As Published In
Oracle Magazine
September/October 2009

COMMENT: Analyst’s Corner

Portals Unbound

By David Baum

Portals enable an evolving web of social interactions to boost productivity.

Oracle Magazine spoke with Jim Murphy, a research director at AMR Research, about the changing face of portal technology and the implications of the intersection of social networking with enterprise computing.

Oracle Magazine: What does the word “portal” mean to today’s businesses?

Murphy: The IT audience thinks of a portal as a unified point of access to applications and information systems. In addition to handling security and identity management, portals include a Web development platform for building applications from “portlets"—mini applications and mashups, if you will —and deploying them to end users.

Companies see portals in terms of the range of applications they want to deploy, or as a practical way to enable certain business functions. They want to improve the productivity of the workforce. And in some cases, they want to extend the usefulness of their enterprise applications and information. They also use portals as mechanisms to consolidate and exchange information. Meanwhile, users generally think of a portal as a customer-facing Web site. They see the front end, but they aren’t always aware of all the things a portal does behind the scenes.

Oracle Magazine: How is portal technology changing to accommodate Web 2.0 concepts?

Murphy: Portals are moving from something tangible and demonstrable, like a specific Web site, to an abstract point of access. In other words, while portals employ Web-based technologies, access isn’t necessarily embodied in a Web browser. Today’s portals are better seen as virtual points of presence, accessible from any interface, system, device, or application that happens to sit in front of the user. The scope of these portals is also expanding as they tie in related technologies such as content management, search, and collaboration. These portals are not only an end-user’s doorway to the enterprise but increasingly the enterprise’s doorway to the end user. As companies create portals for customers and partners, they open up doorways to an enormous range of other constituencies as well.

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At AMR, we refer to these more abstract portals as “unbound portals” to describe their evolution beyond mere browser-based interfaces. An unbound portal includes three common denominators: presence, identity, and convergence. Presence refers to sophisticated, pervasive presence capabilities that allow you to manage other organizations’ and individuals’ access to you—by constituency, communication channel, application, and location. Identity means the unbound portal requires a more authoritative, consistent, complete, reusable, and especially secure notion of identity. Convergence is the ability of portal users to communicate and collaborate in one place.

Oracle Magazine: How do Web 2.0 capabilities help drive adoption and use of a portal?

Murphy: Some organizations integrate their portals with a social networking platform or build a social networking platform using some type of expert identification platform. More-conservative organizations sometimes prohibit employees from using social networking sites because they believe that they won’t have adequate control of employees’ time or that they’ll encourage casual interactions that will reduce productivity among the workforce. However, with the right security and identity management framework in place—and if it’s driven by well-understood business policies—these social networking conventions can help people work together and collaborate more effectively. Certainly some companies use Twitter and Facebook to help promote their companies.

The question here is, how do we harness these same types of technologies to allow employees to work together in more-productive ways? How do we mitigate the use of these networks and channel their capabilities for business use? Of course, this is not an entirely new idea. The idea of a knowledge network has been around for a good 15 years at least. But today’s portal efforts are pushing the envelope in new ways. 

David Baum ( a freelance business writer based in Santa Barbara, California, is a frequent contributor to Oracle Magazine.

AMR Research provides subscription advisory services and peer networking opportunities to operations and IT executives in the consumer products, life sciences, manufacturing, and retail sectors. Jim Murphy covers knowledge management, content management, enterprise portal technology, search and retrieval, e-learning, and collaboration technologies.

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