Test-Driving the Digital Dashboard

SAN MATEO (05/08/2000) - Enterprise information portals are a hot topic, and why not? Every CIO would like to provide complete, up-to-date information to the people who need it exactly when they need it. By linking corporate data sources to a Web-browser interface, enterprise portals allow crucial corporate decisions to be based on current data rather than monthly reports. Furthermore, a portal can prevent departmental information sharing from being influenced by corporate politics, because information is made readily available to anybody with the appropriate access privileges.

Based on Microsoft Corp. BackOffice architecture, InfoImage Inc.'s freedom 2 Decision Portal aims to provide such easy and timely access to corporate data in corporations wedded to Microsoft technology. The offering provides tools for linking corporate databases, legacy mainframes, ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems, file servers, and other data sources to a customizable Web-browser interface, and it gives users familiar Microsoft Office-like tools for viewing and analyzing back-end data via the portal. Moreover, freedom 2 allows you to integrate e-mail, shared calendars, Internet meetings, and other forms of collaboration into the portal using either Microsoft Exchange/ Outlook or Lotus Domino/Notes.

A thoughtful, well-designed implementation of freedom 2 will provide the necessary information to authorized individuals when they need it, resulting in better and faster business decisions throughout the company.

Another benefit of freedom 2 is a distributed architecture that allows you to implement the enterprise portal incrementally, department by department, and to support additional users or communities by adding more freedom servers.

However, these gains don't come cheap. The software starts at $50,000 for the first server, $25,000 for each additional server, and $100 per user, per year.

It requires additional investments in customized programming and development.

Not an out-of-the-box solution, freedom 2 is a platform that needs to be adapted and tailored to users' needs and to existing corporate data. Typically, InfoImage's Professional Services group will work with your in-house experts to plan, design, implement, and support your freedom 2 portal. This group prefers to partner with customers and ensure that the implementation is effective at meeting the information needs of each company.

I tested a beta version of freedom 2 that was installed and configured by an InfoImage engineer at the InfoWorld Test Center. I found the software to be a little slow, but lackluster performance is not unusual in prerelease software.

I expect snappier performance in the shipping version, which should be available by the time you read this.

Implementing the portal

The freedom 2 solution is a collection of components built on BackOffice technology. It uses a three-tier architecture comprised of Web servers, application servers, and data stores. The Microsoft Internet Information Server uses XML, HTML, JavaScript, and ASP (Active Server Pages) to serve information to the user's browser. The browser needs to be Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.72 or 5 or Netscape 4.0 or later, and the collaboration features require Exchange 5.5 or 2000 or Domino R5. The native RDBMS is Microsoft SQL Server 7.0. The freedom server is built to layer on top of Microsoft Transaction Server using Microsoft COM+ architecture. The membership directory can access LDAP, NT Domain, or Active Directory directories.

Configuring the freedom decision mart, the subsystem that provides back-end data access and data storage services, is the key to the success of a freedom 2 implementation. The decision mart serves as a cache of data between the legacy systems and the portal. This data can be updated on a scheduled basis without affecting mainframe system uptime and throughput. If the decision mart is poorly designed and implemented, the portal will not be as effective in serving legacy data to users. This can lead to user frustration and a very expensive, underutilized portal. Additionally, freedom 2 can provide direct real-time access to corporate data, but direct access to data sources will require the development of customized portal applications and decision objects.

Once the product is installed and the data stores tailored, the user experience should be very good. The hooks into Office provide drag-and-drop functionality for storing and sharing files produced in Office applications. Browser applets provide the ability to view the information produced in Office even if the application suite is not installed on the user's PC.

Exercising freedom

From the user's standpoint, freedom 2 worked as advertised and provided me with an intuitive look at fictional corporate data in a tabular view, very much like a range of cells in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. I also could display this data in a chart and easily e-mail the table, the chart, and other displayed content via a built-in link to Microsoft Exchange. Moreover, I could create a discussion topic and invite others to participate in a discussion. The sample portal implementation also contained links to Internet data that I could easily reference from within the portal without having the link listed in my Favorites folder.

The main reason a company would implement a portal solution is to make corporate-data access easier for users. The Peripheral Vision Panel of the interface is particularly intriguing. As the user browses through the portal, the Peripheral Vision Panel offers links to related information. For example, while you are viewing quarterly sales report data, the Peripheral Vision Panel might display a list of the key sales personnel associated with the specific region or account being viewed. I thought this was an interesting approach to providing access to information that may or may not be intuitively related to the main topic.

The personalization features also drew my attention. These features provide users with the opportunity to tailor their individual experiences in ways that works best for them and their data needs. For example, you could add links to both internal (intranet) and external (Internet) sites to your individual portal view.

InfoImage's freedom 2 Decision Portal provides a sophisticated suite of tools for connecting legacy corporate data to an easy-to-use browser front end. It also allows users accessing the data to tailor how they want to see information so that they can make effective, timely business decisions. However, investing in this enterprise information portal is an expensive endeavor. The software is costly, and whether or not you sign a services agreement for help with the implementation, deploying this solution will require significant business resources and effort from IT staff. Microsoft and non-Microsoft shops alike should carefully weigh the costs and benefits of this solution.

Gregory Michael is a Minneapolis-based systems architect. He can be reached at gjmichael@mediaone.net.

THE BOTTOM LINE: BETA

freedom 2 Decision Portal, beta

Business Case: By providing users with easy, browser-based access to the information they need, this enterprise information portal should improve decision making throughout the enterprise. However, implementation is difficult and costly.

Technology Case: Based on Microsoft BackOffice technology, freedom2 integrates well with Microsoft Office, making it a good fit for Microsoft shops.

Collaboration services can be provided using Microsoft Exchange/Outlook or Lotus Domino/Notes.

Pros:

+ Sophisticated suite of integration tools+ Scalable by adding servers+ Supports collaboration via Microsoft Exchange/Outlook or Lotus Domino/NotesCons:

- Expensive

- Requires custom programming and developmentCost: Starts at $50,000 for first server, $25,000 for each additional; $100 per user, per yearPlatform(s): Windows NT 4, Windows 2000Shipping: Early May 2000InfoImage Inc., Phoenix; (888) 263-2345; www.infoimage.com.

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