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Delivering on the promise of enterprise portals — Part 1

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?

At the height of the portal craze in 2000, more than 100 vendors offered portal products. In the last few years, according to Gartner, industry consolidation has winnowed that number down to less than 40. As often happens when an industry moves from its early adoption toward its mainstream phase, big ISVs have now co-opted much of the market. In fact, with the exception of Plumtree and Vignette , the vendors to be discussed here (selected by Gartner as "Leaders" in its Magic Quadrant of enterprise portal vendors) are software giants. Not so long ago, pure-plays generally had better track records of installs, while the big ISVs showed great potential with resources like marketing clout and richness and consistency of infrastructure. But the ISVs have sold aggressively into their installed base and caught up. That changing of the guard is the dominant trend in the portal space today.

In "Enterprise Portals--How To Tame The Beast," Gene Phifer, VP of e-business transformation and portals at Gartner, defines a portal as "access to and interaction with relevant information assets (information/content, applications and business processes), knowledge assets and human assets, by select targeted audiences, delivered in a highly personalized manner." Integration with business processes is a relatively new development, and should be added to the legacy functionality that already constituted a portal--personalization, search and collaboration. Other capabilities have become almost standard as well. Those include identity management, Web content management, document management, remote access and business intelligence.

As will become clear, personalization and search have become increasingly sophisticated. For instance, role-based personalization is administrator-determined and permits access to portal resources based on users' groups and other roles in the organization, while contextual personalization is typically user-determined and permits access based on users' involvement, for example, in a business process. Traditional keyword indexing and search have been augmented by taxonomy-based categorization, as well as by federated search across all portal content--content brought into the portal via portlets, content in third-party data stores like document management systems and content in other portals in the same instance of the master portal.

Collaboration includes the usual synchronous (e-mail, instant messaging, etc.) and asynchronous (workflow, threaded discussions, etc.) functionality, as well as calendars, virtual communities, tasks and shared workspaces. Most vendors also integrate with the major messaging systems via portlets, and some even offer production workflow.

For business process management, all those vendors offer basic workflow. But the ones that conform to the Business Process Execution Language (BPEL) standard have an edge. BPEL facilitates and automates the integration and interoperability of business processes across the Web--for instance, one for ordering supplies that involves two business partners in a B2B portal. It makes portals more supportive of business transactions, more inclusive in their constituencies and more efficient in carrying out intra-corporate, process-centric tasks.

Because users need to access multiple applications, and even multiple portals, single sign-on is customary and is usually accomplished with the vendor's own identity management module or third-party packages. The same goes for Web content management and document management--most vendors offer basic functionality in those areas like templates and workflow for the former and file sharing and version control for the latter, although some feature document management capabilities like access to multiple repositories via one interface. Because of its roots in this area, Vignette's Web content management is especially robust.

Not all the vendors covered here offer remote access, but they will have to soon as customers will expect it. Vendors now offering it do so via their own module or by integrating with third-party specialists. Sun (sun.com) stands out in this respect with two modules that offer secure access to all portal resources via a VPN and Java-enabled browser.

BI is what you'd expect--mostly Web analytics, although a couple of vendors offer the ability to create data warehouses. Vendors offer their own BI modules or those from third-party vendors.

Because integration costs exceed software costs for portal deployments, the number and kind of portlets a vendor offers may be important. While several vendors believe it's rare that any portlet provides perfect integration out of the box, Ray Valdes, research director of Internet platforms and Web services at Gartner, maintains that more portlets are evidence of a track record in diverse applications that inspires confidence in customers. Plumtree, especially, garners kudos in that regard. Of course, lots of J2EE Connector Architecture (JCA) adaptors reduce integration programming, and an easy-to-use and powerful development environment accelerates integration also. Customers who fail to weigh those factors could end up spending more money on their solutions. All the leaders deliver in those areas.

Most vendors also offer "portlet-to-portlet communication." That lets developers link portlets on a page so they pass events among themselves, even if they're accessing and publishing data from different sources.

Also, all the packages discussed here scale well--typical installations run to tens of thousands of users, but installs can range from a couple of hundred to a couple of hundred thousand--and sometimes millions--of users.

So much for features and functions. Despite the variety that portals offer, the leading vendors have achieved rough parity in this department. According to Valdes, "The differentiators based on technology and features have diminished in recent years as the whole portal sector has matured."

Other commonalities include types of portals deployed and development environments. According to Phifer, 60% of deployed portals are B2E, 25% are B2C and 15% are B2B. Of the leaders, BEA (bea.com) is unique in that it dominates the B2B space. All of the leaders here also employ J2EE platforms. Any vendor can integrate with .NET environments using Web services and other means. But it will become evident that this is not as efficient as having portal versions for both J2EE and .NET, as does Plumtree. J2EE promotes interoperability and ease of integration with legacy environments, so for many of the leaders, the major databases and application servers are interchangeable. Some vendors like IBM and Oracle, however, have embarked on what Phifer calls a "stacked" strategy of requiring customers to use only the vendor's infrastructure components to better sell into their installed bases of enterprise applications like Lotus Notes or Oracle's E-Business Suite, or development environments like IBM WebSphere.

However, as important as functionality, Valdes says, are more intangible factors. Factors like vendors' deployment track records, whether they offer J2EE or .NET platforms or both, and how well their products map to customers' legacy infrastructures and application development environments will be influential in determining who will prevail in the portal wars.

That said, a closer examination of each vendor's offering should provide an apt context for some final extrapolations and predi

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