content managers such as Documentum or Stellent. Most product development activity is taking place in the area of collaboration and workflow services.
Web Infrastructure Services
Most portals interact with underlying software that provides the required Web infrastructure for communicating across corporate intranets and extranets, and the public Internet. (We have already noted that several Web application server vendors are adding portal technology to their products.) Although it is important for portal products to provide portability between leading Web servers, it is also crucial, as user volumes build, that products exploit features such as directory services, caching, load balancing and failover in Web application servers.
Matching Portal Products to Business Requirements
Choosing the right portal product is not a simple task. Products vary in their capabilities, and the facilities needed in your portal application will vary according to the type of portal you are developing. Figure 3 documents the key features of a portal and divides them into features required by all portal applications and features that are required for accessing information, applications and collaboration services. Figure 4 lists examples of portal products.
Figure 3: Matching Portal Capabilities to Business Requirements
One important consideration in choosing a product is vendor viability. I've already discussed how portal technology is finding its way into other software solutions, and this is putting pressure on pure-play portal suppliers. Expect consolidation of the portal market as leading software vendors such as BEA, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, PeopleSoft, SAP and Sun gain market share. Many of the pure-play vendors will either be acquired or go out of business. Some pure- play players that have achieved market acceptance (such as Epicentric and Plumtree, for example) are likely to survive. There is also room for niche players that supply vertical industry portals or specialize in specific portal technology areas such as search, categorization and taxonomy development.
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