Ask about enterprise portals and most people describe sites that employees use to download corporate data stashed away in different computer systems, 401(k) statements and local weather forecasts.
But not Ahmad Atwan. For him, portals mean new revenue for Altra Energy Technologies Inc.
The Houston-based online energy exchange is using portal technology to launch a slew of Web-based services, such as deal-capture and risk-management applications, that could generate more sales than the exchange itself.
"Right now, we make our money from transaction fees," said Atwan, Altra's director of electronic business. "But we have much more energy software expertise that we can deliver, and the portal is the ultimate application hook we'll use to provide those new enabling technologies." Ditto for Bank One Corp., The Chase Manhattan Corp., Hyundai Group and Guess Inc., all of which are ahead of the curve in deploying portal frameworks to extend in-house business data and internal applications to paying, Web-based customers on the other side of the firewall.
Both Bank One and Chase are implementing San Francisco-based Epicentric Inc.'s portal server software to deliver Web-based tools for risk and credit analysis to commercial customers.
"Banks are positioned very well to be intermediaries," said Raechel Wright, director of electronic-delivery architecture at Bank One in Columbus, Ohio.
Now, for example, the bank issues secure identifications to its own commercial customers. "But it could also be a service we provide" to a much broader audience, she said.
"The big value point with portals is they enable selected bits of enterprise data and reports, correspondence and other data to be displayed to external parties, without the need for any application integration outside," said Hadley Reynolds, an analyst at The Delphi Group in Boston.
With outward-facing portals, a small but growing number of companies are adding transaction capabilities.
"This is very much at the beginning of the curve," Reynolds said, noting that just nine months ago outward-facing portals were nonexistent.
Other companies are creating such portals, not so much to generate new revenue but to pare down operational costs.
Among them is Los Angeles-based apparel manufacturer Guess Inc., which is using San Francisco-based Plumtree Software Inc.'s portal system to deliver online ordering capabilities and other information to 900 specialty retailers around the world.
Obstacles to Overcome
One of the downsides to portal technology is that implementations can be long and tedious. Often, the lion's share of the work involves making up-front business decisions about exactly what to deliver through a portal, experts said.
"In a typical packaged application, you've got hundreds of processes. But in a portal-based e-business application, you need to provide access to only a small amount of those processes. Identifying which ones are the most important is a difficult task," said Gene Phifer, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn.
But after that, the actual software integration can be as straightforward as linking pieces of applications via off-the-shelf interfaces known as "portlets" or "gadgets," which offer ready-made connections between the portal framework and various software programs, according to vendors.
Looking ahead, several analysts said they expect portals to become the standard interface to new Web-based electronic-business applications and services - but only after corporate information technology groups gain experience with the technology by first deploying it to employees.
"They will want to cut their teeth with an audience where if they fail, it won't be so visible," said Phifer. "People tend to like to embarrass themselves among family as opposed to in a public forum."