Navigating the portal maze

From a humble start in the late ’90s, enterprise portal technology has hit its stride in recent years, giving companies a powerful toolkit to aggregate disparate applications, back-end systems, services, and content into a personalized window. In addition, portal technology combined with Web services promises a one-two punch for business process and system integration.

The lure of browser-based bliss, however, may meet with confusion along the way. The influx of vendors to the space – coupled with wide-ranging customer requirements – has turned the portal purchase into a dizzying prospect.

“Selecting a portal package is among the hardest product-selection decisions [an enterprise] will make,” says Ray Valdes, research director at Gartner Inc. in San Jose, Calif. “There are a lot of trade-offs, and the packages have different levels of maturity, vendor risk, technology risk, and budget risk.”

Decisions, decisions

According to analysts and observers, one of the reasons for confusion is that portal technology is both infrastructure and software application. The result is a smorgasbord of portals from more than 100 vendors all over the technology landscape, including application, software, and infrastructure sectors.

The pure-play portal software vendors that pioneered the market, such as Plumtree Software Inc. and Epicentric Inc., are now locked in a contentious battle with infrastructure vendors, many of which muscled into the portal space last year. These infrastructure heavyweights, including IBM Corp., BEA Systems Inc., Sun Microsystems Inc., Oracle Corp., and Microsoft Corp., are gunning for control of what is emerging as a critical layer of the IT environment and an essential link in the Web services chain.

The core value that pure-play software vendors offer is an independent layer to referee multiple, competing systems, says Glenn Kelman, vice-president of product management and marketing at Plumtree in San Francisco.

According to Kelman, buying into an infrastructure vendor’s portal may require that a customer rebuild its whole business in Java to run on one platform – essentially “rebuilding your house so you can get a new door,” he says.

“Plumtree is committed to the reality of our customers – that they are actually running their business on all sorts of platforms, building services in all sorts of languages, and that is always going to be the case,” Kelman says.

Aiming portal technology squarely at solving business problems is the core strength of the pure-play portal technology, according to Rob Perry, senior analyst at the Yankee Group in Boston. “What the pure-play portal vendors have done so well is understand what business users need,” he explains.

On the other side of the fence, infrastructure vendors such as IBM and BEA tout supreme scalability and the ability to draw business logic into the portal and reuse it throughout the enterprise. Access to deep application server resources, including load balancing and clustering, is a clear advantage to building a portal as the front end to a larger infrastructure setup, says Craig Stevenson, senior product marketing manager at BEA in San Jose, Calif.

“We feel the portal is tightly linked into the application server, EAI [enterprise application integration], and Web services – it is part of the infrastructure,” Stevenson says. “You don’t want to take off a very important part of the infrastructure and lay on top a pure-play that can’t utilize all the reliability, scalability, and development tools of an application server or EAI capability to leverage back-end systems.”

Indeed, some analysts acknowledge long-term benefits associated with standardizing on a portal that is tied to a vendor’s larger infrastructure lineup.

“There is a more holistic or horizontal applicability from the infrastructure side — that you can connect more broadly, you can leverage standards more readily, that you can expand your portal across more devices,” says Dana Gardner, research director at Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston. “Eventually it will benefit [customers] to make the portal a larger infrastructure play … to get the full ROI.”

Others are wary of letting a portal purchase decision lead to a lifetime lock-in with an infrastructure platform.

“Lock-in is a very real issue, and a concern. Some vendors more than others view the portal merely as a way of getting customers locked in [to their infrastructure]. But others are more oriented toward delivering a real solution,” Gartner’s Valdes says.

To combat the pure-play vs. application server confusion, analysts recommend focusing on business goals, scrutinizing the financial health of vendors, and setting realistic expectations.

For example, the U.S. Army in the spring of 2001 turned to portal technology from Art Technology Group Inc. to create a one-stop shop that allows Army personnel to access hard-to-find applications and services. One of the goals of the portal project, called AKO (Army Knowledge Online), was bringing together the many decentralized organizations, including personnel, logistics, operations, and intelligence, says Major Bob Zoppa, who works in the Army’s chief technology office in Washington.

“The average soldier has little visibility into what the guys are doing in the finance arena, or personnel, or logistics, or a number of the other communities throughout the Army,” Zoppa says. “By consolidating all these links to different applications and providing core services such as secure instant messaging, e-mail, white pages, and knowledge centers to everyone, we are providing relevant information quickly to the Army community.”

Moreover, with more than 922,000 portal accounts and counting, scalability was “one of the major concerns and one of our strictest requirements when we were looking at portals. Whatever portal we chose it had to be able to scale to over 1 million users,” Zoppa adds.

Applications such as CM (content management), collaboration, and knowledge management are also merging into the portal framework, offering a single, browser-based framework for content and its many uses. UnumProvident, a financial services company specializing in long-term disability insurance, is currently deploying Corechange Inc.’s Coreport portal along with a CM system from Stellent Inc.

“The emphasis of our [portal] is information exchange, and that is where content management comes in to play,” says Joe Gwozdz, director of intranet development at UnumProvident, in Chattanooga, Tenn. But deep integration between portal and CM is still somewhat immature, and “today there is a lot of back-end work to make [the portal] look seamless,” he says.

Gwozdz is hopeful that forthcoming portal standards will simplify the process of connecting applications such as CM into the portal. “We built several portlets; each one we have to write custom code to make them talk to each other,” Gwozdz explains. “A portal access framework should have a way to allow one piece of it to talk to another. Standards to solve that would save me a lot of time and effort from writing custom code.”

Everyone’s after integration

Emerging Web services technology is also seeking to make the task of portal integration much less daunting — but it may turn the current evaluation process for portal vendors on its head in the process.

Whereas a key criteria in the past for the evaluation of portal technology was the number of portlets or application interfaces available, when Web services kick in, portlet differentiation will become less important, Yankee Group’s Perry says.

“Once [portlets] are services, then really any framework on the presentation side can call those services. The number you have is less important, it is more [about] how do you expose your infrastructure,” Perry explains.

Another effect of Web services will be a need for business process automation technology in the portal, which will put business rules around strings of Web services to turn them into a workflow, says Nate Root, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. EAI vendors such as Tibco have a leg up in this scenario, he adds.

“Now that the [connection] problem is going to be solved with Web services, the process automation problem really rises to the front,” Root says.

Although the nuts and bolts of Web services continue to be hammered out, some portal users are already revving up plans to leverage Web services through portal technology. This summer, Georgia’s state government plans to roll out an online DMV renewal service that taps both portal technology and Web services.

Using Sun Microsystems’ Sun ONE (Open Net Environment) Portal, the combination of Web services and portal technology gives the state a way to organize its thousands of stovepipe systems and leverage its existing applications and legacy system investments. The Web services protocol SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) is used through the portal to connect the presentation layer to both the credit card processor and to the DMV application, says Larry Singer, CIO of the State of Georgia.

“We bit the Web services apple, not because we think it gives us any kind of magic, but [because] it gives us an architectural approach to integrating our systems around the needs of our customers,” Singer explains.

The government’s archaic processes and systems make it difficult for citizens to navigate agencies and services, but ripping out those legacy systems isn’t an option, Singer adds.

“We have a $250 million investment in those back-end systems, and unlike big business we can’t afford to rebuild the back end,” Singer says. “So if we want to improve services, the only way we have is through a portal architecture that allows us to virtually integrate what is a disintegrated back end.”