Building on the corporate portal

Art Technology Group Inc. first made a name for itself as a provider of e-commerce platforms. But more recently, the company has been making inroads in the corporate portal space with more than 50 customer installations, including the U.S. Army. In an interview with InfoWorld (US) Editor-in-Chief Michael Vizard, ATG CEO Paul Shorthose and Vice-President of Product Management Ken Volpe explain why they think an applications approach to corporate portals is preferable to any other approach.

InfoWorld: What brought ATG to the corporate portal space?

Shorthose: What’s happened over the last 12 months is that this idea of portals has taken off. ATG has been in that market essentially for several years, but over the last 12 months we made a decision because it was obvious that portals were being custom built on top of our Dynamo platform. So now we’ve essentially built out an infrastructure and a development environment that accelerates time to market with portals. It runs on our e-business platform and ties in our e-commerce components. We’re building out applications that can tie together everything from how you market to a customer, how you sell to them, how you support them, and how you transact with them.

InfoWorld: Right now, a lot of the noise in the portal market is being generated by application server vendors. What differentiates your approach?

Volpe: If you [are] really coming at it from the application server perspective, you’re really looking at sort of a silo. All you have is a windowing system into very static systems. The application server in [and] of itself doesn’t do much to help you build a relationship to sort of cross-pollinate information from one system to another. The market has moved over the last year. People really do see the value of building more of a personalized relationship with their vendors, customers, and partners. They also want a platform that can be reused for more than just one application because they’re typically talking to the same partners, the same customers for different applications. And with us, you have a business platform that can ride on multiple application servers. Anything that’s following a standard is by definition incomplete. Otherwise, there would be no more JSRs [Java Specification Requests] coming out of Sun to fill all the gaps that we know are there in that app server. What we have is the first layer we have on top of the app server that we call the e-business platform. It consists of things like a personalization scenario, but more importantly it consists of things that we basically have to have in our products that are not present in the app server today. In fact, if you’re an individual app server, you may never put it there because you have to think about an environment that has multiple app servers in it.

InfoWorld: How does your offering manifest itself in an enterprise environment?

Shorthose: The big difference is that you can have the vision of a consolidated environment across the business life cycle. We’ve never really solved that problem of how does one function give up data to another function. So this gives [customers] sort of a future-proof platform so they can start to do it, build the architecture to do it, and then plug in the various applications as they involve the business process. The biggest value is the idea that you can create multiple functions through a single portal over time. The big differentiator that we have from just about anybody, I think, is this idea that not only can you track a customer against a profile, but you can track them against a profile over time based on their behaviour. And nobody else can really do that. If you notice that a profile for a strategic customer is coming to your site [and] is asking 12 questions a day, and then they come back two days in a row and ask more questions, you can send an e-mail internally to your customer service agent and have them physically call that customer. That capability is pretty compelling.

Volpe: This is really where we think we still lead the market, and most of our competitors really only do profiling. On top of that, what we’ve introduced in the last major release of the product is a capability called Scenarios. It allows you to make all of what I just told you and use it to build a relationship that spans time and other elements. You can actually start to build multiyear, multiday, multievent types of relationships.

InfoWorld: What’s your approach to integration with other platforms?

Shorthose: We’re evolving the product road map to introduce the idea of tighter integration. You can do it through Tibco, which we resell as part of our platform. We’re creating tighter integration with things like SAP and Siebel.

InfoWorld: How much demand is there for real-time integration?

Volpe: It’s moving quickly to more and more real time. But most customers are still dealing with batch [processing]. I think you’re going to see a big movement in 2002. People have been thinking about it, in my opinion, for the last year. The driver is that, as you know, people are impatient and there’s no room for waiting for information.

InfoWorld: What’s your take on the impact that Web services will have in this space?

Volpe: We separate Web services into two camps. There’s the application server piece that we’ll look to leverage. [And there is] the more important piece to us, [which] is really taking the applications, like portal and commerce, and making them producers and consumers of Web services. We already have in our commerce product the ability to actually exchange customer order information using SOAP [Simple Object Access Protocol]. Our portal product will be able to actually be a Web services client, so you can go actually pull information out of any existing Web service. The real big value from us is in our ability to link that plumbing to a business process.

InfoWorld: How does your approach differ from other application vendors?

Volpe: Our customers, who are pretty much large Global 2000-type customers, they’re not just riding on top of SAP. If you really are just using SAP for everything, which is very hard to do, then maybe the SAP portal makes sense to you. But if you’re a company that has SAP for all of your manufacturing pieces, you’ve got Siebel for your sales side and you’ve got i2 for your supply side, then any one of those portals or any one of those products can’t solve all of the customer-facing problems.

InfoWorld: So at the end of the day, what’s the value proposition for ATG?

Shorthose: We’re pretty impressed with the idea that a business user can actually do something that ties into the back-end infrastructure and dynamically have it change on the Web site that night [and] that drives business the next day.