Portals plant new integration style

Portal vendors are changing their products into independent architecture layers that span a broad set of infrastructure pieces. As a result, the technology is enabling a new style of integration conducted by end-users at the browser level.

Rather than trying to force the technology into the middleware domain, vendors are solidifying portals as a presentation layer, resigning the heavy lifting associated with integration to the middleware stack where it is easier to handle. Plumtree Software Inc., IBM Corp., and Microsoft Corp. are leading the way.

Plumtree next week will introduce a new version of its portal and will outline a strategy designed to port its technologies across a wide set of apps and repositories.

IBM is bolstering the integration capability of its WebSphere Portal by adding adapters that connect to IBM middleware.

Microsoft will extend the range of its SharePoint 2003 Portal by tightening integration with Office applications and the company’s Content Management Server.

“Now that portal technology is maturing and big players are involved, it is shaking out as an independent architecture layer,” said Nate Root, senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc. “The oil and water are separating.”

At is annual Odyssey User Conference this week, Plumtree will announce Radical Openness, a strategy designed to open its framework to support every major application server, security system, content repository, development environment, search engine, and OS, according to the company.

Betting the farm on this strategy, Plumtree is expected to position its Enterprise Web framework as an interface layer that ties into any back-end infrastructure. The first deliverable of this strategy, due in mid-2004, is a J2EE version of Plumtree’s portal featuring support for Sun Solaris and IBM AIX. Support for Linux will be added in a later iteration.

Plumtree also plans to support Java and .Net across its entire product line, said Glenn Kelman, vice president of product marketing and management at Plumtree.

“Some organizations have parts of the business that run Java and some that run .Net,” Kelman said. “Web software needs to be open to both Java and .Net. Web services is not a get-out-of-jail-free card here. Web services allows us to connect our components by HTTP so we don’t have to rewrite portlets.”

As the strategy unfolds, Plumtree plans to roll out integration points for storing its portal content in other repositories, including competing portal products.

“We hope to be the first vendor to take services out of our environment and put them into other apps, even competing portal sites,” Kelman said. For instance, a customer could run a search from outside Plumtree’s framework that uses the Plumtree search engine.

Whereas earlier portal deployments overstepped the bounds of the presentation layer to take on the role of middleware, specifically integration-layer technologies, portals are now “surrendering some of the features like EAI back to the architecture layer,” Forrester’s Root said.

“(The portal) is becoming more elegant infrastructure. In the past, there was redundancy. You got capabilities (in the portal) that already existed in app-server and middleware layers. Now the layers are crystallizing a little more because the whole market is more mature,” Root said.

IBM is touting the portal as a high-level presentation layer that serves as a front-end user interface to the middleware stack.

The company will extend its common adapter program to its WebSphere Portal this quarter in an effort to boost the portal’s integration capabilities.

“The portal adds to the evolution of middleware, really extending that middleware up a little higher. Where usually you think of middleware as not end-user-facing, portals definitely are end-user-facing. The portal is becoming a piece of middleware and is enabling a new type of integration: integration for the end-users at the browser level,” said Bill Swatling, product manager of WebSphere Portal at IBM.

Point-to-point integration, for instance, is about keeping SAP AG data sets and PeopleSoft Inc. data in sync with each other, but this new form of integration promises to be far more powerful.

“I want my business manager to be able to look into the SAP system and look at the PeopleSoft system without having to switch to an SAP GUI or a PeopleSoft client,” Swatling said.

“We’re able to bring those together on the page within the browser and to do things like look at a customer in SAP, look up the customer-service records in PeopleSoft, and look up that customer in an Oracle database. To bring all these things together in one place really is a new style of integration,” Swatling said.

One of the ways IBM boosts the integration of the portal is via its common adapter.

“We have a common adapter that supports the app server, MQSeries, our process-integration server,” said Marie Wieck, vice president of WebSphere business integration at IBM. “Now in this quarter, it will support the portal to really provide integration capabilities across the portfolio.”

Microsoft will make a late surge in the portal space later this month when it delivers SharePoint Portal Server 2003. The new version will include bolstered scalability, personalization, and application-integration capabilities and will be integrated with Office 2003 applications.

“One of the key design points is the integration both with Office and with enterprise apps and any type of corporate data people need to see. We tie into anything like SAP, legacy databases, SQL stores, Siebel apps,” said Erik Ryan, product manager at Microsoft.

Because SharePoint Portal Server 2003 will not be tightly coupled with the app-server layer, it can be run in either Java or .Net environments, Ryan said. “We have a universal translator that adapts to any technology via Web services,” he added.