Portals, Portals Everywhere

By Allen Bernard

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Like the service provider industry itself, portals have been developing rapidly over the past two years, evolving from basic browser-like access windows to workspaces that offer a wide range of content and functionality. Everything from the weather to single-sign-on access to all the applications an employee needs everyday can be positioned within a portal. All this makes the technology as potentially confusing as it powerful.

"The portal provides that integration for the user by allowing them to work with all these applications as if they were one virtual application," said Mark Sochan, vice president of Business Development at the newly formed SAP business group, SAP Portals. "And that's really the core to the value proposition that corporate portals bring to enterprise worker; they can now collaborate in a way that wasn't possible before."

Betting portals will become very popular very soon, SAP purchased portal developer Top Tier Software in June and formed SAP Portals so it can enter the market with its own enterprise product.

The Ever-Changing Portal
Like the service provider industry they may help nudge towards profitability, portals have been poorly understood because they take so many forms. Everything from MyYahoo! to even the most rudimentary view into an application has been and is being termed a portal.

"Everybody all of sudden was a port," Tracy Ryan, Citrix's senior product evangelist of portal products, said. "It does make the space a little bit difficult to understand."

Enter the Portal of Today
The technology being offered today by portal vendors like Plumtree, Epicentric and Citrix goes far beyond early examples of portal technology. Once just a place to view sports scores, your stock picks and check an additional email account or two, portals are now complete access points that incorporate outside applications into their view through the use of application programming interfaces (APIs) know as portlets, or gadgets, said Chris Penner, Plumtree's director of Channel Alliances Group.

What these APIs allow application developers to do is place application access points on the same page that delivers syndicated content, email, corporate news and other applications such as vendor inventory lists and search engines. This then gives the employee a single place from which to work all day long. And, depending on the portal vendor, employees need only sign on once to get access to all their applications.

"It gives the ASP the flexibility, the ability to give superior results but at the same time be able to change out software components and new services easier," Larry Bowden, IBM's vice president of Portal Strategies, said. "Now you can use portlets as flexible componentry to construct the glass ... an environment."

Service providers, especially ASPs, need to understand the importance of this new technology to their overall delivery strategy, said Todd Johnson, Jamcracker's vice president of Marketing.

"Today, Jamcracker is just an access portal," says Johnson. "You come to us to get access to applications and to our support channel. Ultimately, Jamcracker changes from being an access portal to being a workspace ... when you live inside this window instead of just come here to launch (applications)."

Two years ago "all you needed was Citrix," agreed Plumtree's Penner.

By January 2002, Jamcracker will have completed its transition to an Epicentric-supplied portal interface for all its solutions. When this happens, the company can then offer its customers a workspace instead of a point of access, Johnson said.

Or, as Dirig Software did with its new Express V3.0 managed services enablement software, a software developer can use portals to give end customers the same access to information as the MSP staff that is fielding the software to manage client applications and networks.

"What this does is not only bring the customer a little closer to the ASP and validates that their SLA (service level agreement) is being met," Frank Moreno, Dirig's product marketing manager, said. "It's actually an additional revenue stream for the MSP where they can provide a premium SLA and upsell it to their customers."

Customers Headed for Portals
For application-layer management service provider SevenSpace, incorporating a customer-facing portal was integral to its strategy from day one - 16 months ago, Brian Winter, SevenSpace's senior vice president of Business Development and Marketing, told ASPnews. The company also uses the same portal to keep its partners in the loop.

"Another key aspect of having the portal early was building trust with the customer," Winter said. "It's a very, very strong mechanism for being able to say to customers that you have visibility and views into the exact same data."

The Portal As a Product
ASPs need to also be aware of portals as products in and of themselves. This is because most companies do not currently use portal technology to tie their myriad applications, intranets and extranets together. ASPs offering portals add additional value to their services. By offering solutions through a portal that bundles all a company's solutions into one point of access, ASPs can further simplify employees' lives - always a good selling point.

"What the portal provides is the ability to choose best of breed (solutions), combine them through portal technology and deliver to customers the end result," Bill Brown, Citrix's senior director of Corporate Development, said.

This gives ASPs an edge with companies struggling to get the most of their IT investments, Johnson said. "It's really the merger of the internal company homepage, plus the company intranet, plus the core application that I use, plus the three most important things off the MyYahoo! page."

Perhaps what makes portals the most difficult to comprehend is the speed at which the technology is, once again, changing the way ASPs and their service provider brethren must approach the market, says Winter.

"Twelve months ago portals were not required by customers to be able to provide the types of services we offer today," says Winter. "Going forward it's absolutely critical and a requirement of any engagement with any customer to have a portal."

Editor's note: This story first appeared on ASPNews.com, an internet.com site.