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Using Information Portals in the Enterprise

Published
  • April 01 1999, 1:00am EST

"Portal: a doorway, gate, or entrance." - Webster's Dictionary

The success of Internet portals such as My Yahoo! has prompted vendors to market enterprise information portals (EIPs) to business users for accessing corporate business information. The promised benefits of EIPs are the same as those on the Internet ­ a simple Web interface that helps users rapidly sift through information managed by a large distributed computer network. Corporate users, however, have more complex business problems to research and solve than Internet consumers, and organizations need to carefully examine the different types of enterprise information portals (EIP) on the market. This article discusses the use of enterprise information portals for finding and viewing enterprise-wide business information, explores requirements and reviews the marketplace to see how this technology can be used in the enterprise.

Types of EIP

On the public Internet, an information portal employs a profile of the user's information requirements and the services of a search engine to help consumers quickly find information that matches their needs. An Internet portal provides the consumer with a single interface to the vast network of servers that constitute the Internet. Information portals in the corporate environment have a similar objective: to provide business users with a single interface to information scattered throughout the enterprise.

Enterprise information portals fall in two main categories. A collaborative processing EIP helps users organize and share workgroup information such as e-mail, discussion group material, reports, memos and meeting minutes. A decision processing EIP, on the other hand, helps executives, managers and business analysts access corporate information for making key business decisions. Decision processing EIPs support a wide range of different types of corporate business information and offer significant potential to organizations to leverage this information for business benefit. We will first look at decision processing EIPs in some detail and then compare and contrast them with collaborative portals.

Decision Processing EIPs

A decision processing EIP helps users organize and find corporate information in the set of systems that constitutes the business information supply chain. Figure 1 shows a typical information supply chain for a mid-sized corporation. Information about regular day-to-day business operations of the company is stored in operational databases managed by transaction processing applications and ERP systems. To analyze how these business operations change over time and to look for opportunities to reduce costs and gain competitive advantage, data is extracted from operational databases and loaded into a decision processing system by data warehouse extraction, transformation and loading (ETL) tools. Analyses and reports are created from the information in the decision processing system by business intelligence (BI) tools and analytic applications. These reports and analyses may be distributed to users via a regular client/server network, a corporate intranet or e-mail. Business users apply their knowledge of the business to the information obtained from the decision processing system and make decisions about what actions (if any) are required to improve the efficiency and competitiveness of the company's business operations. These decisions, actions, and associated analyses and reports are frequently recorded in word processing documents, spreadsheets and e-mail messages and stored in a collaborative processing system managed by office and/or groupware products. As actions are taken, the decision processing system can once again be used to measure the impact on the business so that new actions can be taken as appropriate. This iterative approach to decision making forms a closed- loop decision processing system that provides users with the corporate information they need for effective and accurate decision making.


Figure 1: The Business Information Supply Chain

A decision processing EIP helps business users locate any given piece of business information, no matter where it resides in the supply chain. It also helps organize objects that create information in the information supply chain, such as queries, reports, and analyses. Business analysts use the portal to find these objects, run them and retrieve the results. These objects can also be run automatically on a schedule- or event-driven basis, and the results delivered to executives and managers via e-mail or the corporate intranet.

Information viewed through a decision processing EIP is prioritized and tailored to match the role of the user in the organization. This saves time and provides security, since users see only the information they are interested in or are authorized to access. Executives can be notified quickly about information that requires urgent action, while business analysts can drill through multiple levels of information when doing detailed analysis tasks such as financial analysis, fraud detection or supply chain optimization. This results in better business decisions and helps reduce the costs of business operations. It can also result in increased corporate revenues.

One key aspect of a decision processing EIP is that it not only integrates business information across the organization, but also employs collaborative processing to track the decisions and actions taken based on this information. The combining of corporate business information, user knowledge and collaborative processing is sometimes labeled knowledge management. Decision processing portals could be described as knowledge management portals; but given the number of different definitions in use for knowledge management, the term knowledge management portal is best avoided.

Figure 2 illustrates the main components of a decision processing EIP. Key product requirements for such a portal are documented in Table 1.


