Packaged Portals

BOSTON (06/05/2000) - Building an enterprise portal to provide browser-based views of legacy data may sound simple, but it isn't. Portals require the integration of a wide range of core corporate databases, as well as the ability to analyze data and personalize user interfaces.

Some customers and consultants have found that buying packaged portal software can cost as little as half as much as writing your own interface and data-integration tools. Deployment times, they say, can be only a third as long as the time needed to build a portal in-house.

Even so, creating a portal with even basic functions will usually cost at least $50,000 for the software itself, says Henry Morris, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Massachusetts. Installation, customization, training and business-process changes can double that expense, he says.

Getting a portal up and running can cost $100 to $300 per user, although the per-capita cost begins to fall off sharply at more than 2,000 users, says Randy Eckel, CEO of InfoImage Inc., a portal development firm in Phoenix. Most pilot projects cost $100,000 to $200,000, with final deployments costing some multiple of that, he says.

Some analysts and users say they agree that selecting software carefully can help minimize the costs. But choosing that software isn't easy, because many of the packaged offerings are still immature or untested, notes analyst Madan Sheina at Aberdeen Group Inc. in Palo Alto, California.

A fully functional portal must provide access to structured data (which is organized in fields) and to unstructured data such as text, says Eckel.

It also must provide personalized views to help users sort through reams of data and allow them to take some action such as analyzing information or completing a transaction.

Using a staged approach can make the process easier to justify, says John Ulery, a product manager at Computer Associates International Inc. in Islandia, New York. "But the planners need to see it as a process of building an infrastructure, a foundation for the future, rather than a single solution that is larger than life," he says.

The following three user sites are examples of companies where information technology staffers were able to configure portals, spending what they felt was a minimum amount of money and time.

No Portal, No Business

Before eTime Capital Inc. could even begin doing business, it needed a portal.

The Sunnyvale, California-based company gathers information about when products are received by customers and provides that information to manufacturers over the Web. The producers can then more closely track how soon they should be paid, says Ricardo Jenez, eTime's chief technology officer.

The service lets users track their accounts receivables in real time, instead of on monthly cycles, which both increases cash flow and makes that cash flow more predictable, he says.

Software agents written by eTime are placed in the systems of its customers and their shipping carriers to collect key documents, Jenez says. These documents include sales orders, bills of lading, invoices and credit memos, all of which are converted into XML in eTime's Oracle database and analyzed.

To make it all possible, simple database access wasn't enough. Strong analytical and data presentation tools were also needed, Jenez says. The company tried other tools before settling on the Brio One product suite from Brio Technology Inc. in Palo Alto, California.

"Some were very good at reporting, and some were very good for what-if analysis, and some were good at the portal end [for data access and presentation]. But Brio was the only one with the complete integrated package," says Jenez.

The suite includes Brio.Enterprise, a business intelligence product for data analysis and presentation; Brio.Portal, for the portal interface; and Brio.Report, for batch reporting. A company spokesman says pricing for Brio One starts at $50,000.

ETime executed the contract with Brio in mid-December and had a beta version of its portal in February. The full service was launched in early April.

"We can't talk about the cost, but Brio was extremely competitive - much better than some of the others," Jenez says. "Some were dramatically more expensive, and none were dramatically cheaper."

A Microsoft-Centric Approach

A customer portal was also the aim of the California Casualty Group in San Mateo, California, which sells home and automobile insurance. Senior Vice President Beau Brown says the idea was to create a self-service portal where policyholders could view their policy information, request changes and file claims.

"The main thing we were interested in was a friendly interface, but quite a few portal [tools] had that," Brown says. "So beyond that, we were interested in the ability to interface to legacy systems."

The insurer's legacy applications ran on an IBM mainframe, with data stored in a DB2 database. For another project that involved offering real-time quotes over the Internet, the company had been "wrapping" the existing code with Active Server Pages (ASP) and Component Object Model (COM) technology from Microsoft Corp., Brown says. California Casualty chose Plumtree Corporate Portal from San Francisco-based Plumtree Software Inc. because it's based on ASP and COM.

The other chief attraction was the ability to cost-effectively perform complex customization of the user interfaces, Brown says. California Casualty markets its products through groups and associations, and the Plumtree interface could be personalized according to customers' memberships, Brown adds.

Four California Casualty staffers attended a three-day Plumtree training course and were then able to put together a system to display billing and policy information in just 10 days. "Some of the portal [software] for things like accessing the glossary and searching the Web site were created in a matter of hours," Brown recalls.

"We came in well under budget and did not spend a lot on consulting services," he says. "It proved a lot cheaper to buy a portal product than to build one ourselves."

Brown says the cost was less than $200,000 for the software and consulting, which "was reasonable compared to the payback to our customers," he notes.

Offering real-time policy quotes will require that all the legacy systems be Web-enabled, a function Brown says he expects to see by year's end.

Meanwhile, customers appear to have better data access than employees, but Brown says he plans to add an employee portal next year on the firm's intranet.

Sticking With What's Familiar

In the East Baton Rouge Parish School System in Baton Rouge, Louisiana., IT managers decided to build a portal while upgrading from a legacy mainframe to a client/server system, says Bettye Whaley, the school system's program manager of information systems.

Previously, the school system used paper documents, which were input in batch mode to a Unisys Corp. mainframe. "But because we wanted an online system" and were dissatisfied with several financial packages the district ran, says Whaley, "we decided to do a major overhaul."

Moving to the client/server environment was less expensive than upgrading the Unisys box, Whaley says. The portal also lets school staff generate and view reports on school district data from their browsers, she notes. Now, each of the district's 101 school sites - hosting about 57,000 students and 12,000 full- or part-time employees - is connected to an intranet based on T1 lines.

The new payroll/financial and student information systems were implemented on July 1, the start of the district's fiscal year. But legacy data and several secondary packages remained on the mainframe.

However, after choosing the financial package and the student information package, the district ended up with two different database environments: Oracle on Windows NT for the financial system and Informix on Unix for the student information system, in addition to the legacy data on the Unisys system. That meant three separate platforms on which to run reports, Whaley says, with no ad hoc reporting tool to use.

To access the Unisys data, the district had been using a reporting tool called Ursa from Decision Support Inc. in Matthews, North Carolina. Its spin-off, Metagon Technologies LLC, also in Matthews, had begun offering similar Web-based multisource reporting tools, including DQvista and access tool DQbroker.

"At the time, we did not look at anything else - we needed something fast, and since we knew how to use Ursa, there was no learning curve," Whaley recalls.

Because the district could stop paying for some mainframe applications, the $30,000 cost for the tools was partially covered, she says.

"You can set up a report in 10 minutes or less, if you know your data," says Brad Mallett, a programmer/analyst at the school system.

Wood is a freelance writer based in San Antonio.

ETime Capital Inc.

Portal used for: Providing customers real-time access to shipping informationProduct chosen: Brio One from Brio Technology Inc.

Reason: It was the only tool evaluated that included reporting, analysis and data access and presentation capabilities.

CaliforniaCasualty Group

Portal used for: Allowing policyholders to view policy information, request changes and file claimsProduct chosen: Plumtree Corporate Portal from Plumtree Software Inc.

Reason: Plumtree's tools were based on Microsoft technology already used by the customer, and they offered cost-effective customization of customer views.

East Baton Rouge Parish School District

Portal used to: Provide a single view of data stored on both mainframes and client/server systemsProduct chosen: DQvista and DQbroker from Metagon Technologies LLCReason: The customer was familiar with an earlier mainframe-based reporting tool from the same vendor.

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