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2/9/2006
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Give Them What They Want

Company portals with information for every customer are so last year. Personalized portals with mash-ups and other features are the future.

Using IBM's WebSphere to connect to different data sources via a service-oriented architecture approach, Peterson's company has been working to create customized home pages for customers through its portal. These pages are billed as a secure place on the Web to share communications and resources, store documents, and keep track of projects.

Unicco has been working with Cargill to develop a portal, designed specifically for the agribusiness company's employees, to help service four Cargill locations. The site will provide a portfolio-management tool where Cargill personnel can access work orders and asset-management reports.

Unicco gives Gulfstream Aerospace employees a private place where the two companies can work together.

Unicco gives Gulfstream Aerospace employees a private place where the two companies can work together.

(click for larger image)
For Unicco, like Stuart Maue, portals are doors that lead to happy clients. Using the portal with a "certain tier" of Unicco's strategic customers is what sells this to the company's executive team, Peterson says. And it's the users who define the future direction of these custom portals; they will let Unicco give customers "information that they didn't expect," Peterson says.

Taking the best from consumer sites and applying them to enterprise portals isn't a new concept. Back in 1997, software maker Plumtree--recently acquired by BEA Systems--described its portal product as "My Yahoo for corporate content." "We're still borrowing, I think very liberally, from what happens on the consumer Web," says Jay Simons, senior director of marketing for BEA. "Many of the Web 2.0 characteristics and innovations are either directly in our products or planned for our products."

A look at some of the upcoming features planned for BEA's AquaLogic Interaction portal, due out later this year, reveals a number of trendy Web 2.0 features: mash-ups, wikis (sites that let a group of users easily add and remove content), and collaborative tagging (letting users assign category labels to content assets so they can be more efficiently searched and manipulated).

In Praise Of SOAs
But the biggest advance in recent years is that data has become much more portable. As a result, a lot of custom coding and IT work is no longer needed to gather and present information from different systems. Presenting business users with a Web page filled with personalized and relevant enterprise information still isn't easy, but more IT systems are being built to talk to one another in a way that respects compliance obligations such as Sarbanes-Oxley and the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act.

Much of the praise goes to the proliferation of service-oriented architectures, built using standards such as XML that make it easier for applications to talk to one another. "Historically, the hard part has been, how do I get data out of my legacy systems?" says Jay Daugherty, senior director of Oracle Fusion Middleware. "The evolution of service-oriented architectures has mitigated that problem. It has made it a lot easier for customers to expose all of their existing capabilities and leverage their current investments through services."

Data portability is what's behind mash-ups, also known as composite applications because they combine data and functions from two or more programs. "The lines have blurred between a Web site, a portal, and an application, because now we're seeing the emergence of composite applications that are customized," says Chris Lamb, worldwide market manager for IBM WebSphere Portal. "Portals start to be used as the user interface for those composite applications."

Gene Phifer, VP and distinguished analyst with Gartner, notes that providing APIs isn't the same as providing a complete framework to build a mash-up--some programming skill still is required. But he speculates that do-it-yourself apps will get easier in the next year or two. That could mean a whole lot less development and integration work for those creating enterprise portals, and it could get more nontechnical personnel involved in their development.

"Some smart guy in one of those Internet properties is going to come out with a consumer-oriented portal-like capability that will allow consumers to build simplistic mash-ups," he explains. "And when that happens ... what's that going to do to the enterprise portals of the world? Will there be a drive to implement something along those lines for the enterprise?" Phifer also asks what might be the most likely approaches for companies to integrate their portals with outside information sources. "Will there be a mechanism to interoperate?"

Gina Bianchini could be that "smart guy." She, along with Netscape alumnus Marc Andreessen, co-founded Ning.com, a free online service for the building of socially oriented mash-ups. Its most notable virtue is that nonprogrammers can use it to create real Web applications. Bianchini, the company's CEO, says that while Ning is focused on the consumer market, she expects business users will benefit from the efforts of her company and like-minded developers.

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