IBM polishes the portal

SAN FRANCISCO (10/17/2003) - IBM Corp. is catching up with traditional portal vendors such as Plumtree Software Inc., thanks to a portal framework that combines a scalable application server, programs from IBM-owned Lotus Development, and homegrown and third-party portlets -- Java-based Web components that make it easy to "plug" new functions into the portal interface.

I tested the latest release, WebSphere Portal for Multiplatforms 5.0, which improves administration, document management, search, and collaboration. Moreover, two included portlet builders (for Domino and SQL) enable business analysts to quickly access and manipulate data in enterprise applications.

In version 5.0, the complex setup in Version 4.2 has been replaced by a much faster, wizard-based install. I had my Version 5.0 application server, DB2 database, and core applications running in about two hours. I then modified my configuration -- adding collaboration, search, developer's tools, and third-party portlets -- without needing to reinstall the base software.

New admin portlets cut my total setup time to under a day. For example, simple forms made it easy to add users to different roles, assign share permissions to pages, and specify content that appeared in a company news portlet.

Another side of customization involves personalizing the system's look and content for each portal user. Version 5.0's reorganized menu bars let me edit my main portal page and add additional pages. With a few clicks, I revised layouts, changed skins, and placed additional portlets on my personal pages.

Significantly, WebSphere Portal 5.0 integrates five common functions that were disjointed in Version 4.2. Lotus Collaboration Center 5.0 combines a people-finder portlet, Lotus Team Workplaces (QuickPlace 3 portlet), Lotus Web Conferencing (Sametime 3 portlet), and Lotus Notes e-mail, calendar, and to-do lists. Now Lotus users can quickly create a portal page with the majority of collaboration options they would normally use. I mainly connect to a Microsoft Exchange server, so I opted for Microsoft Outlook portlets, which facilitated effortless display of my e-mail, calendar, and contacts.

In the Driver's Seat

WebSphere Portal 5.0 isn't just about delivering information through a standard Web browser. By simply checking off an option box when creating a Web page, I automatically transcoded the page into WML (Wireless Markup Language) for WAP-enabled (Wireless Application Protocol) devices or cHTML (Compact HTML) for i-Mode phones. Some portlets have more specialized wireless and offline capabilities for handhelds. For example, the WebSphere Everyplace Access Siebel portlets for the Siebel ePharma application deliver customer account information from the portal to Palm, Pocket PC, or BlackBerry devices.

Beyond permitting subscriptions to syndicated content (such as Moreover, Hoovers, or NewsEdge), WebSphere Portal introduces a new Document Manager that replaces the old Portal Content Manager from Version 4.2. I had no trouble constructing a hierarchy of project folders or creating, indexing, and deciding who could access documents. It was also easy to build a simple approval workflow.

This release also provides basic "on demand" editors for viewing and editing rich text documents, spreadsheets, and presentations within the portal's user interface. These editors probably won't satisfy Microsoft Corp. Office power users, but they should be adequate for routine office tasks, such as editing press releases or updating budgets. A follow-on portal release is expected to include Lotus SmartSuite and other functions such as spell-checking.

Web content publishing tools allow users to contribute information to a site in a simple yet controlled manner. For example, a wizard guided me through building Web page templates for an extranet. Content publishing functions then supervise (based on roles) what content each user can see or change, and coordinate approval and publishing processes. I liked the WebSphere Process Choreographer because its visual interface let me rapidly construct a workflow; the system then alerted users when they had pending approvals and other tasks requiring attention.

Campaign management tools are yet another significant part of tailored content publishing. Using a few forms and English statements, I created a rule that presented a new product page to just those users in a particular marketing role. You can also use campaigns, say, for personalized e-mail.

I was further impressed with WebSphere Portal's usability when creating a portlet that accessed a Microsoft SQL Server 2000 database. The JDBC Builder's straightforward interface showed fields in my database and provided clear descriptions and options for how to display and manipulate the information. Available adapters for PeopleSoft, SAP, and Siebel work much the same way. What's more, IBM's Portlet Writing Tool enabled me to "wire together" two portlets in a few minutes. The result: By clicking on a region of a map graphic in one portlet, the software transferred the information to my custom SQL portlet, which then displayed sales figures for the specified map region.

Taking easy portlet integration an important step further are two new specifications: JSR (Java Specification Request) 168 and WSRP (Web Services for Remote Portals). Soon, portlets written to these standards should work in different vendors' portals and begin to be shared across the Internet. JSR 168 and WSRP were being finalized during my evaluation, so I couldn't test this capability. But a planned fix-pack will allow current WebSphere portlets to be updated to JSR 168 and support new portlets created to this standard.

Although WebSphere Portal competes in a crowded market, its performance, enterprise focus, usability enhancements, and open standards make it a strong challenger to more established products.

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