Portals get more palatable

Enterprise information portals have been a boon to businesses that want to provide a single point of entry to their vast resources of disparate information.

But along with the benefits have come hurdles, primarily in the area of technical integration. For example, end users who want to add an online calendar or a customized human resources application to their portals find they have to further burden their IT staff for development help, which can sometimes mean a waiting time of weeks – and additional cost.

As a result, portal software vendors are rolling out platforms and frameworks designed to give business users the ability to make simple application changes within portals without having to bother the IT department for every tweak. These tools go beyond the one-size-fits-all “portlets” and “gadgets” that today’s portal vendors offer as out-of-the-box application components that can be embedded into a portal view.

Epicentric Inc. last month rolled out its Foundation Builder, a set of browser-based interfaces and wizards that let end users build and modify applications within a portal. Also last month, Bowstreet Software Inc. unveiled the latest version of its Portal Automator, which streamlines the process of making changes within a family of portals, and BroadVision Inc. introduced BroadVision Integration Services, which uses technology from webMethods to ease the process of integrating the portal with back-end systems.

This month, Plumtree Software Inc. will roll out a suite of new services that includes an Excel Gadget Framework, which lets portal users display information from Excel files located in a shared server or on a business desktop without complicated coding. The company will also release Plumtree Studio Server, which, similar to Epicentric’s Foundation Builder, lets business users add customized applications with wizards and drag-and-drop interfaces. So an online calendar could be added to a portal without the HTML coding that is necessary today.

Studio Server, which runs on Windows NT, Windows 2000 and Sun Solaris, integrates with Plumtree Corporate Portal. Studio Server is shipped with more than a dozen gadget templates, such as an event calendar and a phone list, that can be customized by making changes in fields within the template.

Users can also build custom applications from scratch using Studio Wizard, a step-by-step, browser-based interface.

“You’re not going to be able to replace all your gadget building with this piece of technology, but you’ll be able to replace all of these relatively simple gadgets that most portal developers are spending most of their time developing,” says Nils Gilman, product marketing manager at Plumtree. “It’s really going to liberate IT departments to make even more productive enhancements to the existing portal by simplifying the delivery of the simple tasks.”

IBM Corp. provides business users with some level of do-it-yourself capabilities, but will enhance those in the next release of its Websphere Portal Server, expected in May, says Larry Bowden, vice president of portal solutions for IBM. He says that release will include event and campaign management tools that will let users configure applications designed to handle specific projects. For example, a department head could set up an application on a portal to track certification during a testing period, showing when a test is administered, who has taken the test and who has passed it and been certified.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to have the IT staff write a program for that,” Bowden says.

Analysts say businesses can expect to see portal vendors provide more of these types of self-service capabilities as portals move beyond being simple static interfaces to company intranets and more of transactional workplaces.

“It’s all part of a push into less and less technical implementations of enterprise portals,” says Nate Root, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. “Part of the problem right now with [portals] is you pay a half-million dollars for licensing and then on top of that you have to pay probably three times that in services just to get it up and running.”

“What tools like Epicentric do is push off some of the development responsibility to the business users so that IT and your integrator aren’t bottlenecks in the system anymore,” Root says.

And these tools let IT focus on other, more important projects, while business users still get the most out of their portals, says Rob Perry, an analyst with The Yankee Group.

Portal companies “are looking at how do we extend the value that we have and make it easier for companies to meet their business goals from the portal,” he says.

Mike Frame, research and technology director for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Center for Biological Informatics, says he’s saving money and getting more out of his staff with the Plumtree Studio Server.

“With Plumtree Studio Server, creating work order requests, gathering user feedback, developing questionnaires and group calendars takes a few minutes instead of weeks,” he says. “We’re lowering deployment costs and freeing our IT department to focus on other important projects.”