Introduction to Enterprise Portals - Why they Benefit IT and the Business
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Patterns in Enterprise Portal Implementations

With a brief overview of enterprise portals complete, this section will discuss the major types of enterprise portal implementations. Industry analysts and portal vendors have identified a set of common enterprise portal patterns that are seen in enterprises throughout the world. We will look at each pattern and discuss what each accomplishes.

Content portals

Typically, the first portal to be implemented in an organization, a content portal is largely a read-only platform that aggregates enterprise content from many sources throughout the enterprise. Value-add services such as search and content authorization enhance the basic benefit of a unified content Web site.

Figure 3 shows an example of a content portal. It is a Web site that provides information via a set of portlets on the page. Each portlet surfaces a different type of content. It is laid out on the page such that the portal becomes a quick method of finding a document. Built into this portal is a search service and an authorization mechanism to make sure only the right users see sensitive information.

Content Portal

Figure 3. An example of a content portal

The following are characteristics and benefits of content portals:

  • Quick to implement - often the project is completed in a few weeks
  • Centralizes access to documents and information
  • Provides search and authorization capabilities
  • May integrate into back-end content management systems
  • Mostly read only, but may offer authors the ability to update or add new content


Integration or transaction portals

Whichever name is used, integration or transaction, this type of portal focuses on surfacing application functionality within portlets in a portal. They move beyond content portals in that they not only display documents and textual information, but they also surface data from back-end data sources and allow users to interact with that data.

Figure 4 shows a banking portal, which allows a user to view their account balances and make wire transfers. Each portlet surfaces a back-end application.

integration portal for a bank

Figure 4. An integration portal for a bank

The following are characteristics and benefits of integration portals:

  • Moderate development effort required to build the portlets and data integration
  • Integrate many back-end systems to provide a single point of access
  • Use authorization and dynamic layout capabilities to tailor the portal to the user
  • Enforce a consistent look and feel across the surfaced applications


Collaboration project portals

A more recent trend in enterprise portal implementations is to provide portals that support ad hoc or short lived project work. These portals provide collaboration features that enable groups of users to self-organize and then share information and ideas through a dedicated project portal.

Figure 5 depicts a sample collaboration portal implementation:

Collaboration Portal

Figure 5. A collaboration portal, offering forums, shared documents, and group calendar

The following are characteristics and benefits of collaboration portals:

  • Collaboration features are typically offered as a packaged solution from your portal vendor.
  • They provide the ability for users to organize around a project or department.
  • They provide facilities for sharing documents, discussions, calendar, whiteboards, and more.
  • They provide an IT hosted alternative to renegade wiki and Sharepoint servers.

Process portals

The final enterprise portal pattern is the process portal. A process portal is an implementation that goes beyond an integration portal in its depth of functionality. Instead of making point-to-point integrations with back-end applications, a process portal will support a user interface that enables users to enlist in a business process that spans multiple back-end systems. A process portal will often seamlessly cross departmental boundaries, integrating applications from Sales, Engineering, HR, and Manufacturing into an end-to-end process with a unified user interface.

Figure 6 illustrates the logical implementation of a process portal.

Process Portals

Figure 6. Process portals enlist multiple back-end systems in a unified process

The following are characteristics and benefits of process portals:

  • Enlist multiple back-end systems into a unified business process and user interface
  • Use a Business Process Management tool to orchestrate and manage the processes
  • Are user centric - they focus on helping a user complete a task, not organizational structures
  • Can be expensive to develop, but provide massive ROI

Enterprise Portals are a Single Point of Access, Control, and Development

The common theme across the different implementation patterns is that of aggregation. In all cases, enterprise portals aggregate functionality from many enterprise applications into a single point of access for users, and a single point of control and development for IT. This simple concept provides a solution to the problems listed at the beginning of this article.

To review, the following section lists the problems afflicting business users and customers, and how enterprise portals provide a solution:

  • "I need to use 20 applications to do my job." and "It takes 2 months to train a new employee on our IT systems."— Enterprise portals consolidate a multitude of back-end applications into a single point of access for a user. Enterprise portals are Web applications that enforce a unified look and feel. This reduces the complexity visible to the users.
  • "I need to remember 20 different usernames and passwords to use my company's IT systems."— Because an enterprise portal is a single point of access, authentication can be enforced at the portal and then propagated in a trusted way to the back-end systems.
  • "I want to expose my Web applications to customers, but I need to have control over the brand and appearance."— All enterprise portal products allow for the page style and branding to be customized. Some products allow for multiple brands to be delivered using a single portal implementation using personalization logic based on attributes of the user.
  • "Whomever has the latest version of the presentation, please email it to me." — As seen with collaboration portals, most enterprise portal products offer collaboration features to enable project teams to quickly share information and ideas.

For IT, the following problems were presented, and now solved using enterprise portal technology:

  • "I have to fund maintenance and operations for 2,000 Web applications." — Enterprise portals aggregate many back-end applications into a single Web application, thereby reducing Web application sprawl.
  • "I have no centralized security for my Web applications. Adding or removing a user from the organization is very expensive." — Enterprise portals are a single point of control. Security policies can be enforced at the portal application, which governs the use of the multitude of back-end applications. This provides efficient control over authorization policies.
  • "We seem to reinvent the wheel every time we build a new Web application." — Enterprise portals provide a set of tools and technologies that standardize development efforts across the enterprise.
  • "Business users throw up wiki and Sharepoint servers outside of our control, and use those systems to lose and abuse mission-critical data." — Collaboration portals come to the rescue once again to help combat the viral spread of ungoverned Web applications. By allowing users to quickly set up project portals, IT reduces the need for wikis and Sharepoint servers hosted by the business.

Conclusion

In this article I have discussed the following:

  • Problems with traditional enterprise application use and development
  • What is an enterprise portal
  • Major enterprise portal vendors
  • Common implementation patterns for enterprise portals
  • How enterprise portals solve the enterprise application problems

References

Analysts that cover the Enterprise Portal space:

  • Gartner - see "Portals are the 'Swiss Army Knives' of Enterprise Software"
  • Forrester
  • CMSWatch - see their "Enterprise Portals Report"
  • IDC - offers an enterprise portal market analysis

Peter Laird is the Managing Architect of the WebLogic Portal product.