Pulling back the curtain

Suppose a slick-talking salesperson suddenly appeared at your door promising you the solution of a lifetime. He claims it can turn your rapidly accumulating corporate data into profit. That it can make your employees actually use all those various in-house and out-of-the-box applications, willingly, and with a smile on their face. Back office tie-ins? No problem. Heck, he says it’ll even help you lock down your user desktops, saving you and your colleagues endless grief.

You may call it impossible. But he’s got another name for it – a portal.

As IT departments continue to focus inward, making integration their number-one job, software purchases have slackened somewhat versus previous years. But portals continue to shine. According to Framingham, Mass.-based research firm IDC, portal software revenue in North America will total US$673 million, soaring to nearly US$2.4 billion over the next four years. Already there are an estimated 100 software vendors that sell portal tools.

“Right now I would say every major industry, whether it’s government, financial, manufacturing, retail – all of the key industries are looking for portal technology,” said Esther Kim, national WebSphere specialist with Markham, Ont.-based IBM Canada Ltd.

These are impressive statistics, given that few people appear to know exactly just what a portal is. At its simplest, the portal acts as an interface – a GUI that sits on top of the operating system that allows users, be they employees looking for HR info, customers looking for product information, or business partners looking for meatier data, access what they need in a format they intuitively understand.

Liberty Health Canada, a health-insurance provider based in Markham, Ont., has been using its portal, CleverPath 4.01 from Computer Associates International Inc., since 1998. “We’ve been a very early adopter of portals – we’ve had it since day one,” said Stan Lum, the company’s data warehouse manager.

As such, Lum has been able to witness first-hand the software’s evolution. Portals were born out of a need to manage raw data – to organize content, which was the primary reason Liberty implemented one in the first place. They later evolved into a means to tie together applications on the back-end, and today are being heralded as a means to do all that, plus improve corporate workflow and boost enterprise-wide collaboration to boot.

Lum said he’s closely watching the progress made to the CleverPath suite, which fell into CA’s hands after it acquired the software’s original developer. “The integration is much easier these days. When we tried to do the integration with our IBM mainframe, we had to use customized software,” Lum said. Though today nearly 200 clients and partners actively use Liberty Health’s portal to access information about their insurance, the firm has plans to expand it to help company executives and sales staff get quicker access to business numbers. “We’re also looking at doing Java development and [integrating] that into the portal as well,” he added.

What makes the market for portal software unique, experts say, is how few customers who end up with one even realized that it was a portal they were seeking. Few executives call vendors and ask for them by name. Instead, they’ll ask about which tools can help them manage content, or aid them in the quest for single sign on or personalization capabilities, or even help them reduce the impact of high staff turnover. What they don’t realize, say those who sell them, is that, if done right, portals offer customers the ability to do all this and more.


Regardless of their intention, once they’ve decided to buy, customers soon find themselves facing a forest of potential suppliers, all of which can be boiled down to two essential types – the increasingly rare “pure-play” companies (of which Plumtree Software is the most noted), or those that offer add-on software as part of a larger middleware or application server suite (such as tools from SAP, CA, IBM, Hummingbird and a wide array of other software vendors).

According to Jim Murphy, senior analyst with AMR Research in Boston, the pure plays, such as Plumtree, have history on their side. “(They) can really readily dig into existing information sources. They have the whole architecture worked out. It’s proven,” he said. The larger companies, meanwhile, offer their customers the lure of standardization “But they invariably require more services,” he added. Prices can also vary widely, and depend on a number of factors – but the average enterprise can expect to pay anywhere from US$150,000 to US$300,000 during the first year of a project.

Once the choice of software is made, it’s time to get serious about defining the scope and objectives of the project. More than any other software, portals can quickly succumb to scope creep, given their relatively flexible nature. Basic project management methods, such as appointing a project champion, and getting as much prospective user input as possible, are all highly recommended. Experts tell tales of infighting or failed projects in cases where this is not outlined up front.

And it also pays to start small, and work from there. “The biggest mistakes I see is they roll out large applications to users and no one finds it useful. You really have to start small,” said Tim McFarland, vice-president of sales and marketing with IHS Solutions Canada, an Ottawa-based systems integrator that specializes in portal software projects.

It’s also a good idea to be very clear up front what business problems must be addressed, and how that is going to play out once the portal is installed. For instance, sales staff might want to focus on the data being driven by their Siebel CRM software, and try to swing the project accordingly, while senior line-of-business executives would rather concentrate on squeezing data out of their business intelligence software. Despite that, according to AMR Research, as many as two-thirds of all portal installations are done at the behest of HR departments looking for a better way to push corporate information to employees.

What becomes tricky, however, is trying to calculate ROI on a product that is not only in its relative infancy (around five years old), but, in most cases, is brought in more to help make life easier for staff or customers, as opposed to trim costs. However, suppliers say the “soft” benefits, which can pay off in hard dollars, have to be considered. “A portal will accelerate the business throughput of our customers, also the effectiveness of key enterprise assets – accessibility to all the information in the company,” said Bernard Sanchez, vice-president of strategic initiatives in the eastern region with SAP Canada. “We believe what many of the analysts say, that lower cost of information, lower operating costs and better utilization of capital is provided by the portal.”

Sylvain Lapointe, business solutions division manger in the IT department at Soci