Portals: Coming to a Suite Near You

By Clint Boulton

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Ask Web-savvy people what a portal is and they'll typically tell you it's a place where users access information through a unified dashboard, as opposed to multiple sites.

Ask the same people for an example, and typically, they'll tell you Yahoo! . They'd be right on both counts. But major software vendors are also happy to tell you: There's so much more to portals these days -- and likely more to come in the future.

The Yahoo-like portal of yore has taken on a new life in the enterprise, primarily as a suite where users can gather and store a variety of work-related information and react to it.

"Portals have grown well beyond their original use as simple gateways to information and content," said Gartner Research Vice President Gene Phifer. "Portals are as much a destination as a gateway, providing built-in search, content management and collaborative functionality."

A number of major software vendors, including IBM, BEA, Oracle, and Microsoft , have begun offering more sophisticated portal technologies. In essense, they offer collaboration tools, such as e-mail, instant messaging, content management and more.

Phifer explained that portals today consist of "engines," the component that handles the user interface, presentation services, personalization and user integration, but claimed these don't quite cut it for modern enterprise portals.

"The portal engine must run on a reliable execution environment (an application server). Portals that robustly access line-of-business (LOB) applications typically use integration suites," Phifer said. "Portals almost always have search, content and collaboration features. So, when an enterprise deploys a portal, it is deploying the portal ecosystem, or a large portion of it. The fast path to a portal ecosystem is through a suite, or combination of suites."

Some suites for the sweet
Phifer said portals can essentially be broken down into three main categories: application portal suite (APS), smart enterprise suite (SES) and the next-generation APS/SES combination vendor. The APS is a few notches above the simple portal as a basic user interface model. It involves the provision of an application server of some sort. Phifer said BEA and Sybase are classic examples of APS providers.

The SES, offered by such firms as Plumtree, Hummingbird and Vignette, offers whole different levels of capabilities: search, classification, content management, collaboration, business intelligence and workflow, to name several. With these, workers can not only access important information about companies, but chat or hold online meetings with colleagues or partners. Think of it as being in a room full of 50 people, all accessing and working with the same project at once -- but in reality the people would be spread all over the world.

The APS/SES combo, which he said will be led by IBM, SAP and Sun Microsystems, to name a few, will encompass the runtime environment of an application server coupled with the collaboration and business intelligence aspects of the SES.

No longer just a dashboard view to role-based access to content and applications, portals now lend the infrastructure to "build communities, shared team environments, and communication and collaboration environments between an enterprise and its customers, suppliers, distributors, trading partners and design partners," according to Phifer.

"Users are tired of buying individual, third-party applications and these best-of-breed point solutions," Phifer said. "They're tired of the lack of integration. Users are clamoring for the ability to pull information from one source instead of five different applications. Vendors are looking to add value, to build up functionality of their products, and so we're seeing many features, such as knowledge management and content management dropping into the portal itself."

Laura Ramos, an analyst at Forrester Research who watches the portal market closely, largely concurred with Phifer. She agreed that the portal market has evolved in the past four to five years. She agreed on the notion of the APS as a system where Web-based applications are built using a portal as the front end and said collaboration needs to play more important role in portals going forward.

An APS, a SES and an combo vendor
Naturally, vendors found plenty to agree and even disagree with about Phifer's portal positioning. Representatives from all three approaches -- BEA for APS, Plumtree for SES, and IBM for the combo APS/SES -- all shared their thoughts with internetnews.com.

The case for BEA as an APS is simple. As the other giant application server provider to IBM, BEA doesn't see the mighty demand for the SES the way others do.

"We're not aware of end users asking for an SES by name right now," said BEA spokesperson Patrick O'Rourke, who largely agrees with Phifer's assessment of the portal market. "Analysts from Giga, Forrester and AMR have similar thoughts about portal consolidation or portal suites. However, these firms would debate Gartner over the packaging, functionality, timing and demand models."

But, O'Rourke, who said the world can expect a new WebLogic Portal this summer, promised that BEA's WebLogic Platform already enables customers to reap the benefits of a SES: it is comprised of BEA's application server, portal solution, integration solution, development environment and Java Virtual Machine.

"Gartner defines an SES as providing simplicity and cost savings through the integration of components," he said. "BEA WebLogic Platform's unified architecture drives convergence of these same components. The next version of BEA WebLogic Portal, version 8.1 due in the summer, will help drive the convergence of SES components via a unified architecture."

"We look at the portal as an interface for user integration and interaction," O'Rourke said. "An enterprise portal simplifies, personalizes, and lowers the cost of customer, partner and employee access to information, applications and business processes."

Phifer said BEA's portal strategy has progressed with its WebLogic Workshop 8.0, but that it still has some gaps to fill en route to becoming a SES.

For a peek at what Plumtree, IBM, and Microsoft are planning for portals, please turn to Page 2.Plumtree is a different entity. It has the distinction of being a former pure portal player, according to Laura Ramos, an analyst at Forrester Research who tracks the portal market. The firm evolved with the market and today it enjoys a broad, devout customer base and reputation for rapid deployment, she said.

Plumtree spokesperson Karilu Pozorksi said Plumtree agrees with the distinction Gartner makes between SES and APS, but not with its predictions about which group will own the market.

Gartner, she said, believes that customers will opt for the convenience of one-stop shopping, purchasing their entire Web software technologies based on their application server preferences, driving the portal and supporting services into the infrastructure stack. Pozorski said there are problems with that assessment, namely that many companies are unwilling or unable to create homogenous environments where they must use one app server and one programming language.

