Feature: Preparing your company for corporate portals

Everyone's talking about them. Portals are one of the hottest network commodities of the year.

Initially, when people talked about portals, they were referring to well-known Web sites, such as Yahoo.com, that offer a starting point to the internet by delivering content and search capabilities to the everyday Web surfer.

But increasingly, the focus has shifted to corporate portals, which provide aggregate access to multiple forms of tailored corporate data as a starting point for individual users.

Corporate portals have evolved from the early days of intranets, when simple pages contained static information. Today's portals act as middleware, pulling real-time data from enterprise resource planning, mainframe and other operational systems, and presenting the information in a dashboard-like manner within a browser window. Some portals also support e-mail and calendaring functions.

Picking and installing a portal is not like deciding which office suite to buy. Most require a dedicated server (or servers) and some back-end plumbing for accessing existing applications and data. Though many portal vendors provide tools for mapping to typical business systems, such as those from SAP and those based on Open Database Connectivity technology, there is usually some level of customisation involved.

Given that portals provide user-friendly access to data, companies installing portals should expect heavy usage by a lot of end users.

"Oftentimes, scalability is the one thing that is hard to touch and doesn't demo well," says Guy Creese, a senior analyst at Aberdeen Group. "[Potential buyers] have to make sure to ask how well a portal scales."

Creese adds that everyone sees the portal, from the office worker up to the CEO, but their needs differ. Where a sales analyst may need in-depth numbers and reports on a product line, the CEO may only want general sales figures. Both needs must be met via the same interface.

Early adopters speak out

"You have to think it through before you slap a portal up," says Seth Schalet, vice president of sales and marketing at US-based LeadTrack Systems. "Putting it up is easy, but first you want to have knowledge of what information to display and how users see, edit and review the information."

Schalet oversaw the implementation of a portal designed to support his 40-person sales force using KnowledgeTrack's The Knowledge Centre. The sales force uses the portal as a central repository for finding technical and status information about customers' projects. The Knowledge Centre runs as an application server on a Windows NT box with a Microsoft SQL Server 6.5 database on the back end.

Documents can by published to the portal using the "Send to . . ." command found in many office applications.

Though the technology was relatively easy to implement, there were cultural issues blocking the project's success. "We needed to change the behaviour of people posting documents," Schalet says. "Before LANs, people saved documents to their C drives, not the network. It's the same issue with portals."

Meanwhile, Jim Maxedon, vice president of the wholesale marketing group at US-based Wells Fargo, is hoping to ease some 3000 users into his company's newly developed portal.

"We've had an intranet for three years, so we're making the new system look very similar," Maxedon says.

Maxedon selected Glyphica's PortalWare, in part because it allowed him to utilise his existing authentication system. PortalWare also handles the posting of documents to the Web and conversion of them into Web formats. These Web management capabilities have eased the burden on the company's Webmaster, Maxedon says.

At Caritas Christi Healthcare, which operates a host of hospitals in New England, the main challenge is training users in a graphical environment as the company moves from VT-100 terminals to Windows machines.

"We have some users who are not PC literate," says Jim Sheehan, senior network engineer at Caritas Christi.

Sheehan is using Wall Data's Cyberprise offering to provide a unified view into the hospital chain's new MediTech operational system, as well as proprietary systems at each of the hospitals. Data from the operational systems is collected into a SQL database, and then replicated nightly to each hospital in the Caritas chain.

Each site has its own Cyberprise server running on Windows NT, acting as an intermediary between the client and the SQL database. Sheehan's set up allows each site to roll back to the central office should a local server fail.

Sheehan has set up NT workstations to boot directly into a browser, which in turn accesses the information portal. Ultimately, the system will have some 4000 desktops accessing the data.

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