Giga offers implementation tips at portals conference

With corporate portals still a developing and nebulously defined software category, a successful implementation hinges on having clear goals and on paying keen attention to user experience, Giga Information Group analyst Laura Ramos said here Thursday in the opening keynote of INT Media Group's Enterprise Web & Corporate Portal Conference.

"Even though this market is three years old, it's still showing a lot of hallmarks of an early market. It's going to be a confused market for another 12 to 18 months," said Ramos, the director of Giga's Enterprise Portals and Information Management group. "We have to wait to see who the leaders are and how people are deploying the technology."

The evolving portals market has moved through three phases, she said. Early corporate portal projects focused on content aggregation. Then, integration of disparate applications became the goal for implementations. The third and just-beginning stage involves using portal technology to integrate applications and content, adding workflow and collaboration features, according to Ramos.

Asked for a show of hands, the majority of the keynote's attendees indicated that their projects remain stage one deployments, focused on collecting and publishing content. Portals contain a number of content-management features, and there's some overlap in the markets for the two products, Ramos noted. Giga isn't anticipating serious convergence in the two markets in the near future, she added: Vendors are demonstrating more interest in partnering than acquiring.

Ramos advised companies deploying portals to avoid problems by narrowing focusing their early projects.

"You need to think about user experience, more so than the technology, when implementing portals. This is an important concept I think a lot of people are missing today -- they see (portals) as technology and not as a user experience," Ramos said.

"You need to start with the basics. Start by focusing on who will be using the portal, what they will be doing with it, and scope down your initial portal efforts to one or two key audiences, rather than trying to do the Big Bang and deploy a whole enterprise portal all at once."

Once a project and goal are identified, IT and management employees should sit down and organize their company's specific needs for the portal into "four buckets": the portal's content; its context, the roles and rules that will govern its functionality; the necessary application integration; and the portal's user experience, Ramos said.

Content is the thing that will keep users returning to the portal, and must be fresh and relevant, Ramos said, commenting that she sees a number of clients coming to Giga and complaining that they've installed a portal but can't get employees to use it. Targeted content is often what's lacking, she said.

The user experience is also critical. Don't be afraid to restrict the extent to which users can personalize their portal interfaces, Ramos suggested. Vendors like to show off the flexibility of their software, but too many choices can paralyze users. A consistent, easily navigable, branded interface consistent with the company's identity will help put users at ease, Ramos said.

One major difference between a corporate portal and a corporate Web site or intranet is the number of users who will contribute to the portal. With portals designed to encourage collaboration and decentralized content publishing, companies should make it neither too hard nor too easy to contribute content, Ramos said. Without a well-planned system for adding to the portal, the software can become a haphazard mess of documents, she cautioned.

Finally, for those planning to use portals to aggregate or integrate applications, focus and specialization is again key, Ramos said. Good user interfaces are critical, as is insuring that applications pass on only necessary information. Portals generally allow data from disparate applications to be accessed in one browser-like window via portlets -- content components similar to windows on a PC desktop. That's a useful feature, but one that can spike network traffic by drawing on a number of applications every time the portal window is refreshed, she warned. Vendors are introducing caching and load balancing features into their portals, but network administrators still need to consider traffic issues as portals are being designed, she said.

Portal prices vary widely, but a standard cost would be US$50 to $150 per user for licensing and implementation, or $60,000 to $100,000 per server. The first-year cost of a typical project generally runs $150,000 to $300,000, Ramos said in response to an audience question.

Trends that Giga has spotted during 2002 include market consolidation and increased competition, Ramos said. Major vendors including BEA Systems Inc., IBM Corp. and Oracle Corp. entered the portals market last year with new or significantly improved products, a move that's prompting pricing model changes and a focus on application integration features, she said.

Other developing trends this year include an increased interest among customers in expending portal access to wireless and handheld devices and more movement toward developing portals for external use, connecting a company to its customers or suppliers. When polled by Ramos, most keynote attendees signaled that their companies' current portal projects remain intended for internal use.

While the portals market is still a developing one that Giga expects to grow exponentially in the next several years, the success of portals software could prompt the market to vanish entirely as a separate IT category, Ramos indicated.

"In the strictest definition, portals are really the veneer (sitting atop other software). More and more that veneer will be pushed into middleware, and maybe eventually into the operating system," Ramos said. "In 2005, (portals) will cease to exist as a separate market. They will be the default way all of us interact with business applications."

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