Portal players forge business processes

As corporate portal technology continues its battle to become an enterprise mainstay, vendors are moving to deepen business process capabilities in core portal frameworks.

The moves signal an attempt to fashion the portal as a hub for critical processes that span multiple applications and services across the enterprise.

IBM Corp. is developing an embedded component technology for its WebSphere Portal that is designed to deliver specific back-end services into a portal application or a process.

Due for release mid-2003, WebSphere Portal 5.0 will include the first set of browser-based components that allow portal users to call basic productivity services such as spreadsheet, word processing, and presentation views into a portal-based process.

"If you have a process where a spreadsheet needs to be called, wherever you are in a particular process, you can have the portal make a call to those services," said Larry Bowden, vice president of IBM portals in Somers, N.Y. "The portal is a great mechanism to have a bunch of services just sitting in the back waiting to be called by particular applications."

Pursuing a similar path, Plumtree Software Inc. is readying for release next year a business process engine, code-named Fusion, that is designed to allow portal users to create processes that span multiple systems, including portal, content management, identity management, search, and business process automation, according to officials at the San Francisco-based company.

Moves such as these point toward the evolution of portals beyond simply a platform for application viewing and access and toward the facilitation of true cross-application integration, according to Stephen O'Grady, an analyst at RedMonk, an analysis company in Hollis, N.H.

"By giving someone a single interface that not only aggregates information and lets you interact with the application but also lets those applications talk to each other within that interface [is] really introducing a whole new value proposition," O'Grady said. "This is getting into offering business process management and advanced workflowlike capabilities through the portal framework."

Another key value of process-rich portals is the ability to hide back-end complexity from users, according to Nate Root, analyst at Forrester Research Inc., in Cambridge, Mass.

"The portal helps solve the chaos of tools all over the [organization] by putting them in a toolbox, but it is still confusing [for users] because there are thousands of tools in the box," Root said. "The way process portals improve is to take the toolbox method and sift out certain tools that are common in certain tasks and organize them, wrap instructions around them, and automate around them so it is easy for employees to digest."

Portal vendors BEA Systems Inc., Corechange Inc., and Vignette Corp. -- with its recent Epicentric Inc. portal acquisition -- are also staking ground in the fledgling process-portal market.

In the next version of its WebLogic Portal due next year, BEA plans to provide a more tightly integrated portal, BPM (business process management), and development environment to facilitate process development and delivery within the portal, said Pat O'Haren, senior director of product management at BEA in San Jose, Calif.

"Process portals are not just a matter of having a number of technologies like portal and BPM available," O'Haren said. "[It is] how do you bring them together so you can easily create those portals and deploy them."

Boston-based Corechange recently rolled out software designed to let business users create and manage automated business processes through its Coreport portal framework. Dubbed CoreProcess, the add-on product uses Web services standards such as UDDI, WSDL, and SOAP to map a business process and integrate with back-end systems.

CoreProcess puts business users in control of processes by letting them model a business process in the portal that leverages and reuses existing application infrastructure.

Vignette, meanwhile, is looking to combine its strength in CM (content management) with Epicentric's portal framework to exert control over content as it moves across multiple processes and applications. With Vignette V7's integration, aggregation, and process management capabilities, Vignette sees a key advantage in the ability to track process content as it flows through the organization, said Jeff Montgomery, senior product marketing manager at Vignette in Austin, Texas.

"The portal gives the ability to proceed though a business process, [and] having a CM and process management system behind the scenes lets you understand how the information is used, where it is in its life cycle, and how it relates to the overall business process," he said.

BPM technology vendors, meanwhile, are also eyeing synergistic links between portals and business process.

BPM pure-play HandySoft Corp., which touts its BizFlow product's ability to incorporate human users into system-to-system process flows, views the portal as a natural interface to kick off processes.

"BPM could be the missing link in portals," said Daryn Walters, vice president of worldwide marketing at HandySoft's Vienna, Va., location. "We think that there's a lot of synergy there."

HandySoft recently shifted its strategy to not only offer a core BPM platform, but to also sell prebuilt processes, or solutions, for particular industries such as banking and insurance. Among the components of the BizFlow Accelerator Suite is a portal-based UI, Walters said.

For its part, Fujitsu Software Corp. is in the process of wrapping up several disparate products, including i-Flow BPM software and its enterprise portal into a unified suite. The new InterStage platform also features an application server and content server, according to Charlie Chang, vice president of sales and marketing at Fujitsu Software, in San Jose, Calif.i-Flow's process modeling interface is browser-based, enabling it to be accessed from within a portal, an example of the kind of synergy Fujitsu is seeking by tying its infrastructure pieces together. Chang also said that the growing need to manage and execute the flow of Web services will necessitate linkages between BPM, portals, and other integration pieces.

"We feel strongly that Web services orchestration layers are going to be integral to the next wave of integration," said Chang. "And by that, we are talking about a convergence of BPM and application integration and portals."

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