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No longer the ‘next big thing’ of the late ’90s, portals are back

Web portals have seen some ups and downs. In the late 1990s’ dot-com craze, so-called “pure play” vendors such as Plumtree Software Inc. and Epicentric (now part of Vignette Corp.) made fortunes as analysts and IT departments hyped their wares as the answer to pressing Web development demands. But then the crash came, and portals were absorbed in Web development platforms and relegated to being one of a long list of features.

These days, if recent government buys are indicative, the software technology is on a major upswing again.

“Portals in the federal space have been very much static. They’ve been very publication-oriented,” said Jason Smith, vice president of the federal team at Vignette. “The government has been behind in this regard. The trend now is in interaction. There’s kind of been a sea change in what the portal is supposed to do to generate business value.”

One motivation for the renewed interest is automation, as high-volume, customer-service-oriented agencies, such as the IRS and Citizenship and Immigration Services, try to reduce call-center volume and shorten response times.

Through the looking glass

Corporate acquisitions and other financial trends followed suit, with many pure-play vendors going under or merging (to wit: Vignette’s purchase of Epicentric), and development vendors gobbling up others. This evolution has left just a handful of vendors (see product listing) whose portal offerings are comprehensive enough to meet government specs.

For example, BEA Systems Inc. bought Plumtree, renaming Plumtree’s product line under its own AquaLogic brand name.

“The BEA AquaLogic portal is still probably the best all-around portal in overall functionality and track record in sophisticated deployments,” said Ray Valdes, a Gartner research director. BEA counts the Defense Finance and Accounting Service among AquaLogic users.

In the past year or so, portal projects have become almost a stand-in for the Web “e-gov” projects of several years ago, as agencies have come to realize that putting a pretty front end before constituents requires a new, Web standards-based Service Oriented Architecture behind it. Now portals are more than just a feature, but a catch-all term for agency efforts to realize the Web’s potential as a communication medium.

While the portal user interface itself is little more than a Web page that provides access to content sources and applications, a portal can include or link into other elements as well. Single sign-on technology can manage each user’s security and access rights so they can use the same user name and password everywhere. A search engine can locate and retrieve information. A content management system handles legacy data and Web content in the preferred electronic formats. A type of CMS called a document management system can be used to convert and manage paper. Finally, and less commonly, a knowledge-management application can also be linked.

Government sources suggest that recent portal projects have both accelerated agencies’ ongoing IT standardization efforts and increased the value of earlier investments in integration software.

“A portal’s a very natural place for an agency to get started in implementing an SOA,” said Dennis Reilly, BEA’s vice president for public-sector sales. But according to Christine Wan, the company’s director of product marketing, some organizations haven’t fully made the transition to Web services. “The IT staff and workforce needs to become familiar with SOA and Web services,” Wan said. “Migrating IT staff off the older development platforms and onto the new platform is probably the biggest challenge.”

In fact, portals have always been more than just emporiums for purveying static content. They can also serve as hubs through which thousands of workers can collaborate. Portal personalization features help by identifying users by their roles, expertise and experience. For this reason, portals have long been key components of many organizations’ knowledge-management strategies. You use a portal’s search engine not only to find the document you need, but to find Joe in engineering who (according to, say, an online discussion group) is the expert working on a closely related project. Arguably, the know-how in people’s minds becomes the portal’s premium content. Said Smith of the Vignette Portal’s collaboration features: “You can track who’s contributing around what topics—who can help with a problem.”

The trend now is to beef up portals by incorporating the newest, Web-based collaboration technologies, especially wikis and blogs, which are essentially personal Web pages that can be easily edited by groups and individuals, respectively. “Collaboration has always been part of the value proposition of portals,” said Valdes. Now that all portal software offers about the same level of simplified access to content and applications, collaboration features have become the battleground of differentiation for portal providers.

“Portals are evolving to accommodate new front-end technologies such as Ajax and new methods for delivering content, such as [Really Simple Syndication], and new styles of collaboration,” Valdes said, while cautioning against choosing a portal primarily for its collaboration features.

According to Smith, agencies that respond to disasters have been the early adopters of portals. The Air Force uses a portal to facilitate communications among service personnel and their families, said Joe Snell, engineering program manager for operational support systems at Lockheed Martin Corp., the integrator for the portal. “In deployed situations, the ability to get to a phone to call is kind of restricted,” Snell said.

The portal offers thin-client, browser-based instant messaging from Bantu Inc., and wikis and blogs are under consideration. BroadVision Inc. provided the portal software for this implementation.

The cross-application, enterprisewide purview of robust portals makes them much more than multimedia communication hubs, however. They are increasingly the entry points to new business process management and workflow applications. Portals provide two critical elements: security technology that identifies people by their roles in various business processes, and the software standards required to develop new applications that can share information across boundaries. The portal world calls these new workflow and BPM programs “composite” applications, some of which exploit the new collaboration tools for added impact. “Now they’re starting to use a portal to provide a context for workflows that involve a lot more human interaction,” Reilly said.

