Cover Story: Portals: online's next phenomenon

A new colossus, the enterprise portal, is rearing its head above the fog of confusion blanketing the e-business battleground. The concept is making waves in the consulting community and is being touted to CEOs and CIOs desperate for new models in a world where traditional enterprises wrestle for revenues with upstart dot.com companies. Peter Young reportsEnterprise portals resemble typical corporate information Websites about as much as naval carrier battle groups look like canoes. Like the carrier groups, they are complex beasts with impressive price tags.

They tie together a bundle of benefits for corporate users by leveraging the functionality pioneered by today's flashy internet mega-portals, such as Yahoo and Lycos.

Enterprise portals face both ways: they offer a primary entry point for enterprise information and services to external customers, trading partners and channel partners.

They also function as an internal home page serving up data and applications to all employees.

The technologies making up an enterprise portal weld the feature set of an electronic-commerce back office to that of a Web-commerce front office.

Such portals promise a cure for infoglut -- the massive buildup of raw data clogging corporate databanks. Enterprise portals can categorise information and personalise searches of repositories both inside and outside the corporate firewall to deliver only that information which is relevant to an individual user.

Portal technology also holds the answer to two of the holy grails long sought by IS organisations: an enterprise-wide single-user interface and single logon for all applications.

That's because enterprise Websites can offer users a universal common-access window to virtually all networked applications, as Web applications are integrated with legacy applications in areas from manufacturing and inventory management to sales, marketing and finance.

Knowledge management functions will be another feature of advanced enterprise sites.

They will provide users with embedded workflow and business process structures that help deliver the right corporate information to the right user at the right time.

A single enterprise might set up a cluster of vertical portals in which applications are focused on specific areas such as customer relationship management (CRM) or enterprise resource planning (ERP).

In front of that they could place a horizontal portal providing functionality (like single sign-on) that cuts across all areas.

High flying costs

The bad news is that costs will be stratospheric for organisations taking an in-house approach to developing the bag of goodies promised by sophisticated portals. A large organisation could spend as much as $100 million if it aggressively pursued a roll-your-own enterprise portal strategy that incorporated a full set of leading-edge features.

A big-bang approach is not an option many CEOs are likely to embrace. Most will be dipping their toes in the water by adopting a phased approach, picking one area to attack before trying to fit on the next piece.

Luckily, swarms of young companies are popping up with services or off-the-shelf tools and packaged applications aimed at the portal market.

Also joining the fray are the Big Five management consulting companies, and established software vendors such as IBM, Oracle and SAP. Rounding out the vendor list are companies with former lives in related niches like search engines or document management, which are re-inventing themselves in the portal space.

"This marketplace is an absolute train wreck," said Gartner research director Gene Phifer. In the past few months, two new vendors a day have been appearing and he now tracks more than 80 companies in the portal goods and services space.

"The mess will continue until the middle of next year, when we expect to see a lot of acquisitions and mergers and people bailing out. So be prepared for turmoil."

Silhouette

In corporate Australia, the concept of enterprise portals remains a vague shape silhouetted against a dim and distant skyline. Most companies are still grappling with much earlier phases of intranet and extranet implementations, and the big picture hasn't snapped into focus for them yet. Despite that, some of these companies are already making use of bits of the toolsets created by the new breed of enterprise portal solution vendors to address specific projects.

One is Victoria's corporatised water utility, South East Water, which is actively investigating how to leverage Web-based technologies.

It is currently in the process of upgrading its document image management system from client/server to Web-based architecture using Open Text's LiveLink package.

The utility is also using LiveLink's workflow features to route correspondence within the organisation and for managing the information channel with outside contractors.

Other pieces of the IP-enabled jigsaw puzzle already in place at South East Water include wireless links between the corporate intranet and field service personnel equipped with laptops.

Customers can access South East Water's internet site to enquire about accounts, request property information statements, order services over the Web and establish the status of works in progress. "Ultimately, the key element will be integration with back-end systems and a common user interface for all back-end applications," said Peter O'Donoghue, South East Water's business development manager.

"The ultimate aim is to have all our services and products available via the Web, but the implementation of this needs to be thought through."

Teamwork

Construction giant Boral, for example, has been driving a company-wide GST project with OpenText's LiveLink package since last May.

Boral's GST manager Charles Northcote heads a 50-strong project team that is creating a central GST knowledge bank that the company's various components can tap into.

"As a group with different divisions looking at the GST, we wanted to collate all their knowledge, store it in a repository and then trawl that knowledge when we want to get at it," Northcote said.

Simultaneously, Boral can track the rate at which each division is moving towards GST compliance, thanks to workgroup features such as task management, which are built into LiveLink.

Lotus Notes, which the company saw as the main alternative to LiveLink, is a more structured product, which did not fit with Boral's conception of what the GST project demanded.

