Portals innovate in face of Web apps

Companies are asking for more functionality in portals, says BEA Systems Inc., but web-enabled enterprise applications are making portal software vendors work harder for their money.

The solution for BEA encompasses integration, enabling the applications accessed by the portal to work more closely together, flexibility in tailoring a portal to cater for its particular audience, and the ability to reuse components. These capabilities, says BEA's Dan Tortorici, will ensure there is continued payback for businesses in running a portal, particularly if they have a large number of applications.

Tortorici, senior product marketing manager at BEA's California head office, here to talk with government department officials, says integration is no longer just about bringing together applications and information into a common access front end. It's about enabling the portal to reflect the relationship of those applications as part of the business processes, "what Gartner calls 'process portals' and Forrester 'composite portals'."

For example, a passport office might use a composite portal to handle the process of making up and delivering a passport. All the various checks that have to be performed would have their applications, connected in a workflow with checkpoints.

If at any point it became evident that the passport would be too late for the customer's planned date of travel, the staffer operating through a composite portal should be able to switch to the workflow leg that seeks approval from the customer to "fast-track" the document, probably at a premium charge.

Personalization in the mid-1990s was all about presenting different combinations of available applications and databases for different functions in the organization and prettying up the user interface. Tortorici says.

There was considerable debate about how effective this was in return on investment to the user organization. With more intelligent handling of workflow and application relationships, there can be a deeper-reaching personalization which really impacts efficiency, he says.

Components such as security that are implemented separately in each web-enabled application can be provided instead in the portal as a single instance across the whole repertoire of applications. This was a trend that started with single sign-on and which can be sensibly extended to other common functions.

The latest version of BEA's WebLogic portal management suite embodies a framework for the development of portals around a standard template. This incorporates stages like application development ---- architecture, development of templates, assembly of pages and collections of pages built around these templates into complete portals and post implementation management.

This should help reflect a consistency in look and feel and a logic of workflow to the user obliges to deal with, say, several government departments. He remarks on the heterogeneous look of New Zealand government agencies once a user has navigated through the portal.

Tortorici says he appreciates the political dimensions of individual decision-making and accountability of departmental executives which often bedevils "all-of-government" efforts; but the flexibility of a suite like BEA's should enable sharing an consistency of design and functionality to just the degree required and no more.

Components of a portal can be devised by one business unit within or outside the company and "published" by a number of other units in the manner now familiar from Web services and other component schemes.

One of BEA's moves to ease businesses into more capable portal designs is a partnership with consultancy Accenture and HP, announced last month.

The companies' joint "e-commerce and portal rationalization package" will draw upon Accenture's experience in Java-based Web operations and HP's application services expertise.

Computerworld asked BEA's Tortorici who would be filling the gap for Accenture in New Zealand, since the company withdrew from this market two years ago.

"Do they not have a presence in New Zealand?" he asked, clearly surprised. "I can't say what we'd do about that here, then," he added quickly. "Partnerships are not part of my responsibility."

He asked: "HP services are still here, I take it?", sounding a bit anxious. We reassured him that the international computer industry hadn't abandoned New Zealand to quite that extent.

Accenture still has a presence in Australia.

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