Figure 2: Decision Processing EIP Architecture

Table 1: Decision Processing EIP Product Requirements

  1. A portal should provide a business information directory for maintaining meta data about an organization's business information. This meta data should not only contain details about the business information itself, but also about how the business information is related to other information objects in the business information supply chain. Users of the directory should be able to drill-through from the business information directory to technical meta data maintained by a meta data interchange hub and its associated technical directory. The ability to define meta data relationships within the business information directory and between the business information directory and the meta data interchange hub enables the complete flow of information from transactional processing systems to decision and collaborative processing systems to be documented and tracked by an organization.
  2. The business information directory should have an administration capability for defining user and user group profiles. These profiles should allow the administrator to define and control the types of information a user may see and the features of the portal the user may employ. Users should also be able to modify their personal profiles to indicate the types of information they are, or are not, interested in receiving.
  3. A publishing facility should be provided that enables both technical and business users to employ an interactive Web interface to document the business information that exists in an organization. This facility should support a wide variety of different information types including relational database tables, multidimensional databases, word- processing documents, spreadsheets, images, video, audio, HTML and XML pages, e- mail messages and decision processing objects such as queries, reports and analyses. When publishing information, the user should be given the option to move the information to a shared and protected information store. The user should also have the ability to annotate business information directory entries with additional information.
  4. The publishing facility should provide crawlers that automatically scan/index the contents of specified file directories for new business information. The frequency of scanning, the directories scanned and the file types processed should be controllable by the administrator. The results of the scanning/indexing process should be placed in a staging area for editing and entry into the publishing facility by support staff. The scanning/indexing process should support installation-defined exits that can be coded in industry standard programming languages.
  5. The publishing facility should support file import and export facilities (ideally via XML) and a documented programmatic interface that allows external products to access and maintain meta data in the directory.
  6. A subscription facility should be provided that allows business users to have information delivered to them on a regular basis. This facility should allow the user, via a Web interface, to control the delivery schedule, the format the information is to be delivered in and the location to which the information is to be delivered. Scheduling options should include immediate delivery, a specific date and time, a regular schedule and event-driven triggers controlled by user- defined business rules. Delivery formats should include popular Web and office- system file formats. Destinations supported should include Web addresses, e- mail user-IDs, pagers and fax machines. The subscription facility should allow the user to schedule the running of decision processing objects such as queries, reports and analyses created by leading business intelligence tools. It should also support implicit subscriptions whereby information is delivered automatically to users based on their profile or when requested by another member of their user group.
  7. A simple and easy-to-use Web browser information assistant should be provided for accessing, maintaining and navigating the business information directory. The information assistant should have a search capability that allows the business user to scan directory contents based on user-entered search criteria. The information assistant should provide different styles of user interface that can be tailored to suit the needs of different users and the type of work being performed. Possible interfaces include the traditional desktop file folder interface, Web search- engine interface and the hyperbolic tree. The Web search-engine interface is more suitable for inexperienced users, whereas the hyperbolic tree can display more information and is more suited to experienced users who wish to navigate and drill-down through information.

The business information directory is a server-based index of an organization's business information. This index is maintained via a Web-based publishing facility, by so-called meta data crawlers that regularly scan selected servers for new business information or by an import interface that enables users and third-party vendors to maintain directory information via flat files or a programmatic interface. The business information directory not only indexes business information (e.g., data warehouse relational tables, word processing documents and Web pages), but also the decision processing objects (queries or analyses, for example) that are used to produce the business information. Users can employ the portal to find these objects and, if authorized, run them. The business information directory not only enables an organization to document data (really meta data) about a wide variety of business information and where it resides in the enterprise, but also to organize this information by subject area and topic. In addition, the directory allows business users to annotate directory entries with additional meta data about the meaning and context of business information ­ and about the business actions that have been taken based on the information.

The subscription facility is used to control how business information viewed through the portal is distributed to business users. Information can be delivered or decision processing objects run ­ immediately, at a certain time and date or at user-defined intervals. Business rules can be defined so that, for example, as information in a data warehouse database changes, the rules are evaluated and if satisfied (e.g., a client's total stock portfolio reaches a certain threshold) a report is generated automatically and delivered to the user. The subscription facility supports not only explicit subscriptions to information, but also implicit ones. Examples of implicit subscription would be if the user (most probably in a user profile) defines to the portal interest in certain types of information or if the user belongs to a group of users associated with certain types of information. When a piece of information is published to the business information directory, the portal automatically distributes copies of the information to users whose profiles indicate an interest in the type of information that is being published. Another form of implicit subscription is unsolicited information where a user may decide that other people in the organization need to see a copy of a particular piece of information. In this case, a request is made to the portal to deliver the information to those users, either on a one-off basis or at regular intervals.

The information assistant provides a fully customizable Web interface that works in conjunction with a search engine to enter and process user requests for business information.

The EIP Marketplace

Enterprise information portals tend to be focused toward either supporting workgroup data in a collaborative processing environment or corporate data in a decision processing one. These two types of portals are either embedded in other tools (a groupware product or business intelligence tool, for example) or are completely independent and standalone products. Figure 3 shows some product examples and the types of processing environments they support.

