Introduction to Enterprise Portals - Why they Benefit IT and the Business

by Peter Laird


What is an Enterprise Portal? BEA and other enterprise software vendors offer products in this area, but what do they accomplish? How do you know when you need a portal?

This article covers the enterprise portal space and the problems that portals solve. I will discuss application integration, security consolidation, content aggregation, and collaboration. This content is aimed at CIOs, IT architects, and IT management.

Life Without a Portal

I will begin the discussion of enterprise portals by talking about life without them. This will establish the need and appeal of portal projects as solutions to problems found with non-portal applications.

Agony for Business Users and Customers

Business users and customers are usually the heaviest users of IT systems. Users like customer service representatives (CSRs), purchasing agents, and financial analysts fall into this category. They often spend the majority of their day working with enterprise IT applications. When the users of the application are employees, it is called a Business to Employee (B2E) system. When the users are customers, it is a Business to Consumer (B2C) application.

While they find utility in these IT applications, there can be major barriers to productivity that make their experience painful. Solving these problems can result in major cost savings and increased morale for B2E applications. In B2C cases, the increased productivity can result in higher revenue and higher customer satisfaction.

Here are a set of problems that these users encounter.

"I need to use 20 applications to do my job."

This is a common complaint, especially among CSRs. When enterprise applications aren't integrated, users find that they to need to bounce through many windows to accomplish a single task. Each window is the front end to a different application. First, finding the information they need is a challenge. Second, the users must copy and paste data from window to window to check on the status of an order, cancel a shipment, or process a new customer account. This is not only time consuming, but error prone as well.

"It takes 2 months to train a new employee on our IT systems."

This is another problem caused by having each employee touch many applications to carry out their job. Every application requires a training cycle, especially when every application has its own style and design. Some may not even be Web applications, but terminal applications or fat client applications. While computer-literate employees will have less trouble training on the different user interfaces, users without much background in computers will have a great amount of pain in learning each application.

"I need to remember 20 different usernames and passwords to use my company's IT systems."

This is a common problem not only within the enterprise, but on the consumer Web as well. When users are forced to have many distinct user accounts and passwords, they often resort to bad practices such as written passwords on sticky notes. That makes this problem not just a nuisance, but a serious security issue as well. While solving this problem does not necessarily require a portal, a portal implementation is a common solution.

"I want to expose my Web applications to customers, but I need to have control over the brand and appearance."

While all of the above issues apply to B2C applications, a special issue affecting B2C applications is the need to correctly brand the user interface. This is a problem if the back-end applications do not carry a consistent look and feel (like colors and fonts). It can also be a problem when the enterprise markets the same products under multiple brands. The appearance of the site needs to change based on the identity of the customer.

"Whomever has the latest version of the presentation, please email it to me."

How much of your business is managed through Excel spreadsheets and how much intellectual property is captured using a PowerPoint presentation? Business users live and thrive inside of Microsoft Office documents, and they depend on them to do their job. Unfortunately, these business-critical documents often are shared using email or simple network attached storage devices. These informal mechanisms make it difficult for users to locate the documents they need, provide poor security on these documents, and can cause issues when multiple versions of the same document are circulating within the organization.

Pain for information technology workers

The previous section focused on issues often faced by business users and customers who interact with enterprise applications. Now let's focus on the set of pain points that IT workers, including the CIO, must endure.

"I have to fund maintenance and operations for 2,000 Web applications."

In most enterprises, Web application sprawl is a major issue. The cost of just "keeping the lights on" is extremely high, as each Web application is individually managed. Keeping track of the software licenses, Service Level Agreements, hardware, and application URLs can be a nightmare. A huge portion of a CIO's budget goes to managing all these independent systems.

"I have no centralized security for my Web applications. Adding or removing a user from the organization is very expensive."

With Web application sprawl comes major security issues. Provisioning a new user or removing a terminated employee is costly and time consuming because the security change must be made in many applications. Additionally, it is difficult to enforce consistent security policies across the organization.

"We seem to reinvent the wheel every time we build a new Web application."

Enterprise Web applications typically need a common set of services and features. Features include dynamic user interface capabilities, consistent look and feel, and personalization capabilities. Services include content management, search, collaboration, and a security service. When an organization does not have a consistent enterprise development platform, every Web application is likely to have different and redundant solutions for these requirements.

"Business users throw up wiki and Sharepoint servers outside of our control, and use those systems to lose and abuse mission-critical data."

If IT does not provide sufficient systems for collaboration, business users are likely to take matters into their own hands and provision their own. While this satisfies an immediate need, the long-term effect can be disastrous. Outside of IT, who will manage security, backups, and uptime for those applications? Often, those aspects are neglected until a serious negative event occurs.

Enterprise Portals to the Rescue

The common thread that ties together the problems listed above are that they are solved using an enterprise portal solution. Enterprise portals benefit end users and their IT managers and developers by providing consistent solutions for each of these problems.

Enterprise portals in a nutshell

Portals are first and foremost a user interface paradigm. Portal user interfaces divide the browser into the following components:

  • Header - the top-most section of the browser page, contains the branding for the portal
  • Portal pages - accessed via page tabs at the top of the browser page
  • Portlets - rectangular areas on the page, each one usually representing an application or a task
  • Navigation - possibly a left navigation box, or a menu for navigating to different pages
  • Footer - the bottom-most section of the browser page, contains disclaimers, contact info

See Figure 1 for an illustration of a portal user interface:

Portal User Interface

Figure 1. A sample portal user interface

But an enterprise portal is much more than a user interface design. In fact, some enterprise portals do not use the standard portal user interface. Additional services are required to support a true enterprise portal platform that can serve as the application infrastructure for the enterprise.

Figure 2 shows the service ecosystem that is included in most enterprise portal products to make it a compelling platform for application development within the enterprise:

sample enterprise portal product offering

Figure 2. A sample enterprise portal product offering

While not all of these components are necessary in a product offering, the major components are as follows:

  • Presentation Services - the user interface rendering engine
  • Federation Fabric - the capability to deploy portals and portlets in a distributed manner
  • Enterprise Integration - support for Web service and SOA technologies
  • Intelligent Administration - the ability to dynamically administer the security and layout of a deployed portal
  • Development Framework - an application development environment that provides consistency in the implementation of Web applications across the enterprise
  • Content - the ability to manage documents and connect to external content management systems
  • Search - providing a comprehensive search function across the entire portal
  • Collaboration - providing tools to enable users to collaborate, like discussion forums and a group calendar

Enterprise portal products are therefore sizable pieces of software. They not only provide user interface capabilities, but they also provide major features in support of portal initiatives.

Enterprise portal vendors

Vendors have long been supporting enterprise portal initiatives with portal product offerings. Most of the major vendors in the space have been delivering product for 8 to 10 years. While the enterprise portal market is not as mature as databases, Web servers, or Java application servers, it is a well-established product space. The list below contains a sampling of the major enterprise portal products:

  • BEA WebLogic Portal
  • BEA AquaLogic Interaction Portal
  • Oracle Portal
  • Microsoft Sharepoint Portal
  • IBM Websphere Portal
  • Vignette Portal
  • Sun Portal

As with any enterprise software product, a software selection process is necessary to decide which portal platform is right for your enterprise. Data sheets and white papers are available from each vendor to help with the decision process.

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