Gov portals get to work

The first stop for businesses interested in participating in Iraq's reconstruction might be Export.gov, the federal government's export and trade services Web portal.

After major combat ended in Iraq, the Commerce Department, one of 14 federal organizations sponsoring the portal, launched "Rebuilding Iraq," a discrete site that can be accessed via the portal to obtain background information, contract award and opportunity lists, and relevant links.

Interested parties can further their quest by joining the Export.gov community, permitting them to log on to the site and communicate their interests and expertise to relevant government offices that can then respond with potential opportunities.

Export.gov is but one of many Web-based portals being wired into the government's information technology infrastructure and used by agencies to deliver constituent services and improve operations. A few years ago, early government portals were little more than souped-up Web sites that often featured more links and information than a typical Web site, but whose main purpose was still information delivery.

Now portals increasingly are becoming the place where agencies do real business. Hosting various enterprise applications for both public and internal use, providing tools for online collaboration, and serving as user-friendly front ends to vast stores of distributed information, portals are becoming mission critical for many agencies.

Portal technology's growing stature is generally reflected in sales, which are expected to grow from $957 million worldwide this year to $1.13 billion in 2004, according to the Delphi Group. Just as importantly, the portal products on the market are far more sophisticated than those from a few years ago.

Meanwhile, the vendor base has consolidated from 100 in 2000 to around 40 now, said Gene Phifer, a vice president and research director at Gartner Inc.

That base is still quite diverse, including companies such as IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp., SAP AG, Oracle Corp., PeopleSoft Inc., Computer Associates International Inc., BEA Systems Inc., Sybase Inc., Vignette Corp., BroadVision Inc., Plumtree Software Inc. and Art Technology Group Inc. (ATG).

"The core portal engine has improved significantly" and is now usually packaged with an array of added functionality, such as application servers and integration tools, workflow, content search and collaboration features, Phifer said.

Export.gov is built on Autonomy Inc.'s Portal-In-A-Box product and uses that company's search application to "spider" through and retrieve information from participating agency databases.

Challenges remain, however, such as the lack of interoperability among the portal offerings. The first standards addressing this issue — Java Specification Request 168 for portlet application programming interface and Web Services for Remote Portals (WSRP) — will be delivered later this year.

Hammered out by Java Community Process, an organization of Java developers, JSR 168 will enable interoperability among portals by defining common application program interfaces for portal computing in the areas of aggregation, personalization, presentation and security.

WSRP is being devised by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, a nonprofit consortium. Its goal is to define an Extensible Markup Language and Web services standard that allows for the plug and play of user-facing Web services with portals or other intermediary Web applications that aggregate content.

Despite the progress on standards, "we have a long way to go," Phifer said, warning that organizations may end up replacing stovepipe applications with stovepipe portals.

It cannot be "standard for standards' sake," said Rick Sullivan, service line director for the U.S. government services division of Electronic Data Systems Corp.'s Business Acceleration Services. There has to be a "balance" among standards and differentiation among product approaches.

The federal government has been a prime market for portal technologies. In the past two years, many organizations have acquired the technology, and now "just about every agency has a portal," said Howard Stern, senior vice president at Federal Sources Inc.

Amidst this rise in popularity, the definition of what a portal is has become malleable. "The term 'portal' is being tossed around pretty loosely," said Bob Carter, public sector director at Plumtree Software, a portal vendor.

However, experts agree on a few common characteristics.

"When we talk about portals, we are not talking about just a data aggregation vehicle [but rather] an infrastructure that supports interaction [and] access to reusable components," Sullivan said.

Some organizations are labeling as portals redesigned Web sites, Carter added. These "external-facing portals, as they are called now, are quite static" and fail to provide users with a personalized view of information and applications.

Nevertheless, many agencies "are heading in the right direction," said Donna Burnette, manager of major accounts at portal vendor ATG.

After deploying the portals that serve as front-end information sources, Stern predicted agencies will now focus on their back-end infrastructures to make enterprise applications part of the portal.

Various factors have sparked the push to build more sophisticated portals.

The Army built Army Knowledge Online, which serves 1.4 million users, to boost collaboration among its workforce "regardless of [their] location," said Maj. C.J. Wallington, AKO team leader in the Chief Technology Office of the Network Enterprise Technology Command.

The service also wanted "to streamline [operations] and reduce IT costs," said Marc Wilson, co-founder and AKO project manager at Appian Corp., which provided the portal technology.

Last fall, the Federal Aviation Administration deployed the National Airspace System Adaptation Services Environment, which uses ATG portal technology to distribute constantly changing aeronautical data to hundreds of air traffic control-related facilities, said Jim Thomas, program director for the FAA's software engineering resource center.

"We saw an opportunity [to use portal technology] to start pulling together the people who produce the aeronautical data with the people who use it," Thomas said.

FirstGov, the government's official Web portal, has the larger task of "tearing down barriers between agencies and providing information to citizens," said Lorraine Bauer, vice president and general manager for BEA Systems' government systems division.

Launched in September 2000, the cross-agency site is expected to attract 70 million visitors this year, a 10-fold increase from 2001's total. It has also become more robust, deploying technologies such as the advanced search and security capability from AT&T, which provides Web-hosting services for the site, and BEA's WebLogic application server, integration and portal technology, Bauer said.

Firstgov.gov has been folded into the 24 initiatives supported by the E-Government Act of 2002. The initiatives all use portals to boost public access to government information and services.

For example, Regulations.gov, launched in January under the e-Rulemaking initiative, "enables the public to search, view and comment on any open proposed federal rule from any federal agency at one consolidated site," said Oscar Morales, e-Rulemaking program manager.

The final e-Rulemaking portal will use the Environmental Protection Agency's E-dockets program, which uses Documentum Inc. technology, as a model, Morales said.

McKenna is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area.

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Portal products pack more punch

As the market matures, stand-alone portals are becoming all but extinct.

"We are seeing a convergence of technologies," said Gene Phifer, a vice president and research director at Gartner Inc.

Organizations rarely "deploy just the basic portal," which includes only personalization and presentation features, but rather are acquiring suites with complementary technologies. Phifer identified four types of portal packages:

* The Application Platform Suite (APS), consisting of an integration program, application server and the portal.

* The Smart Enterprise Suite (SES), including search, classification, content management, document management, collaboration, workflow and business intelligence in a portal framework.

* An APS/SES combination.

* A traditional portal that includes only the information presentation features and relies on third party partnerships for additional features.

Of these four types, the SES-only and APS/SES hybrids will "win in the future," according to Phifer.

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