Although collaborative applications such as groupware and office systems contain information that has flowed down the business information supply chain from corporate-level transaction and decision processing applications, there is also a considerable amount of workgroup-generated information in a collaborative system that is independent of the business information supply chain. Products such as Lotus Domino and Notes and Microsoft Exchange and Office 2000 frequently manage this type of workgroup information. Lotus's direction is toward providing an integrated information portal capability within its Domino/Notes product set to manage workgroup information. The recently announced Version 5 of Notes provides support for organizing and finding a broader range of information sources but does not include a business information directory ­ this will be provided in a future release. Microsoft's direction is toward providing portal capabilities using a combination of Exchange, Office, Site Server and the Microsoft Repository. It is also interesting to note that Microsoft has a relationship for XML development with DataChannel, which has a collaborative processing portal called RIO. Several third-party vendors provide portal-like capabilities for both Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange ­ one example is Cipher Systems Knowledge Works.

There is also a new breed of independent collaborative EIP appearing on the market that provides an integrated business information directory. Product examples here include 2Bridge Software ­ 2Share, Plumtree Software ­ Plumtree Server and IBM KnowledgeX for Workgroups. Although these portals are focused toward supporting workgroup information, they are likely to evolve toward supporting the tools that feed the business information supply chain. For example, 2Bridge and Plumtree support relational database information, and Plumtree also supports Cognos PowerPlay and Informix MetaCube. The IBM KnowledgeX product supports a variety of different types of corporate information, and IBM's direction is to expand its KnowledgeX product family to provide an enterprise- level knowledge management solution that incorporates an information portal and a so-called knowledge catalog of business information. This latter solution initially will be marketed to systems integrators and large corporations on the leading-edge of knowledge management applications.

Decision processing EIPs are either integrated into business intelligence (BI) tools or are independent products. Examples of integrated products include Information Advantage's MyEureka!, SQRIBE, ReportMart Enterprise Information Portal and Viador (formerly Infospace) E- Portal Suite. These products supply an integrated BI tool for developing decision processing objects (such as reports and analyses) and an information portal for organizing and running these objects and distributing the results to business users. One of the few independent products on the market is the VIT deliveryMANAGER, which can handle a wide range of business information managed by relational DBMSs, business intelligence tools, and office and Web products. VIT is also moving into the analytic applications space. Its first offering will be a set of supply chain analytic applications that make extensive use of its information portal technology. My Eureka!, ReportMart Enterprise Information Portal and E-Portal Suite are also available as independent EIP products (i.e., without an integrated business intelligence tool), but this is not their main thrust. Decision processing EIPs vary in their capabilities, especially in the area of the business information directory. The checklist in Table 1 should be used for product evaluation.


Figure 3: Enterprise Information Portal Product Examples

The availability on the market of both BI tool-specific and independent decision processing EIPs demonstrates that this technology will evolve along two different, but related lines. Organizations, or departments within an organization, that standardize on a specific BI tool for reporting and analysis will tend to use the information EIP portal embedded within the BI tool to manage and distribute business information. Few BI tools now provide an information portal, but it is likely within the next twelve months that most will. We are also likely to see informational portals embedded in analytic applications in the future. The disadvantage of a tool-specific portal is that the organization is locked into that tool for business information management and distribution. For organizations that employ a variety of different BI tools, an independent portal offers a more open and long-term solution.

EIP Directions

When comparing the two main types of enterprise information portal on the market, decision processing EIPs offer organizations the bigger potential payback, since they help business users find and leverage corporate business information for reducing costs and increasing revenue. Collaborative EIPs, however, are beginning to add decision processing capabilities, and the dividing line between the two types will become blurred. It will remain the case, however, that business users who have a collaborative style of working will gravitate to products that use a collaborative approach to organizing information, whereas corporate users will prefer to employ products that come from a decision processing background. We are also likely to see the suppliers of Internet portals offer EIP solutions. The most likely candidate here is AOL, which recently acquired Netscape.

When choosing an enterprise information portal, the list of requirements in Table 1 should be used to assess user needs and to evaluate products. The main distinguishing factors between products are likely to be the power and openness of the business information directory and the ability of the product to support a large number of users and a wide range of business information. These factors are important for organizations that wish to create an enterprise-wide EIP strategy for organizing and finding business information. Without such a strategy, it is likely that multiple portals will be deployed, which will lead to significant information integration problems and defeats the key objective of an enterprise information portal ­ providing business users with a single interface to business information.

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