Building portals of mass interaction

From soaring heights during the dotcom boom, the portals name suffered by association and plunged into obscurity for a while. But their usefulness and accessibility seems to be returning them to the fore.

Is a portal a Web site, an extranet, or an intranet? Is it an information resource, a transaction tool, or an entry point to application integration? Is it for employees, business partners, customers or consumers? Is it designed to create opportunities or save money? The answer is yes.

It really comes down to who the end users are, and what they will be using the portal for.

Once seen as information conglomerators with key resources linked via one site, portals are increasingly acting as application integrators. In portals, users can access a range of programs to undertake key day-to-day or specialised tasks as well as being proactively served a diet of useful and relevant information.

A key benefit of modern portals for users is the ability to choose and prioritise the content and applications required on an individual basis.

As one vendor puts it, portals are “A single sign-on, single point of interaction with dynamic information, applications, processes and people. The portal is no longer just a place to do searches, but a place to conduct work.”

A survey late last year by RedSheriff showed that local portals proved to be the most popular Web sites, with Ninemsn.com.au and Microsoft.com topping the list for the largest number of unique visitors.

Portals are proving to be just as popular with organisations, particularly in the B2E space. A survey just out from Jupiter Research finds that more than 80 per cent of companies polled in a study claimed they already had or would be deploying a portal site for employees within a year. More than 60 per cent already had a B2E site, with 49 per cent claiming a customer portal, 29 per cent with a site for channel partners, and 25 per cent with a site for suppliers.

With these sorts of figures floating around, it’s not surprising that portals are proving just as popular with vendors. Mark Towers, national manager for information management with Alphawest, says, “Most vendors have a portal in their kit bags.” But apparently not that many are making a decent living out of the boom.

The portal market

Gartner says the portal market is evolving, in what it describes as the market’s “most dramatic change to date”. It says there are two types of portal integration suites:

- The application platform suite (APS), a suite of integrated software infrastructure technologies for modern business applications containing an application server, integration suite and portal product;
- The smart enterprise suite (SES), an integrated suite containing search, classification, content management, collaboration, knowledge management and process management components.

A little less than helpfully, it suggests these two suites will cause the market to segment along four paths: APS only; SES only; an APS and SES combination; or traditional products. It does, however, predict that the APS and SES combination segments will dominate the market.

Portals are proving to be a similarly mixed bag in the vendor stakes.

Gartner reports that in early 2000, the portal product market had about 100 vendors (more than 200, according to a different source). At the end of 2002, that number had been whittled down to about 50. And while there are differences as to how large a slice of the pie any one vendor holds — Gartner believes that no one vendor has more than 15 per cent of the market, while Jupiter reckons Oracle holds 25 per cent of the “product deployment” market, followed by PeopleSoft at 19, SAP on 17 and IBM WebSphere on 15 per cent — it is without doubt that consolidations, mergers, acquisitions and simple going-out-of-businesses are rife.

Application integration

So why then are all the vendors so keen on a market that is approaching saturation?

Adam Ginsburg, North American general manager for Aptrix, reckons that “Vendors like selling portals because it drags in everything else. A portal is worth nothing without putting something in it.”

This means all those supporting applications that are so ably integrated on a portal — e-mail, HR, content, finance, supply chain, and so on — are the real targets whereas portals are just the cream on top or, to put it more cynically, the lure to attract the customers.

Warren Donnelly, software product manager for Sun Microsystems, warns that “Some vendors are too application-centric,” locking customers into one make of suite. Jupiter goes as far as to suggest that, because integration with applications and data is so important, it makes sense when choosing a portal vendor to stick with the one already providing your company’s infrastructure.

However, vendors are quick to point out that implementing a portal needn’t require a complete rewrite or redo of your existing applications and infrastructure — too many people have been burnt in the mania for process re-engineering in the early days of ERP.

“If you tried to implement a portal and look to replace your legacy system, it wouldn’t get off the ground,” says Towers. “It wouldn’t be cost-effective.”

He says you need an interpretive layer between the portal and applications “built on standard interchange schema, such as XML, which is the de facto technology of choice”.

The use of plug-in software that provides links between the portal and applications, going by the name of portlets (or one of a raft of other proprietary names), is seen as assisting the industry by making the process immeasurably easier and less intrusive.

Ginsburg says portlets are available for most combinations, although he adds that if the portlet for a specific application doesn’t exist, you will have to look at integration issues. “Sometimes, it is the case that implementing a portal will require changes to legacy apps.”

But Donnelly adds that, unless the legacy apps are small and might more cost effectively be rewritten to suit the portal, you shouldn’t need to change your applications.

Meta Group’s advice takes an even more dogmatic stance: “Portals should work with, and leverage, existing infrastructure, not replace it.”

Nonetheless, the leading vendors in the diminishing pool of portal suppliers are those who have broad suites of applications, ready to sit beneath, beside or on top of your portal implementation. You have been warned.

Phased implementation

To be fair to vendors, all of those we spoke with for this article did recommend a phased and judicious approach to undertaking a portal project.

Meta suggests the following steps as required stages in the portal planning process:

- Obtain sponsorship
- Analyse drivers and expected benefits
- Inventory the desired features
- Conduct an infrastructure impact assessment
- Select products
- Internally market.

