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Delivering on the promise of enterprise portals—Part 2

This article appears in the issue April 2005 [Volume 14, Issue 4]

Portals have assumed a requisite place in the IT infrastructure of major enterprises. So what functionality do most of the leaders bring to the table, and by what strategic factors can you tell them apart?

Part 1 of this article, which appeared in KMWorld's February issue, provided an overview of portal functionality, such as personalization, search, collaboration and process management, and discussed the specific features offered by two portal vendors, IBM and Oracle. Part 2 discusses comparable functionality in four more portal vendors' products and briefly analyzes best uses of the six products covered in Parts 1 and 2, as well as the impact of industry trends and standards through 2006.

Plumtree

Plumtree Corporate Portal 5.0 is comprised of several components: Portal Server; Portal Framework for painting screens on Web pages; the Parallel Web Services Engine for connecting in parallel to backend systems via Web services for improved performance; Administrative Console for supporting development of pages, applications, communities and so on; Search Server for enterprise search; and a knowledge directory.

According to Andrew Dunning, director of product marketing, about half of Plumtree's customers deploy the Corporate Portal with the Plumtree Enterprise Web Suite (Studio Server, Collaboration Server and Content Server) or with components of the suite.

The products run on Oracle and Microsoft databases and BEA, IBM, Sun Solaris and Apache application servers. They share the same look and feel—for instance, for administrative and application development interfaces—unlike the products of some other vendors, which are more loosely integrated from acquired technologies.

Plumtree is the only vendor among those covered in this article to support both J2EE and .NET versions of its product. Most customers have mixed environments, and other vendors integrate across environments using Web Services for Remote Portlets (WSRP) or a pass-through portlet, according to Dunning, who maintains that "support for WSRP is very poor." With a dual-platform approach, Plumtree portals are more elegant than those of competitors because they require less code and administrative overhead, Dunning says.

Plumtree's Parallel Web Services Engine improves portal stability because it treats each portlet independently, so if one fails, others don't. And while other vendors cluster redundantly to scale, Plumtree portlets are deployed just once in the remote services architecture, so scalability doesn't require as much administrative support, according to Dunning.

Plumtree performs several types of personalization. Administrators perform role-based personalization, and users can also change their configurations—by default Plumtree provides "My Pages" that they can customize. Users can also save search portlets to create windows into certain types of content that will always be up-to-date. Plumtree also offers "portlet-to-portlet communication" via its Enterprise Web Development Toolkit so portlets can communicate--and within the client for faster processing.

Plumtree offers its own search module, Search Server, which does simple keyword and advanced search. The latter lets users specify objects to be searched and presents hits by relevancy and other criteria. The result is a taxonomy of all objects in the portal--Web pages, user profiles, communities, portlets--not just the document directory. Plumtree also makes crawlers available for searching different resources like Lotus Notes repositories, content management systems and external Web sites. It can also perform federated searches of the portal's knowledge directory as well as Google, for example, and integrates with third-party search engines.

With Collaboration Server, users can perform tasks like building community workspaces, sharing documents, generating threaded discussions and providing project management via team calendars and task notification. It also integrates with Microsoft Project for IM and presence management.

By means of multiple components, Plumtree provides lightweight process management and a workflow engine for document management but does not offer a BPM engine; instead it integrates with third-party solutions. With Content Server, it also does lightweight Web content management with features like scheduled content publishing and expiration. Plumtree's PTTracker module gives administrators basic BI information.

Plumtree expedites integration with several dozen out-of-the-box and partner portlets, and also rapidly integrates with enterprise systems using Web services. Dunning says its Web services architecture permits advanced integration capabilities like composite applications. For more complex integration, it offers its Integrated Development Kit and its Developer Center community where customers and partners can share the integration code, and see examples of the many types of integration that Plumtree has done for customers.

BEA

BEA's base product is comprised of WebLogic Portal Server and WebLogic Application Server and integrates with multiple relational databases, but other applications come on the same CD, which users can turn on for an extra fee. WebLogic Integration, which integrates message brokering, business process management, workflow and data transformation; WebLogic Workshop, which is the application development kit; and the Autonomy search engine work together out-of-the-box with the base applications and are built on a Web services platform. Nils Gilman, director of marketing, maintains that gives BEA an advantage over some vendors that have cobbled together components from acquired technologies. BEA also translates content into five languages.

For personalization, administrators can perform role-based personalization. But Gilman says, "Users can also further personalize their own pages as permissions allow by indicating, for instance, they want certain content on certain pages at certain hours."

WebLogic Server also keeps logs of what resources are being used to help administrators tweak the portal content for maximum effect. With BEA's Unified User Profile, administrators can pull data about users from multiple sources like LDAP directories, human resources management and mainframe systems to create a composite view of all metadata associated with that person. Programmers can then program the portal, for example, to automatically send customers in Vermont different data about winter wear than the company sends customers in California.

