COMMENT: Analyst's Corner

Connecting People and Processes
By David Baum

Enterprise portals let you build a UI, manage interactions, and integrate business services.

Chris Haddad, manager of the Applications Platform Strategy Service consulting practice at Burton Group, recently talked to Oracle Magazine about how enterprise portals help workers collaborate as part of a modern information infrastructure.

Oracle Magazine: What does the term portal mean to most enterprises?

Haddad: The average user might think of a portal as what appears on the screen—the user interface. But there's much more going on under the covers.

Developers see a portal as an application framework that is used to personalize the user experience and provide content management services. Portals include search facilities, they offer adapters into legacy systems, and they generally have a rendering engine to provide device independence. Superplatform vendors such as Oracle are positioning portals as part of a software infrastructure that includes self-service tools for creating, publishing, and sharing information.

Oracle Magazine: How are today's portals being used?

Haddad: A portal is commonly used to aggregate disparate information, events, and processes into a unified view—so users don't have to open many applications and cut and paste information across multiple screens. Today, these composite applications are based on the concept of a service-oriented architecture (SOA).

Vendors such as Oracle are decoupling their portal frameworks and their APIs into discrete components that provide modular business functionality and infrastructure services to these composite applications. For example, an e-commerce order process might be decomposed into two components: one to populate a shopping cart and another to perform checkout. In the past, application designers tended to tightly couple these two components, which meant that the shopping cart process could not be reused across separate application instances. A portal framework helps you develop components as distributed, reusable business services.

Oracle Magazine: What's the advantage of splitting up applications in this way?

Haddad: Breaking down a monolithic entity into a set of modular components enables developers to understand better how each component interrelates. If individual processes, events, and information sets are decoupled, they can be reused across several application contexts. When you think about it, an application is an artificial construct that's been foisted on end users by the technology community. Users simply want to accomplish tasks within a particular business context.

Oracle Magazine: Where do portals fit into this scenario?

Haddad: Portals are the superstructure. They represent the high-level scaffolding for constructing a user interface, managing interactions, and integrating business services.

For maximum flexibility, that superstructure should be based on an SOA framework that is driven by XML and Web services. The portal provides a window that connects people, processes, and information to create a unique user experience. For example, during a natural disaster, a portal can provide critical information to coordinate a response effort—monitoring traffic patterns, delivering supplies, dispatching resources, and aggregating information to present operational insight. In a manufacturing setting, you might use a portal to monitor inventory levels and assembly processes up and down a supply chain. A portal is an excellent aggregation point for all of these types of situations.

Oracle Magazine: How do portals enhance collaboration among distributed work teams?

Haddad: Portals have steadily extended their core capabilities over the years to include content and collaboration services. This helps users find the information they need and share it with others. For example, a portal might include a virtual workspace to help loan officers find, organize, and share information so they can process loans more efficiently. These workspaces used to be very limited in their reach, which resulted in a proliferation of mediums to support discrete processes. A mortgage broker might use a file system to store documents, e-mail to deliver loan applications to customers, a Web site to gather additional customer information, and a spreadsheet to monitor the loan approval process.

A portal can unify all these tasks and offer collaboration tools to streamline the loan approval workflow. Loan officers will then have a single place to access and modify documents, check documents in and out of a repository, and work collaboratively to process loans, all without having to use multiple interface mechanisms. As portals become more process-centric, they serve as clearinghouses for managing multiple activities.

David Baum ( ) is a freelance business writer based in Santa Barbara, California.

Burton Group ( ) conducts research and offers consulting services focused exclusively on infrastructure technologies relating to security, identity management, application platforms, and networks.

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