Portals: Coming to a Suite Near You

Ask Web-savvy people what a portal is and they’ll typically tell you it’s a place where users access information through a unified dashboard, as opposed to multiple sites.

Ask the same people for an example, and typically, they’ll tell you Yahoo! . They’d be right on both counts. But major software vendors are also happy to tell you: There’s so much more to portals these days — and likely more to come in the future.

The Yahoo-like portal of yore has taken on a new life in the enterprise, primarily as a suite where users can gather and store a variety of work-related information and react to it.

“Portals have grown well beyond their original use as simple gateways to information and content,” said Gartner Research Vice President Gene Phifer. “Portals are as much a destination as a gateway, providing built-in search, content management and collaborative functionality.”

A number of major software vendors, including IBM, BEA, Oracle, and Microsoft , have begun offering more sophisticated portal technologies. In essense, they offer collaboration tools, such as e-mail, instant messaging, content management and more.

Phifer explained that portals today consist of “engines,” the component that handles the user interface, presentation services, personalization and user integration, but claimed these don’t quite cut it for modern enterprise portals.

“The portal engine must run on a reliable execution environment (an application server). Portals that robustly access line-of-business (LOB) applications typically use integration suites,” Phifer said. “Portals almost always have search, content and collaboration features. So, when an enterprise deploys a portal, it is deploying the portal ecosystem, or a large portion of it. The fast path to a portal ecosystem is through a suite, or combination of suites.”

Some suites for the sweet

Phifer said portals can essentially be broken down into three main categories: application portal suite (APS), smart enterprise suite (SES) and the next-generation APS/SES combination vendor. The APS is a few notches above the simple portal as a basic user interface model. It involves the provision of an application server of some sort. Phifer said BEA and Sybase are classic examples of APS providers.

The SES, offered by such firms as Plumtree, Hummingbird and Vignette, offers whole different levels of capabilities: search, classification, content management, collaboration, business intelligence and workflow, to name several. With these, workers can not only access important information about companies, but chat or hold online meetings with colleagues or partners. Think of it as being in a room full of 50 people, all accessing and working with the same project at once — but in reality the people would be spread all over the world.

The APS/SES combo, which he said will be led by IBM, SAP and Sun Microsystems, to name a few, will encompass the runtime environment of an application server coupled with the collaboration and business intelligence aspects of the SES.

No longer just a dashboard view to role-based access to content and applications, portals now lend the infrastructure to “build communities, shared team environments, and communication and collaboration environments between an enterprise and its customers, suppliers, distributors, trading partners and design partners,” according to Phifer.

“Users are tired of buying individual, third-party applications and these best-of-breed point solutions,” Phifer said. “They’re tired of the lack of integration. Users are clamoring for the ability to pull information from one source instead of five different applications. Vendors are looking to add value, to build up functionality of their products, and so we’re seeing many features, such as knowledge management and content management dropping into the portal itself.”

Laura Ramos, an analyst at Forrester Research who watches the portal market closely, largely concurred with Phifer. She agreed that the portal market has evolved in the past four to five years. She agreed on the notion of the APS as a system where Web-based applications are built using a portal as the front end and said collaboration needs to play more important role in portals going forward.

An APS, a SES and an combo vendor

Naturally, vendors found plenty to agree and even disagree with about Phifer’s portal positioning. Representatives from all three approaches — BEA for APS, Plumtree for SES, and IBM for the combo APS/SES — all shared their thoughts with internetnews.com.

The case for BEA as an APS is simple. As the other giant application server provider to IBM, BEA doesn’t see the mighty demand for the SES the way others do.

“We’re not aware of end users asking for an SES by name right now,” said BEA spokesperson Patrick O’Rourke, who largely agrees with Phifer’s assessment of the portal market. “Analysts from Giga, Forrester and AMR have similar thoughts about portal consolidation or portal suites. However, these firms would debate Gartner over the packaging, functionality, timing and demand models.”

But, O’Rourke, who said the world can expect a new WebLogic Portal this summer, promised that BEA’s WebLogic Platform already enables customers to reap the benefits of a SES: it is comprised of BEA’s application server, portal solution, integration solution, development environment and Java Virtual Machine.

“Gartner defines an SES as providing simplicity and cost savings through the integration of components,” he said. “BEA WebLogic Platform’s unified architecture drives convergence of these same components. The next version of BEA WebLogic Portal, version 8.1 due in the summer, will help drive the convergence of SES components via a unified architecture.”

“We look at the portal as an interface for user integration and interaction,” O’Rourke said. “An enterprise portal simplifies, personalizes, and lowers the cost of customer, partner and employee access to information, applications and business processes.”

Phifer said BEA’s portal strategy has progressed with its WebLogic Workshop 8.0, but that it still has some gaps to fill en route to becoming a SES.

For a peek at what Plumtree, IBM, and Microsoft are planning for portals, please turn to Page 2.