In addition to using Autonomy, BEA integrates with other search engines, and can search portal content as well as that brought in by portlets and that in third-party data stores like content management systems. Also, if users choose to use multiple engines, they can issue queries to them all via one query box and receive a common list of results. WebLogic Enterprise Security performs federated search without requiring administrators to install additional code on every server being used.

WebLogic Server integrates with third-party identity management systems and can pass security credentials to them to be stored in the database for single sign-on.

For collaboration, BEA integrates via portlets with the dominant messaging platforms and offers popular functionality like shared workspaces, discussion threads and group calendars. Its Virtual Content Repository is an open service provider interface that connects to various content stores, so users get a virtual view of content in multiple data repositories and can manage it from within the portal.

Process management tasks like building and deploying workflows are accomplished with WebLogic Integration.

Content Store lets users create lightweight Web content management, although they can programmatically create more complicated content and approval workflows using WebLogic Integration. BEA also resells remote access solutions, but developers can provide remote access for smaller groups with functionality in Portal Server. For BI, BEA integrates with third-party vendors.

BEA also comes with many adapters to accelerate integration with enterprise applications, databases, mainframe and other environments. Although its catalog features 200-plus portlets, Gilman cautions against grading vendors on the number of out-of-the-box portlets. "Customers almost always end up writing their own portlets," he says, "because most applications like SAP (sap.com) are configured differently by every customer." He thinks a better criterion is how easy it is to customize a vendor's portlets.

Sun Microsystems

Sun's base portal package comes with the Sun Java System Portal Server, the Sun Java System Application Server or Web Server, Directory Server (an LDAP directory where user information is stored) and Access Manager (for identity management and single sign-on). However, mostly for service providers, Sun also leases a portal service with more components--Application and Web servers as well as Calendaring and Messaging servers. Secure Remote Access can be added to the installed package, too, and is a VPN that gives users secure access to all content and applications within the portal via a Java-enabled browser. Mobile Access, which extends secure remote access to mobile devices, can also be added.

Rebecca Hansen, product line manager, indicates that the products also run on IBM and BEA application servers and can be used with three application development environments, the most robust being Java Studio Enterprise, the next most robust being Portlet Builder (a plug-in for Enterprise) and Java Studio Creator, a drag-and-drop, wizards-based lightweight development environment. The portal translates content into eight languages.

Hansen claims Sun does especially fine-grained, multilevel, administrator-defined personalization. It also permits users to determine their preferences within the parameters the administrator has established for them. Portal Server can also do implicit, dynamic personalization according to various criteria automatically available, like the user's device type, authentication method and applications.

Sun provides its own search engine that can perform federated searches and, among other features, offers wizards for importing, building and maintaining taxonomies, and can also automatically generate taxonomies.

The product's collaboration capabilities include calendaring, messaging and instant messaging, each of which can be licensed as a separate product in addition to the base package. The product also integrates with Notes and Exchange.

Hansen says Sun uses FatWire for Web content management by offering a limited usage license with both the base package as well as Java Enterprise System, which can be upgraded to FatWire's enterprise edition for an additional fee. She further claims FatWire rivals vendors like Vignette for breadth and depth of functionality. Customers can also integrate with other Web content management vendors.

Similarly, Sun uses SeeBeyond for business process management--designing, deploying and integrating workflows--and can integrate with other vendors for document management and business intelligence.

Advanced developers can leverage Java Studio Enterprise in conjunction with Portlet Builder to deploy JSR-168-compliant portlets, while less skilled ones can take advantage of Java Studio Creator to deploy JSP/JSF applications within the portal. For mobile applications, they can use Java System Mobile Application Builder, which features a drag-and-drop interface for both mobile and desktop portal browsers and wizards that aggregate various types of content.

Sun also supports SeeBeyond and Sonic EAI adapters, numerous iWay JCA adapters, and offers development samples and out-of-the-box portlets that leverage those connectors to enterprise applications like SAP. The product also comes with 22 out-of-the-box portlets as well as additional for-free and for-fee ones.

Vignette

The Vignette Application Portal provides basic portal functionality and is all the user needs to launch an enterprise portal, but Vignette offers several other of its own components for capabilities like Web content management and collaboration.

M.J. Johnson, product marketing manager, Portals, claims Vignette excels in several areas: It leverages a broad range of application servers, databases, and enterprise and other applications. It is adept at creating multiple, federated portal sites on a single portal instance, which have sharing relationships between sites, as well as dedicated sets of administrative interfaces for each site. Administrators can also granularly assign administrative responsibilities at the portlet or page level, he says. Vignette also translates the 150-plus languages supported by J2EE via resource bundles.

Johnson says administrators can do role-based personalization and get administrative interfaces appropriate to their management roles, and can provide multiple language versions of the same portal based on users' preferences. Users, meanwhile, can personalize their configurations based on their permissions or create custom portal pages from scratch. Nonprogrammers can even perform rules-based personalization using business rules to deliver content based on preferences in their profiles.