“Skipping any step in the portal planning process often leads to disaster,” Meta says.

While there are some customers who have gone for the “big bang” approach, most are happier to start with a specific audience, and then expand the operations of the portal from there.

Most commentators say that a B2E intranet is a relatively easy and logical starting point to build a comfort zone and expertise with the concept, and then move into the B2B and B2C areas.

This attitude is shared in the market. As the Jupiter figures quoted earlier indicate, B2E portals are clear leaders in the field.

The question with a phased approach is whether your application-specific vendor can make the transition from one to another of the types of portal. Donnelly warns that this is not always a given, and management should give serious consideration to the abilities of their vendor(s) to fulfil the varied requirements of B2E, B2B and B2C sites.

B2E sites are largely built in line with Gartner’s smart enterprise suite, where knowledge management is the key purpose. This raises its own issues.

Knowledge management

It is a fact of life in most organisations that more is known about the number and type of tables, chairs and the PCs that sit on them than about the skills and expertise available in the “human resources” that use them.

The knowledge that resides within employees is often lost when they leave, and the burgeoning knowledge management movement has grown up to try to formally alleviate this problem.

So large is the issue, in fact, that Donnelly says that for the first time in American corporate history, knowledge assets represent a higher value in official corporate reports than fixed assets.

Portals represent one way to bring that knowledge together and present it in a consistent, useful and effective manner. In this way, portals and knowledge management act as mutual justifications for their existence: “The portal is the primary KM function aggregator and delivery mechanism,” says Meta, adding that “portals are proving recession-proof due to their ability to combine KM and application integration facilities.”

Oil and gas company Santos is a good example of the benefits of knowledge aggregation. Each of its business units was previously serviced by its own intranet, developed in isolation and reflecting their individual needs. Following a new CEO’s vision of “One Santos”, the company teamed with software developer OBS to build a portal based on Microsoft technology, particularly Digital Dashboard.

Nicknamed (appropriately) ‘the Well’, the portal enables information to be collected from multiple sources, presented in a simple, browser-based format, with inbuilt facilities for applying consistent formatting so that, no matter who adds or edits content, the overall look and feel of the site has uniformity. Microsoft says this increases usability and reduces training costs.

In addition to the Well, the team developed TeamLink, a company-wide directory where employees can create their own personal profiles, with details of their experience, expertise, skills and abilities. This was purposely designed in an unstructured way, so that employees could contribute in whatever way made most sense to them: fill-in-the-form; CVs, photos, and the like. The system captures this data and can search on a range of criteria.

An example that Microsoft quotes of its use was the Santos employee who was having trouble using a specialised software package to open some particular files. Unable to find someone in the immediate locale with the skills, a search of TeamLink revealed five candidates globally, one of whom was able to help open the files in five minutes. Jo Brennan, knowledge manager at Santos, says “Prior to TeamLink, that person would have had no easy way of finding or connecting with the experience of colleagues. Finding an answer alone would have been far more difficult.”

Business drivers

It’s the business benefits, rather than the capabilities of the technology, that will drive the market and the uptake of portals. The classic clash of ideologies between finance and IT departments will only be breached when both talk the same language, and with portals that language often has two key elements: saving money by lowering the cost of transactions, and bringing information together securely, protecting the organisation’s investment in intellectual property. No one seems to be pushing the idea that portals will make you money — the days of the world beating a path to your e-door seem to have gone with the dotcom crash, although indirectly customer empowerment and satisfaction are issues regularly noted by vendors.

Some recently quoted examples of benefits include:

- Online financial information provider Molten Markets reduced the time that its customers spent managing e-mails by 80 per cent (Unique World/Microsoft solution)
- The WA government may be able to reduce average per-transaction cost of $75 to $100 for simple purchases to less than $10 using a government electronic market e-procurement system, impacting up to 80 per cent of government purchasing (Sun/iPlanet/Alphawest6-/Adacel/DMR solution).

Donnelly says the following technology issues and business benefits are central to any portal decision process:

- Establishing the identity of users and establishing trust
- Increasing velocity — both the number of transactions processed and the number and range of modes of access
- The three As — authentication, authorisation and attributes
- Complying with legislation and privacy
- Mobility — the ability to access offsite, anytime, anywhere, which raises security issues
- Web services — their role in portals, especially the cost benefits of their reusable nature
- Self-service through portals, and the benefits to customer satisfaction of a single sign-on
- Integration with legacy systems (Jupiter says this is the main driver of cost)
- Lowering the cost of transactions
- Securing the knowledge capital
- The intrinsic value of portals in pushing compliance with standardised processes.

“All of these are business pull, not technological push,” he says. In other words, get these right, and your portal project will not only have a better chance of getting off the ground, but also being a success.

On the downside, offering customers a one-stop-shop that fulfils all of their needs requires it to be always on, raising redundancy issues, mirror sites, and the like.

Ultimately, it comes down to the users. As John Banks, portals manager, e-commerce for IBM WebSphere, puts it: “An important element of the next generation portal is its ability to connect individuals and communities with information, resources and expertise relevant to their interests. In a nutshell, if customers, employees and other users find the portal site more useful to them, they’ll never have a reason to go anywhere else. It’s about answering your question in real time: specific, relevant and now.”

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