"The portal is dead. Long live the portal," states a recent research report from Gartner. This somewhat misleading statement really means that portals are undergoing a metamorphosis. In Gartner's opinion, portals are evolving into integrated software suites that contain portal functionality. We can see an analogy in the way middleware evolved. In the past, there were middleware conferences, and articles and reports about middleware products and technology. Today, we simply accept middleware as a technology component that exists in a wide range of business software solutions. This is the likely direction of portal technology as well. It will, however, take some time for this to happen.

Although a fairly new innovation, portals have had a dramatic impact on IT business systems. They are quick to deploy and, if implemented correctly, can have a huge payback. Portals were used initially to improve the usability of corporate intranets and extranets. More recently, they have been employed with other technologies such as content management, collaboration and business intelligence to provide business solutions that enhance business operations and boost business efficiency both within and across enterprises.

Some good examples of how portals provide ROI are the winners of the recent Portal Excellence Awards announced at the DCI Enterprise Portals and Web Services conference in San Francisco. The U.S. Army, winner of the Best Internal Corporate Portal Award, needed a solution to connect tens of thousands of geographically dispersed systems to provide a central repository of information for its staff of active soldiers, national guardsmen, reserves and civilian employees. In just three-and-a-half months, Appian Corporation deployed a portal that can be considered to have the world's largest user base with 1.3 million registered users worldwide. Portal appearance and information delivery is based on user rank, experience and location. The portal provides chat rooms, e-mail, instant messaging and document sharing. Today, approximately 100,000 unique users visit the portal daily, generating nearly 200,000 sessions. ROI is achieved in several ways. For example, the Army saved $28 million by reducing the number of servers on its Standard Installation/Division Personnel System.

The winner of the Best e-Business Portal Award was Halliburton, an oilfield services company. Halliburton used Plumtree's portal product to deploy a solution giving more than 4,300 customers access to technical tools, best practices, SAP account data and private forums for project management. Clients such as ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco and Conoco can gather product information, track invoices, tap a knowledge base of technical expertise, and collaborate with Halliburton teams. According to a survey, the portal influenced $120 million in sales during its first year. The portal has also led to better customer service, higher customer acquisition, higher customer retention, increased knowledge sharing, print and courier savings, and easier access to SAP data.

A portal is more than simply a Web interface to business content. A portal achieves ROI by working in conjunction with other technologies to provide an integrated business solution. A portal is a key component of an enterprise business integration strategy. It provides integration at the user interface level, whereas other integration technologies support business process, application and data integration.

Returning to the question of where portals are heading, I agree with Gartner that portal technology will become a key component of software suites. While Gartner identifies two types of suites, I believe there will be three types (see Figure 1):

Figure 1: The Evolution of the Enterprise Portal – Software Suites

Intelligent Business Suite – This suite is a packaged solution that integrates the key features of an independent portal (categorization, search and personalization) with business intelligence tools, collaboration services and a content management system. This suite places emphasis on out-of-the box solutions for information access and sharing, content management and collaboration. It is similar to what Gartner calls a Smart Enterprise Suite (SES). For some organizations, a key requirement for such a suite would be that it can run on and exploit the integration features of an application server suite in areas such as application integration and Web services.

Application Package Suite – This suite provides an out-of-the box solution that integrates an application vendor's operational application and business intelligence packages into a portal environment. The suite also provides collaboration services and an integration bus that enables third-party product integration. This suite puts a strong emphasis on prepackaged solutions. If the application vendor also markets an application server suite, then it is likely that the application package suite will be developed and integrated with that product.

Application Server Suite – This suite brings together the four key integration infrastructure technologies (i.e., user interface, business process, application and data) in a single package that is combined with an application server and collaboration services. This suite places emphasis on application integration and on an infrastructure for building an integrated business environment. It is similar to what Gartner calls an Application Platform Suite (APS).

Portal technology will become a key component of other software solutions. In developing a portal strategy, the needs of the business should be the primary focus; but it is also important to take into account other IT strategies in areas such as business intelligence, content management, collaboration and application integration. New and evolving technologies such as XML and Web services are also likely to play key roles as portals evolve into software suites.

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