For search, Vignette uses Autonomy but also integrates with third-party search engines.

Vignette's Business Collaboration Server and associated portlets provide collaboration capabilities like communities, workspaces and tasks, and its Extended Content Management System, says Johnson, "lets users perform tasks like publishing and sharing files, and based on permissions, lets different groups change content at different stages of a workflow." Other groups, he adds, can even establish different stages in that workflow based on their permissions.

Vignette comes with basic workflows for some business processes, and the Extended Content Management System provides portlets and roles-based business processes that users can build into multiportlet-based applications with the help of Vignette Builder. Johnson says, "The Content Management Workflow System offers very robust workflow that can call portlets at different workflow stages and that integrates with Microsoft Visio for process modeling." Vignette also integrates with third-party vendors.

Vignette's legacy expertise comes to the fore in the Web Content Management module. Like other leaders in enterprise Web content management such as Interwoven Vignette lets customers quickly construct extremely complex Web sites and manage copious data. It enhances that native strength by integrating with the Dynamic Portal module, which in turn enables integration between the portal and content management to perform functions like exposing rules-based content targeting, routing tasks and publishing to live sites.

Basic document management capabilities come with Application Portal. For robust document and records management, Johnson says, "Vignette offers portlets that integrate with the Vignette Records/Documents and Integrated Document Management modules to do things like let users manage multiple repositories from one interface."

For remote access, Vignette integrates with third-party vendors, while for BI, it provides an API for Web analytics that can be run from Vignette Builder or integrate with other BI products.

Johnson adds that Vignette Business Integration Studio uses Web services to publish data through WSDL, while Vignette Builder consumes the data and integrates with about six different data stores. Builder can leverage any data source for which Studio has an adapter and represent it inside the portal. Vignette also offers about 60 portlets out-of-the-box, and Studio offers 60-plus adapters.

Looking ahead

Based on the overview of vendors thus far, the table lays out some general criteria by which customers can shortlist candidate products. It's likely that one or more of the products will merit consideration for any ambitious enterprisewide portal deployment. As a matter of fact, it's probable that most of them will emerge as perennial leaders in the industry.

Gene Phifer, VP of e-business transformation and portals at Gartner, predicts that by 2006, the portal industry will stratify as follows: Five vendors will dominate while many others differentiate by vertical market focus and other factors. Customers with little tolerance for risk or those who already own a vendor-specific infrastructure will likely go with the big ISVs or market-tested pure-plays, while those with vertical market and other kinds of focus that define their requirements will opt for specialist vendors.

Many customers will also have multiple portals, so issues like identity management, content taxonomies and search across all of them will be key. Critical Web service standards will also have solidified by then. The most important of those are Web Services for Remote Portlets, for finding and running remote portlets such as those located on a B2B partner's Web site, and JSR-168 (Java Specifications Request-168), for enabling interoperability between third-party portlets and portals so any portlet can be used by any Java-based portal product. As they enable the behavior of portals to come, vendors most influential in defining them will have an advantage.

Finally, customers should be mindful of a crucial caveat--the vendors covered here represent only two types of vendor, the big ISVs and the pure-plays. Also, they all run on J2EE. In addition to Plumtree, Microsoft's SharePoint portal is worth a look if an organization is committed to .NET. Of course, there are many other portal products for which criteria like vertical market expertise and installed base might be better indicators of success.

Best Uses Of Leading Portal Products, Regardless of Functionality Strengths

Vendor: IBM

Best uses for companies that …

  • have existing IBM applications or infrastructure like Lotus Notes or WebSphere application server

  • want a variety of after-market portal products

Vendor: Oracle

Best uses for companies that …

  • have existing Oracle database or Application Server 10g suite

  • value strong track record of Oracle portal deployments in companies with Oracle applications

Vendor: Plumtree

Best uses for companies that …

  • value a strong track record in the widest range of large-scale, sophisticated enterprise portal deployments

  • have heterogeneous J2EE/.NET platforms

  • have heterogeneous enterprise directories, content management systems, ERP, custom and other applications

Vendor: BEA

Best uses for companies that …

  • have the BEA application server

  • value a strong track record of different types of deployments like a pure-play as well as the infrastructure and marketing strengths of a big ISV

Vendor: Sun

Best uses for companies that …

  • value a strong track record in large-scale, public-facing portal deployments;

  • need secure, remote access to portal resources by constituencies like B2B partners

Vendor: Vignette

Best uses for companies that …

  • need tight integration with the Vignette Web content management application

  • value a strong track record in large-scale, public-facing and internal-facing deployments

  • will deploy multiple portals interoperating with each other in a federated manner

Credit -- Gartner


John Harney is president of ASPWatch, a consultancy focusing on market, partner and technology strategy for ASPs, e-mail johnharney4@msn.com.


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