Portals take on transactions

As enterprise portal initiatives emerge from the first generation of internal, employee-facing deployments to take on more business-to-business chores, vendors such as IBM Corp., Art Technology Group Inc. (ATG), and BroadVision Inc. are strengthening the links between commerce systems and the portal framework.

Next month, IBM plans to roll out updated versions of its WebSphere Portal and Commerce Server products, adding a handful of transaction-flavored portlets, or portal applications. The portlets are designed to pull commerce functions, such as viewing catalog record lists, catalog search, shopping carts, and commerce-related collaboration, into both products. Later this year and into 2003, the portlet functionality will be followed by a deepened integration between the two products, according to IBM.

Although many portals already include limited transactional capabilities or hooks that let developers build in basic commerce tasks, IBM’s goal is to enable a fully functional commerce platform within the portal infrastructure, according to Ed Harbour, director of WebSphere Commerce at IBM in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

“Some companies have taken commerce technology and added portal functions, or added some level of transactional support to the portal. But they’ve had to do that with their own development approach,” he said. “For full commerce capability, high-speed search, a catalog with millions of entries, linking to inventory control — that is where the commerce server steps in.”

According to Shawn Willett, principal analyst at Current Analysis Inc. in Sterling, Va., extending enterprise portals to suppliers and partners will require increased support for high-performance transactions and purchasing.

“A lot of companies are thinking about portals as a way to integrate and consolidate a lot of their b-to-b and b-to-c operations. It is a great organizing principle for that, and if [the portal] is more integrated with the actual commerce processes, it just makes that much easier,” he said.

Redwood City, Calif.-based BroadVision has compatible portal and commerce offerings, which the company plans to further integrate in the first half of the year. The tighter integration will offer users a portal experience, including configurable home pages, navigation hierarchy of content, and collaboration within the commerce platform, according to Linda Sonne, senior product manager at BroadVision.

“A portal interface is becoming an interface people want to use to interact with customers. They want to leverage features of a portal in commerce, CRM, and other applications,” she said.

Meanwhile, ATG has combined its separate portal and commerce offerings into a platform designed to simplify the process of exposing commerce functionality within the portal framework.

The need for transaction capabilities within the portal is taking off at a surprising clip, according to Victor Cheng, senior director of the commerce product line at ATG, in Cambridge, Mass.

“The market characterizes it as two categories: commerce and portals. But our customers think of it as running their business and managing relationships with their customers, which includes marketing to them, selling to them, and servicing them,” he said.

Later this year ATG plans to release additional commerce-targeted portal applications, or what it calls gears, for its ATG Enterprise Commerce and Portal Suite.