Enterprise portals

What they are:

Most people are familiar with the portals offered by big Web names such as Yahoo! and Amazon. These and similar Websites aim to act as entrance ways and guidance systems to the Internet. Enterprise portals fulfil much the same role for companies.

When the Internet first became user-friendly in the early 1990s – and became the World Wide Web, with hyperlinked documents enabling users to navigate the wealth of information people were uploading – Web surfers needed methods of locating information. Finding out exactly what information was available and what sites were worth visiting was a problem, so a handful of users started to put their bookmarks onto a kind of indexing site. Yahoo! lead the way, and before long users were hitting the hobby site in their thousands to find out what was new or exciting on the Web. Netscape formalised this with the inclusion of a search engine, and before long, many of these sites also had news, weather, financial information and had become portals – gateways to the Web.

How they work:
Research group Ovum identifies five kinds of portal. These are:

  • Public web portals, such as the big Web names Yahoo!, Excite and Alta Vista. These are designed to help find information or provide a range of services.
  • Specialised portals, such as those provided by application service providers.
  • Enterprise portals. Ovum defines these as corporate gateways, which are designed to assist a company’s business partners, suppliers, customers and, critically, its employees.
  • Knowledge portals – designed to improve employee effectiveness by sharing intellectual capital within a company.
  • Marketspace portals. These are designed to support e-commerce.

According to Ovum, the enterprise portal is a ‘single, coherent, integrated portal that presents its users with all the information they need to carry out their jobs’. Ovum principal consultant David Wells says: ‘In other words, a workspace portal is the user interface you always wanted, but never had.’

At the simple level, a portal site for a company starts by asking who the user is – employee, customer, supplier or even auditor – and will then guide them to the appropriate area of the site. Modern systems can recognise users and do this automatically.

The user can then interact with the host company, and, ideally, should be able to perform any transaction they want. Employees might examine terms and conditions, book holidays, check company news or increase their pension payments; customers could check order status, current discounts or account details; and suppliers might monitor inventory or submit invoices.

Because portals are based on established Web technology, they ought to be easy to put together. In practice, getting ordered information and documentation from and for each department and user – and more especially, linking the portal in to legacy systems – is likely to prove difficult.

What’s creating the move towards portals? Partly, it’s demand-pull from managers who want easier ways to get at the growing amounts of information both on their company and third-party systems. Partly, it’s technology push, with a range of eight key services – the portal mix – that technology can now provide. These are:

  • Personalisation: which means that users can tailor the information they receive.
  • Search and navigation: making it easy to find the information you want.
  • Push technology: especially useful for portals that are designed as ‘corporate dashboards’ where a manager needs a constant flow of updated information.
  • Collaboration: not just a way of finding knowledge but also of sharing it.
  • Task automation and workflow: which cuts out tedious clerical procedures.
  • New corporate applications: which are integrated and easy to use.
  • Infrastructure: which should be able to provide security and reliability, as well as scalability. Technology is now able to make portals a reality for large numbers of workers.
  • Systems integration: which enables IT departments to pull together information from different sources and integrate it in ways which are useful but which were previously difficult or impossible.

Although enterprise portals offer considerable payback, there are dangers, and Wells warns that there are no ready-made solutions. ‘Opinions vary about how much of the work vendors can do for a company – and an easy solution is still years away,’ he says. ‘Companies that try to build portals on their own could take years to finish the job and end up with a portal that is out of date.’

Who to call:
Wells’ advice is to look before you leap. ‘Choose your supplier carefully – picking and installing a portal is not like deciding which office suite to buy,’ he says. ‘Most require a dedicated server or servers, and some back-end plumbing for accessing existing applications and data.’

And the main players? There are currently hundreds if you believe the marketing hype – practically every software vendor is using the words ‘enterprise portal’, but you should look for players in three sections of the market.

Among the giants: IBM/Lotus and Oracle. In the mid-market, SAP and Sybase. Niche players are Plumtree, Hummingbird and Viador. And don’t forget Microsoft.

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