Take it all with you

Web services and enterprise information portals are cultivating a mutually beneficial relationship that should simplify portal deployments and pave the way for delivering enterprise applications to all business users regardless of their location.

Although many Web services will consist entirely of machine-to-machine connections processed behind the scenes, some Web services will involve user interaction. As the Web services computing model takes shape, questions are arising about how best to deliver these services to users.

Enter corporate information portals, which are gaining widespread traction as a central point for accessing information and communication throughout an organization. Designed as a one-stop shop for the information-hungry enterprise worker, a portal pulls together disparate information and applications from sources inside and outside the corporate walls into a single browser-based view. This method of interacting with company resources and applications is quickly becoming the main artery through which enterprises flow data to employees, partners, suppliers, and customers.

Although the model for Web services is just beginning to take shape, observers predict that some basic user-oriented Web services will be a reality within six months to a year, with more complex services several years away.

A Context for Consumption

In addition to aggregating multiple applications, back-end systems, and data stores, corporate portals possess critical user-identity information necessary for delivering Web services to users, according to analysts.

Because a user must pass authentication to gain access to enterprise portals, information drawn into the portal can be tailored to a worker’s individual identity, preferences, job title, and role in the organization.

“Having a portal infrastructure that is based on an authenticated user entry has the benefit of providing context for Web services,” says Dana Gardner, research director at Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston. “Web services need to have a context or it’s not terribly useful, especially for a business process. A portal will manage Web services in the context of what users need from those services, and with that context Web services become coordinated, managed, and focused.”

One portal infrastructure vendor, Palo Alto, Calif.-based iPlanet E-Commerce Solutions, is positioning its Portal Server as a way to dynamically display Web services that have a visual representation.

“[The portal] provides a way to deliver these services in a personalized manner differentiated by the user’s context, and that user can be a partner, customer, [or] employee,” says John Fanelli, director of product marketing for portal and communication services at iPlanet.

Because standards and vendor initiatives are still being defined, real-world examples are surfacing slowly.

Superior Information Services, a public records information broker in Trenton, N.J., is planning to include Web services in a portal structure. The company provides online searches obtained from public records data. It plans to integrate via XML and SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) to another vendor’s people-finding service, which the company plans to offer as a service on its own site.

The company will execute the information exchange via Web services, but will rely on portal technology from BEA Systems to regulate user access to the content, according to Matthew Hird, director of development at Superior Information Services.

“We will use the portal product to customize who has access to what because only certain people can access certain products,” Hird says. The portal provides “authorization and workflow for management of Web services.”

Easing Integration Woes

Today’s methods used to surface an application or service into a portal view – usually referred to as portlets, gadgets, or widgets – typically require hard-coded links built to each back-end resource.

The manual integration involved to create portlets or gadgets can lead to soaring deployment and maintenance expenses, according to analysts.

Hard-coded application integration links into the portal mean that, if you change the version of that application, you have to rewrite that code to make the connection, says Larry Hawes, senior advisor at Delphi Group Inc. in Boston.

“There is a big maintenance component ongoing [with portals] that a lot of people haven’t thought about,” Hawes says.

Because they are self-describing and self-discovering, Web services promise to help alleviate portal integration challenges, according to Hawes. For example, leveraging standard Web services interfaces, a portal could automatically recognize a new version of an application or service.

Some vendors, such as San Francisco-based Plumtree Software Inc., have already taken steps to incorporate Web services standards into the portal architecture. Plumtree Corporate Portal uses SOAP and HTTP to integrate back-end systems and authenticate users to the portal.

“The whole problem of a portal is to integrate heterogeneous resources. We use Web services in our own architecture to integrate application resources, execute searches of other repositories, and authenticate users on different systems,” says Glenn Kelman, vice-president of product management and marketing at Plumtree.

Meanwhile, portal player Epicentric Inc. this month expanded Web services functionality in its Epicentric Foundation Server 4.0. Version 4.0 extends SOAP-based APIs for developers and adds support for WSUI (Web Service User Interface), a proposed standard for defining how Web services interact with portals.

Taking advantage of Web service functionality, Epicentric Foundation Server includes “a set of tools that tie Web services directly into the portal and user-interface layer. This makes it easy to integrate with internal and external Web services,” says Ed Anuff, chief strategy officer and co-founder of Epicentric in San Francisco.

OnePage, which makes software designed to simplify the process of linking applications and information into portals, has incorporated support for Web services into its software. In the near future, the company plans to announce a partnership with IBM and other portal vendors to develop Web services though portals, according to Michael Marubio, COO of OnePage in Redwood City, Calif.

“Web services will bring better ROI to portal projects and making changes will be easier,” Marubio says. “Once you have every IT resource talking as a Web service you can weave them together to create rich business content.”

Place Your Bets

Recognizing the numerous intersection points between the technologies, many portal infrastructure heavy hitters are making substantial investments in both Web services and enterprise portals.

As a core element of Sun Microsystems’ ONE (Open Net Environment) Web services initiative, iPlanet’s Portal Server is the mechanism to deliver services on demand for Sun ONE, iPlanet’s Fanelli says.

BEA Systems this month rolled out its WebLogic Portal 4.0, which plays a central role in the WebLogic platform family, according to Patrick O’Haren, senior director of marketing at BEA in San Jose, Calif.

“A lot of Web services in our app server group we leverage in the portal,” O’Haren says. “Portals will drive the initial adoption of Web services in the enterprise.”

Meanwhile, Tibco earlier this month rolled out ActivePortal 3, which features a content aggregation platform that supports Web services standards such as UDDI (Universal Description, Discovery, and Integration), SOAP, and WSDL (Web Services Description Language).

In the next release, the portal will be a SOAP server that syndicates content out to other applications, according to David Hickman, product manager for ActivePortal at Tibco in Palo Alto, Calif.

Microsoft’s SharePoint Portal Server was built with close ties to the company’s .NET Web services framework, according to Trina Seinfeld, product manager for SharePoint at Microsoft in Redmond, Wash.

“The first version of SharePoint has a lot of .NET elements. As the .NET framework evolves, we will be working [at] exposing Web services to developers within SharePoint,” Seinfeld says.

For the next version of SharePoint, Seinfeld says, it is determining ways for developers to create links to applications and other resources via Web services in the .NET framework.

IBM for its part is beta-testing a Web services-enabled portal, code-named Harmony, for release in the first quarter of next year. The product embeds collaboration components from its Lotus Software division into the WebSphere Portal Server and will include the ability to publish portal components, such as whiteboarding or presence awareness, as Web services.

“The next milestone is what Web services can mean to the portal platform,” says Larry Bowden, vice-president of e-Portal Solutions at IBM Corp., in Somers, N.Y.

Last month IBM demonstrated the functionality – dubbed a Web Service Proxy Portlet – that enables a portal component, or portlet, to be published as a Web service and put out on a UDDI registry, Bowden says.

This capability to publish portal functions as Web services in a UDDI directory will help foster interoperability among portals, according to Bowden.

The ability to publish portal services to a common directory for all to use and share has the potential “to blow the doors open on what a portal could be,” Bowden says.