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The Enterprise Portal: A Growing, but Confusing, Marketplace

The portal industry is alive and well, and growing rapidly.

This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK.

My deadline for writing this month’s newsletter article coincided with the task of chairing DCI’s Portal, Collaboration and Content Management conference in Phoenix. I have been chairing this conference for several years and it has been fascinating to watch how much this sector of the business integration marketplace has changed during this time. I thought in this article, therefore, I would take the opportunity to use information from the conference to review the state of the art in portal technologies and products.

As is typical at many conferences, the audience at the DCI event in Phoenix was made up of companies who have already implemented the technology being discussed and those that are new to it. It was interesting that many of the more experienced companies at the conference were wrestling with the problems of how to integrate portals that had been developed in different parts of the organization and how to reconcile the various portals provided with their application packages with an enterprise portal strategy. These issues caused several interesting discussions about the merits of a single enterprise-wide portal vs. a federated portal approach, and how to integrate and bring together departmental portals. To developers and users of data warehouses this must sound like familiar ground, and in fact many of the integration issues and considerations are the same in the portal environment as they are in the data warehousing environment.

Another split in the conference audience was between companies building process-driven portals and those building information-driven portals. Many of the organizations developing portals for providing customers, suppliers, partners and employees with personalized and self-service access to corporate and e-business applications were designing those portals in terms of the business processes and activities that people perform in their everyday jobs—hence the expression process-driven portal.

Support in application platform products from vendors such as BEA, IBM, Oracle, Sun, etc., for portal technology in addition to business process management (BPM) and application integration has led to many of them being used for building these process-centric portals. It was interesting to note that vendors at the conference like Broadvision and SAP, who we typically think of as application package vendors, were positioning their portal technology as components of an application platform. In the case of Broadvision, the integration of business process and portal technologies into their application platform was targeted at organizations wanting to build self-service and externally facing e-business portals. In the case of SAP, the spotlight was on NetWeaver as an application platform with integrated portal, knowledge management, business intelligence and business process technologies for supporting both SAP and non-SAP application environments.

Originally, enterprise portal products evolved from the need to integrate corporate intranets and to provide better access to enterprise-wide business information. One of the more noticeable changes in portal attendees at the DCI conference has been the shift away from focusing purely on deploying an enterprise portal toward looking at how an enterprise portal can be enhanced with content management and collaboration capabilities. As I mentioned in my last article, the convergence of portals with content management, collaboration and business intelligence now means we can at last support the concept of knowledge management.  

A portal that supports a knowledge management environment can be thought of an information-driven portal. Many of these portals lend themselves to using products from independent portal vendors like Plumtree and Vignette. Microsoft SharePoint is also an example of a product that supports an information-driven portal environment. About three-quarters of the audience at the DCI conference were using Microsoft SharePoint in some form or other. This number can be misleading because Microsoft Windows Server 2003 provides Windows SharePoint Services for free and it is difficult to determine if this software is being used extensively or not.

Many conference attendees felt the dominance of Microsoft Office and Outlook, coupled with the increasing use of Windows SharePoint Services, will force organizations to use the Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server for managing this environment. This trend of course will further complicate the choice of an enterprise portal solution, especially if companies also make extensive use of software from companies like Oracle and SAP.

Organizations are beginning to realize that even in an information-centric portal environment it is important to tie information to the business activities and tasks performed by business users, and as a result there is increasing interest in portal products that support workflow and business process management. I have already noted the move by platform vendors to support process management, but this is also the trend by independent software vendors as well. Plumtree, a well-known independent portal vendor, for example, is beginning to add support for composite applications so that the product can be used to provide a more process-focused portal environment.

Interest in portal and content management standards and open source solutions is also gaining ground. This was especially true at the Phoenix conference where there was a large audience of government and education attendees. The number of open source portal and content management products is steadily increasing. Key solutions in the portal space include Gluecode, Jahia, Liferay, Sakai and others. Examples in the content management area are PostNuke, Drupal, OpenCMS, eZ Publish, Zope and Midgard. Licensing rules and product support do vary considerably in these solutions and it is important to understand these rules before deploying a product. Also, it is important to realize that many open source products require considerable development effort, and this can offset the savings made in software licensing fees. Regardless, open source solutions are sometimes useful for understanding the functionality required in a portal, building prototypes and for testing standard interfaces.

Although portal and content management standards are still in their infancy, and at present more relevant to software vendors than IT developers, it is still important to understand the implications of standards such as JSR 168, JSR 170 and WSRP. As these standards mature they will become increasingly important to the deployment of portal projects.

To summarize, the portal industry is alive and well, and growing rapidly. Key trends are the incorporation of content management and collaboration capabilities, and the move toward the use of a process-driven portal environment. The growing influence of large vendors such as IBM, Microsoft and Oracle are also likely to have a major impact on the portal and knowledge management industry. 

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