"Homogeneity may be a vision or strategy for many companies, but it is not a practical reality," Pozorksi said. "Heterogeneity is key."

She also said existing technology investments may also hinder the one-stop shopping approach. "The vendors who are building on their proprietary app server or targeted application package are much less likely to provide an open platform where companies can centralize and integrate competing products. Is PeopleSoft really going to build and support portal integration for SAP software?"

Plumtree's vision is one of an "Enterprise Web," where vendors who can offer both solid functionality and the ability to run on multiple kinds of infrastructure will be a hit with customers. The company will soon make available a Plumtree Enterprise Web Suite, which is its next major step in the effort to re-invent the portal market around the Enterprise Web. The culmination of three years of development, this suite will feature new versions of just about every major Plumtree product.

"Plumtree really understands what customers do with the portals," said Forrester's Ramos. "They have some of the largest, most successful implementation. They're not going away because they keep meeting customers' demands. Without them, the portal would be UI [user interface on top of other peoples' middleware and application suite."

IBM, meanwhile, is an example of the combination approach. It has an application server in WebSphere, plus a multitude of integration technologies accumulated through mergers and acquisitions, as well as in-house development, said Tim Thatcher, program director for IBM Portals.

"It means the portal is more than just a pretty face," Thatcher said. "The path from APS to SES has really led to a hybrid [APS/SES combo]. By no means have we reached the steady state where large enterprise have invested in portals. The underlying technology hasn't changed but the ease of use and installation has improved tremendously. It's like the VCR years ago. For the first 3 or 4 years, you had to program it when you bought it. Now, with new tweaks and enhancements, a lot of that is already pre-programmed."

Using instant messaging via a portal, for example, one looking at a sales report might be able to chat with a corresponding sales representative simply by clicking on his or her name on the screen, as opposed to sifting through a buddy list. This would extend to e-mail, calendars, etc.

But Gartner's Phifer said that while IBM leads the pack in many categories, they don't lead on the ease of installation. "IBM's WebSphere portal continues to require a greater-than-average amount of effort to install, build and deploy." However, he said IBM has improved that with its WebSphere Portal Express offering.

Thatcher said the future of portals is pointing to a "more integrated user experience." Thatcher expects the IBM, and portal segment at large, to employ even greater integration in the future, but wouldn't tip off IBM's hand further. However, it's a sure bet that Big Blue's on-demand focus will have an impact on how it crafts, deploys and markets its portals going forward.

"The portal is the on-ramp to on-demand e-business," Thatcher said.

But word has leaked that IBM Software and its Lotus Software Group have built J2EE-based spreadsheet, document and presentation graphics "applications" that will be bundled for free with the company's WebSphere portal, which sources say could appear later this summer.

Microsoft rising
It's fair to talk about BEA, Plumtree and IBM in the same breath because they are all market leaders, according to Phifer. But Microsoft, too, is looking to penetrate the APS/SES market segment, as it more or less created an application server with its Windows .NET Server release and its pending Microsoft Office SharePoint Portal Server 2003 would seem to be a strong showing.

The company could not respond to questions in time for this report, but the company has released a wealth of information about what the new SharePoint entails on the heels of its heralded Windows Server 2003 release.

Available later this year, SharePoint will integrate information from line-of-business systems into one environment and make it possible for users to access information from enterprise applications using single sign-on access. Windows SharePoint Services will allows folks with a Web browser to create and access workspaces for managing documents, discussions, lists, surveys and other contextual information such as team member status and presence.

"It acts as a main hub for the Office System desktop, making it simple and powerful for users throughout the organization to get information..." said said Jeff Teper, general manager of the Business Portals Group at Microsoft, in a public statement.

Ramos said Microsoft's strategy for Version 2.0 is to be more like IBM, with collaboration features built on top of Windows Sharepoint services. She noted Microsoft's approach is for a desktop outward view to their portal framework. And, like IBM, Phifer said Microsoft still has some gaps to close, including integration, personalization and multiple portal management.

What the future holds
Phifer has some prognostications for the future of the portal market.

"By 2005, more than 85 percent of portal frameworks will be sold via an APS, SES or APS/SES combination. The APS-only variety of portal products will be a very small segment of the market, and will eventually evolve to an APS/SES combination. One example of this evolution is BEA Systems, an APS-only vendor. Its strategy is to eventually become an APS/SES combination vendor. By 2007, more than 95 percent of portal frameworks will be sold via an SES or APS/SES combination."

Phifer said this will be accompanied by push to a new era of composite applications, which will consume services delivered by line-of-business applications and collaborative components. More mature Web services, he said, will play a part in the evolution.

"Portals will be the standard user interface for many mobile devices, interactive voice response systems, kiosks, automobiles and consumer electronics devices. Enterprises must identify the kinds of portals that their users will access and provide an infrastructure to deal with multiple channels of interaction. Even enterprises that currently have no need to provision a nontraditional portal will be forced to do so in the near future as device proliferation, driven by third-generation (3G) wireless devices, takes hold."

"Five years down the road, I see an adaptive workspace, where portals anticipate in middleware context what the user needs to do," Ramos said. "Some of technology will include pattern matching, collaboration and filtering, online awareness. These are the type of things that will come together at the operating system that, as someone interacts with the system, they can plug in and ID card and the system is aware."

But unlike Phifer, who sees best-of-breed evaporating for the most part, Ramos predicted firms will either use suite approaches or the best-of-breed approaches. "There will be more competition and streamlining. It's hard to tell, but there is almost always a pendulum shift between suites and best of breed. Who knows? Maybe we will get to a point in Web services and standards where we can implement best-of-breed products into the suites."