What’s driving government demand for workflow? “End users are spending way too much time trying to do processes that should be done by the software,” said Greg Crider, senior director of product marketing for Oracle Corp., another major portal vendor.

Speed versus flexibility

While Vignette claims its out-of-the-box setup is much faster than that of portals sold by the big platform vendors, Valdes says the tradeoffs in setup time and functionality of years past are not as sharp today. “Portals have matured a lot, so they are more alike than different,” he said.

Scalability has been an issue for the large federal portals; it’s one of the major concerns hindering the IRS project, according to published reports. Three solutions are common: employing a content-delivery and performance-management network such as Akamai’s to distribute Web traffic, caching to make commonly accessed content more readily available, and network edge devices that super-charge bandwidth where it’s most needed.

The Air Force portal, which has a whopping 895,000 users, employs all three, said Snell, citing lessons learned in the early days of the portal, when performance was inadequate. “If the information’s not findable, they’re not going use the portal, and if it takes too long to access the information and the tools, they’re not going to use it, either,” he said.

Although government portals tend to be constituent-facing, some recent ones, such as the Defense Department’s planned Defense Knowledge Online portal, face inward to employees. The portal industry uses two terms from the early days of business-to-business Web technologies—extranets and intranets—to denote the distinction.
“One of the major decisions that a government purchaser should make is whether they’re doing an external-facing or internal portal,” Valdes said. “That might mean different portal products.”

Reilly said he is seeing federal government demand for both types. “Some agencies will go public-facing first, then build internally,” he said, adding that a BEA study showed roughly 60 percent of customers had intranet portals.

Smith strongly advised testing the portal with constituents and other end users to ensure its usability. “IT cannot bear the whole burden,” he said. Reilly touted the value of building and testing a prototype, a common request among BEA’s government customers. It’s a key part of the evaluation process, and can help identify how those applications can come online ideally in the first 90-120 days.

This approach helps justify investing not only in the portal, but the broader SOA strategy. Crider recommended first concentrating on front-end implementations of an SOA, perhaps by adding wikis, blogs or instant messaging. “Doing these can create the impression that there’s a new look and feel,” he said.

Keeping a close eye on ease of use can also make it more likely that users will be comfortable adding their own content, further enhancing a portal’s value to others. BEA said it is working on development tools intended to make it easy for business users to develop or contribute to new portals and related collaboration technologies such as wikis, similarly to MySpace and Amazon and other popular—and highly personalized—portals.

Such highly participatory “Web 2.0” portals might, in fact, be necessary to accommodate younger workers. “How do you satisfy someone who is entering the workforce today and is used to these very personalized interfaces?” Crider said. “You have people used to that experience, but they go into the office and they have to log onto six different systems.”

Portal Software

Vendor Representative Product(s) Notes
BEA Systems Inc.

Plano, Texas

(972) 801-4200

BEA AquaLogic

BEA WebLogic Portal

New multiserver Grid Search for improved
scaling, fault tolerance, Java/.Net support

SOA support, portal federation, lifecycle
management, Ajax, personalized desktops

BroadVision Inc.

Redwood City, Calif.

(650) 542-5100

BroadVision Suite Portal, content and commerce versions;
lifecycle management, multichannel sales,
IBM Corp.

Armonk, N.Y.

(888) 839-9289

Lotus Sametime

WebSphere Portal Server

Collaboration-oriented, real-time communication (IM, conferencing, telephony, etc.)

SOA, portlet factory designer, policy-based
administration, personalization by user

Microsoft Corp.

Redmond, Wash.

(425) 882-8080

Microsoft Office SharePoint Server Social networking, personal Web sites, audience targeting, application governance
Oracle Corp.

Redwood Shores, Calif.

(800) 672-2531

Oracle Portal

Oracle WebCenter Suite

J2EE-based, user self-service, desktop content publishing, 29 languages, BPM

SOA, open standards, "Web 2.0" personalization, IM, VOIP, other collaboration

SAP America Inc.

Newtown Square, Pa.

(888) 727-1993

SAP Netweaver Portal Java/.Net support, real-time collaboration, virtual spaces, knowledge management
Sun Microsystems Inc.

Santa Clara, Calif.

(800) 555-9786

Sun Java System Portal Server Solaris operating system, Service Oriented Architecture, community surveys, wikis, delegated administration
Tibco Software Inc.

Palo Alto, Calif.

(800) 420-8450

TIBCO PortalBuilder Personalization by user, Tibco integration tool support, Java/.Net support, templates
Vignette Corp.

Austin, Texas

(888) 608-9900

Vignette Portal Electronic forms builder, back-end integration studio, e-mail, CRM, calendar portlets

David Essex is a freelance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.


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