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2/9/2006
04:20 PM
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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.



To get an idea of the future of business portals, take a look at what Amazon.com, eBay, Google, and Yahoo are doing.

They have embraced openness and data portability, and they're letting users choose their own content. Visitors can build personalized Web pages, bringing in data from various sources throughout the Internet. And these companies have opened up their APIs to let others gain access to their content. One result is so-called mash-ups, where a programmer might take traffic information from one consumer site, map data from a different site, and combine it into a new and useful mash-up site for commuters.

My Yahoo has helped drive the power of personal portals.

My Yahoo has helped drive the power of personal portals.

(click for larger image)
These techniques are being translated to the business world. But instead of Web pages that aggregate traffic information, sports scores, online news, and photo sharing, the users of next-gen business portals can look forward to information tailored to their professional needs, which might include RSS feeds or graphs of operational metrics that have been both pushed and pulled from corporate data sources. "The integration technology, the 'mash-up' stuff, is something that [businesspeople] are starting to demand more and more because they can do it in their personal lives," says Rebecca Wettemann, a VP at market-research group Nucleus Research.

Hard To Grasp
Giving customers what they want is always good business, but personalization within portals still is a difficult concept for many companies to grasp. In many cases, a customer or employee portal is a Web site that presents information and provides tunnels into other data sources but falls short of combining and presenting information in a way that saves people time or imparts new knowledge.

People need to think differently about how various data sources within a company can be used together and even combined with outside data sources to provide better information for customers. It requires work and investment in new approaches and technologies, such as Web services and portal-development tools.

Stuart Maue, a firm that audits legal bills for businesses and provides online legal-bill invoicing, has upgraded its portal to include personalization and a flexibility that's more in line with the consumer portal approach. Brad Maue, the firm's CTO and VP of IT, likens the portal to the user experience of Yahoo's My Yahoo. "The content is alive and changing, and you define what's in there," Maue says. "It's a lot more dynamic and fun and entertaining to look at."

Portlets within the portal, which is served up on a Linux/Apache Web server, gather data from the firm's HP-Unix transactional database or data warehouse or its Oracle Projects 10g-based legal-case-management system. TCP/IP is used for almost everything, although occasionally WebDAV services--which enable collaborative editing and managing of files on remote Web servers--are used for publishing content from graphics applications, among others.

This all adds up to helping the firm better service clients, Maue says. By viewing multiple pieces of information simultaneously, an auditor can see noncompliant billing entries and a budget portlet on a single page, at which point an abusive billing pattern could emerge, Maue says.

Customers are provided with software tools to build ad hoc templates for bill reports--a big improvement over the previous method of porting billing data to a spreadsheet to build reports. They can bring information from other parts of the Internet, including third-party E-mail, into their custom Web pages. "The possibilities are limitless in that you can populate whatever you want into these portlets, and if you want an RSS feed from an external source, you can do that," Maue says.

People love the new look and feel, Maue says. "The actual ROI is very hard to get a handle on. I see it as a client-retention thing," he says. The more helpful online services the firm can provide, "the less likely our clients will be to seek out other vendors."

Happy Customers
At Unicco Service, a facilities-management company, CIO Jeff Peterson says clients haven't been shy about what they want online. "I have what I would call an overwhelming customer demand to start to bundle more things into the portal for building a knowledge center with the customers," he says.



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.



"I absolutely believe that there's going to be more and more power put into the hands of individuals at companies," she says in an E-mail. "We're working right now on ways to eliminate the need to code anything in creating and customizing apps. This isn't easy to do, technically or from a user-experience perspective, but we think that we have a compelling approach that will make a huge difference in achieving this goal."

JotSpot has a similar online platform for application development, and its wiki applications already are competitive with packaged portal software. JotSpot's do-it-yourself project-management, calendaring, call-center support, and document-collaboration apps may not be ideal for massive global companies with complex requirements, but they can do the job for smaller companies and for individuals or teams in all sorts of organizations.

What's Ahead
That's not to say that BEA, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, and Vignette, along with less-well-known players like Hummingbird, OpenText, and Tibco, won't continue to play big roles. Middleware remains a necessity to coordinate, connect, and enhance various enterprise systems. "Portal technology is used more broadly than deploying MyCompany.com; it's now a framework for building a number of different applications," BEA's Simons says.

But leading providers of portal-development and application software have some thinking to do as portal technology becomes commoditized and the software industry matures. "Everybody has kind of been consolidated down into a couple of big, traditionally infrastructure players like IBM, BEA, Oracle, and SAP," says Tamara Alairys, global lead for Accenture's content-management practice. "A couple of years ago, there were so many more of these products. They've all been pushed down the stack into the infrastructure space."

"There is this tendency to move away from portal platforms and just roll your own," observes Carl Frappaolo, executive VP and co-founder of the Delphi Group, an IT consulting firm. "The portal no longer requires a portal product. You can start building these [using] service-oriented architectures, Web content management, and a certain amount of functionality from a larger platform like an IBM or a Microsoft."

One reason for this is the high price of packaged portal technologies. Software vendors are "trying to extract every dollar out of the software that they're selling, and if you want the portal piece, it's X dollars plus maintenance," says Thomas Obrey, chief operating officer and co-founder of Web-development and technology consulting company PixelMedia. "If you want the API to push and pull data, that's yet another piece."

The move to so-called Web 2.0 and the concept of these little miniature applets is starting to cause companies to question the traditional approaches to CRM, ERP, and even data-warehousing apps, Obrey says. "It's a fundamental shift at the enterprise level of how you even view applications and how those applications are shared," he says.

For a businessperson, that means the Web browser will play the main role in information sharing and retrieval. "What we're seeing in our practice is that the portal is becoming the virtual desktop," Alairys says. "It's everything from delivery of everyday content to really providing access to integrated applications. And that's where the big bang is, being able to allow an end user to create this customized desktop or have it driven by their role."

The shift to a user-driven paradigm is likely to pose a challenge to IT departments. "End users love to do things on their own," Gartner's Phifer says. He envisions situations where businesspeople decide to build their own portals for their jobs, creating pressure on the IT department to roll out company-authorized custom portals faster and more cheaply than employees can do on their own. Yet it will require more such capabilities in personalized portal development than what's now on the market. "I'm talking more than My Yahoo here," Phifer says.

If that sounds like a revolution, it is. Users are demanding control and starting to get it. As Obrey puts it, "People need to start moving toward a simplification of tools that puts the power in the hands of the casual users and the administrators who are ultimately responsible for the experience the constituents have." And it can mean good news for businesses, too, once their employees finally get what they most want and need from online data sources.

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