"LiveLink is very flexible in terms of how it collects data, and we needed something that could be redesigned as we went along," Northcote said.

That suppleness was particularly valuable, because the federal government still hadn't set the underlying GST structure in stone when Boral launched its project.

LiveLink so far has sprung no unpleasant surprises on the project team, Northcote said. "Compared to some of the other projects I've worked on, this has gone pretty smoothly."

For corporate customers who will be looking to vendors like Open Text for the software packages they need to make enterprise portals viable, smooth implementations will rank up there with robustness and reliability as selling points.

The GST initiative is one of Boral's largest business projects and its success will dispose senior management more kindly towards the benefits of Web technology.

"The key is to deliver your first project on time and show the benefits of it. Once you get the first steps right, you can lead off from there," Northcote said.

Slotted in

Alinta Gas in Western Australia has slotted LiveLink into its intranet as a pilot program to wean staff off paper documents and on to the electronic variety.

The pilot has been running six weeks and is due to roll out across the organisation; however so far, the gas utility is finding it difficult to change the paper culture in its offices.

"People are still typing memos and saving them into the system then sending them [physically] around the office," said Ed Scott, manager of Alinta's contract services branch.

"That is what we are trying to get away from, so it is an issue we are still thrashing out."

Alinta had no difficulties in marrying LiveLink seamlessly with its IP environment so that the program can be directly accessed from the intranet, Scott said.

Alinta users may be still coming to grips with LiveLink's feature set, but the system already has been adopted by a SAP upgrade team, who found features such as task management and discussion boxes useful in driving their project.

The intranet-linked document management system may also help streamline Alinta's pending sale. Alinta is a corporatised agency of the West Australian government that is about to be privatised. There are suggestions that prospective buyers could be given electronic access to relevant in-house documents via its document management environment.

For companies like Alinta, the promise of a Web-enabled future that delivers simplified user logons is a definite attraction.

"Every time users go into a major application they are required to log on, and they can spend up to several minutes logging on and off just to do a small transaction that might take only a few seconds," Scott said.

"Multiple logons are an issue for our managers and we intend to do something about it; we just haven't quite resolved how we are going to address it."

The Players

Vendors supplying various sizes and shapes of portal solutions are being drawn in from a large sweep of the IT industry.

The new breed includes e-commerce vendors, ERP and CRM suppliers, "consultant-ware" vendors and integrators.

Some examples of the rising group of young companies are:

Proxicom Inc, a professional services company developing mission critical internet solutions which morphed from systems integration company ProximaRazorfish, an internet software and services company with a background in electronic services and Web design Viant, an internet consulting firm which helped build Tandem's intranet, extranet and internet sitesScient and USWebBecause of their youth, few are in Australia. An exception is Open Text Corp, whose LiveLink offering is based on electronic document management, but features workgroup and task management plus information prospector and crawler tools.

Open Text was originally a search engine company, and one that has been growing by acquisition in recent years.

Another of its products, My LiveLink, is a sticky desktop interface, which allows users to tailor their view of the world to access only the information they feel is relevant to their needs.

LiveLink is an off-the-shelf product that doesn't require heavy expenditures on consultants to implement, Open Text Australia general manager Charles Lattuca said.

"It is an out-of-the-box product that people can deploy now without going through a build process," he said.

"They can install it and use it in a matter of one or two weeks against legacy databases like Oracle and using either Netscape or Internet Explorer."

Open Text finds no problem in convincing potential customers of the technical merits of Web-based architectures for handling information.

A bigger hurdle is changing attitudes in the business-process area and "having to educate people on the value of shared knowledge", Lattuca said.

Tricks and Traps

The first generation of technology vendors in the enterprise portal market is an immature lot, which makes large strategic investments in their wares risky.

Most are intent on providing access to structured or unstructured data and haven't advanced to the level of application integration or process integration.

They will be attempting to close functionality gaps with partnerships, mergers and acquisitions that will create a very fluid market.

"There's a lot of hype and dust in the air," said Gartner's Phifer. "Under the hood are a bunch of ugly things that need to work but which the vendors don't necessarily want a user to see." His list of things for buyers to double check includes:

Security. Portals have to deal with multiple information repositories and databases, many of which have proprietary security mechanisms. How to deal with passing security certificates between the portal and the repositories standing behind it is one of the pressing issues for vendors today.

Directory standards. If Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) isn't on the vendor's list of supported directories, be concerned.

Categorising information. Vendors who rely on manually tagging documents are pursuing the wrong course, Phifer said. Check that their products offer hooks into automated tools for classifying and linking documents.

Multi-repository support. Some vendors have only a short list of supported repositories. Ensure the ones you care about are on the list. At the very least, make sure your vendor is flexible enough to offer later inclusion of the ones you are interested in.

Personalisation issues. Check the vendor allows for multiple layers of personalisation (by role, by individual, by project, by business unit, and the like).

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