Portal power

When Tom Hyatt launched the production version of his school’s enterprise portal last July, he was in for a big surprise. Vice-president of technology for the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), Hyatt immediately noticed performance problems on the campuswide portal. It was taking forever for the school’s 2,000 students, faculty and staff to access class schedules, grades and course materials on the MyMICA portal. Hyatt was mystified.

Hyatt’s bewilderment gave way to chagrin as he realized that the portal was bogging down because the newly returned students were downloading MP3 music files on the campus network in their dorm rooms. But faculty members didn’t want to hear any excuses. And some were convinced that the portal was a waste of time.

“If anything goes wrong [with a portal], people lose confidence in it,” says Hyatt. MICA has since given the student dorms dedicated Internet access. The portal is back up to speed and winning converts every day.

But as Hyatt can attest, when it comes to enterprise portals, what you don’t know can hurt you.

Despite the pitfalls, many organizations are building such portals. These data depots are an excellent way to disseminate information and applications from a single location to employees, customers and suppliers. And with portal tools reaching maturity, potential buyers now have numerous enterprise-ready options.

Name Game

Enterprise portal isn’t just a fancy term for intranet. The critical difference is that end users can customize an enterprise portal adding and subtracting internal and external information sources and applications. In theory, customization gives employees all the information they need to do their job more quickly and efficiently than if they had to search out the data and applications themselves.

Once you decide you need an enterprise portal, the questions begin. First, what audience do you want to serve and with what information? Don’t gloss over this “requirements definition” phase most of your other decisions will flow from here. With the important architecture questions out of the way, the next question is, Which vendor? That is not a straightforward matter. In a recent IDC portal survey, only 8.3 per cent of respondents felt they had detailed knowledge of portal vendors and their offerings.

Not the Obvious Choice

Which vendor you choose depends to a large degree on your legacy applications, which constituencies you’re trying to serve (internal or external), and what information you’d like to serve, says Laura Ramos, research director for Cambridge, Mass.-based Giga Information Group Inc. For Hyatt, that decision came down to the fact that the school used PeopleSoft’s human resources, student administration and financial enterprise applications. Those existing tools made the selection of PeopleSoft for his portal easier.

PeopleSoft offered a product called Campus Portal specifically targeted at the education industry, but Hyatt didn’t take the bait. “It had capabilities we didn’t want. It linked to student systems in a way we weren’t ready to use,” says Hyatt.

Hyatt’s reticence was because MICA, like most educational institutions, had already built a campus intranet as well as an external Web site. By sticking with PeopleSoft’s more generic portal, called the PeopleSoft Enterprise Portal, connecting the information sources became a simple matter. “The PeopleSoft Enterprise Portal is very open-ended, allowing many different kinds of content to be plugged in,” Hyatt says.

Making Your Own Way

When Dick Antalek decided to craft an enterprise portal, application and information integration was a huge matter for the vice president and CIO of Hyperion Solutions, the US$500 million enterprise software vendor based in Sunnyvale, Calif. Antalek had already built an extensive intranet called GlobalSource in 1996. But by last year, he was itching to create an enterprise portal specifically for Hyperion’s sales and marketing staff. Because the salespeople had limited time in their hotel rooms at night, Antalek wanted to spare them the hassles of switching from database to database, application to application. The new portal, called My Global Source, helps harried salespeople “Get stuff faster,” as its tagline says.

Hyperion’s enterprise portal is built on technology from Plumtree Software, Lotus Domino and Hyperion’s own portal product: Hyperion Central. “We have multiple portal vendors,” says Antalek. “This is the way of the future.”

Antalek elected to go the tough route of being his own portal integrator because he says it will have better payback than implementing one vendor’s product. “We built our portal to be very specific to us,” says Antalek. Salespeople save on average 15 to 20 minutes per day using the portal versus the old information access method. This may not sound like much, but Antalek disagrees. “That’s 15 to 20 minutes per day they can use contacting their customers. It’s extra time to do things we really want and need them to do.” He admits, however, that he did underestimate the integration task.

“We thought you would bring up the site, throw some links in, and you’re off and running. But the business community has to make more decisions than we thought,” he says. Helping business managers think through information taxonomy issues (such as what kind of information and in what format would be most useful for the staff) was more of a challenge than any of the technical work. Currently, 2,000 Hyperion employees use the enterprise portal, and Antalek is in the process of adding a version for outside distributors. And that external portal has some new issues primarily security-related.

Since the distributors will be privy to only a subset of the data on Hyperion’s portal, Antalek’s team members had to install another firewall inside the main corporate firewall to isolate the data they could see but no other outsiders could access. This “demilitarized zone,” or DMZ, required changes to the network and the document management infrastructure. In addition to buying extra networking equipment, Antalek found the issue of giving outsiders portal access to some but not all information more daunting than anticipated. “We have an external Web site,” he says. “We thought the security issues would be similar to that. They’re not. We had to move data around to make it more isolated.”

On a Grand Scale

When US$170 billion auto giant Ford Motor planned an upgrade of its Hub.ford.com employee Web site in January 2000, the stakes were high. With an internal user community of more than 50,000, some 1,500 major Web sites and more than 1 million documents as potential content, the company’s My.ford.com was an endeavour on a grand scale. When it came to vendor selection, Trish Buckley, program manager for enterprise portals, and the rest of the team put each of the four finalists to the test.

“We invited everyone onsite and gave them three days to integrate their portal with some of the key bits of functionality that we would need. At the end of three days we wanted to see a working prototype of this small subset of functionality,” says Buckley. In particular, the team wanted to see a portal that could work with Ford’s proprietary single sign-on capability as well as Ford stock information and competitive intelligence. At the end of three days, three out of four vendors had a prototype up and running, with varying degrees of success.

The best version was from Plumtree, the vendor Ford selected shortly thereafter. “Plumtree was the leader in terms of its extendibility. It integrated well with our other applications such as Documentum and eRoom. And they are very strong on content management,” she says.

With the vendor selection out of the way, it took the team about a year to fully launch the infrastructure, the target communities and the governance policies. Buckley insisted on a single installation of the Plumtree software across all the business units, an early decision that turned out to be critical.

“We wanted to keep the number of Plumtree installations to a minimum so we could reap the benefit of business object reuse. If each organization had its own installation, it would be a nightmare to manage,” Buckley says. “And it would be very hard in terms of governance. We’re looking to have uniform standards across our large portal.”

Buckley believes personalization drives the return on investment for so-called business-to-enterprise portals. She reports that 45,000 employees have customized their My.ford.com page, which already beats the Gartner industry benchmark of 25 percent. “The more we can provide a better set of tools, the more the personalization will increase,” she says.

There are potholes on the road to enterprise portals, but these early adopters agree that the trip has been worth it. “When we show people how we can put all the information including information from competitive Web sites in one place automatically, they get very interested,” says Hyperion’s Antalek. “People hugged me the day after we put it up.”

Beyond the extra affection, Hyperion’s portal payoff lies in soft benefits like increased productivity for the sales staff and harder ones such as reduced mailing costs for distributor materials. Antalek’s team did not put together a formal project justification, if only because the investment required to move from the preexisting intranet to an enterprise portal was not great. “For a company that had nothing to build on, the justification process might have been different,” Antalek says. “It was pretty clear that for us, it was worth it.”

Lauren Gibbons Paul is a freelance writer in Waban, Mass., who writes frequently on technology and business. Send her e-mail atlaurenpaul@attbi.com.