Passing through the data doorway

Portals are a top-of-mind technology in education. At a conference on the subject in Auckland this month, representatives of several educational institutions joined the crowd of nearly 100.

Portals are a top-of-mind technology in education. At a conference on the subject in Auckland this month, representatives of several educational institutions joined the crowd of nearly 100.

The University of Auckland’s Boru Kagho took the stand to present the case – with caveats – for developing a standard information access platform for the groups its 10-month-old portal caters for: students, admin staff, faculty and alumni. Educational portals integrate registry data, HR, class information and the like in a personalised form, says Massey academic Scott Overmyer. Luckily, universities being the way they are in matters of intellectual sharing, he says, some, like Arizona State University (ASU), have put their whole portal project documentation online.

Also at the conference were IT executives of banks, government agencies and other large organisations. Why were they there? Prevailing wisdom in the industry is that such projects can sneak in under the IT budget wire, often being driven by business units that haven’t suffered a freeze on development funding. John Kunze, San Francisco-based chief of portal software specialist Plumtree, says as well as zero budget increases IT heads are seeing their networks being populated by numerous applications and sprawling intranet sites. Kunze, who spoke to Computerworld earlier this month, says in the face of this they spot blue sky in the form of browser-fronted portals incorporating collaboration apps that open the company up to customers and partners in a secure and controlled fashion.

For relatively little spending, the returns are often large and visible. These may be the “low-hanging fruit” – a phrase that was uttered at least twice – such as web forms replacing brochures. But by building a “comprehensive access layer”, as ACC executive Jeffrey Cornwell calls the portal infrastructure, other applications and services can be added later. You may have to build or buy specialised apps such as calendars or chat, as the ASU documentation notes, though the larger vendors are busy building or buying themselves comprehensive product stacks. These typically include web and application servers, content management, authentication, search tools, classification engines and content catalogues.

The big question: why?

Many large local organisations run legacy applications that perform their function but contain potentially valuable information that can’t be accessed by other means. Portals are, like enterprise application integration (EAI) tools, a way of providing access to that previously tied-up data. A portal, for example, could front-end a CRM suite and expose the most valuable customer data to the right people in the organisation, or those notoriously unapproachable ERP interfaces. Aggregating applications, back-end systems, services and content into a personalised window may be enough to swing the argument, but couple this with web services and EAI and portals could be the answer to most of your business process and systems integration needs.

Alongside the benefits sits another decision-aiding reality: portal technology has reached a certain level of maturity. Plumtree, for example, boasts that its customers can have a working system in three months, thanks to the four years the company put into building integration components and development kits. While the larger vendors -- IBM, Microsoft, CA, Sun, Oracle -- promise all you could ever want, the pure-plays argue that it's harder for the big boys to integrate products outside their stacks, particularly given the Java-.Net divide. Analysts say while the pure plays seem to understand what business users need, the large infrastructure vendors tout scalability and the ability to draw business logic into the portal to reuse it through the enterprise.

The range of vendors now in the market and the range of unique customer requirements further complicate the process. “Selecting a portal package is among the hardest product-selection decisions [an enterprise] will make,” says Gartner research director Ray Valdes.

A case in point

Farmers Trading Co is some way along in the process.

A portal’s about knowledge management, says Farmers business information manager Peter Burggraaff. It’s about monitoring performance and business activity and “meaningful communication”. It brings together process, organisation and technology, says Burggraaff, a recent arrival from Europe.

The $340 million retailer has 4000 employees in 71 stores, though the key to any portal will initially involve the 300 in the support centre as well as suppliers and customers.

Suppliers are the largest part of the B2B component of the future portal. At present content (invoices, delivery requirements, contracts) is transmitted via mediums such as EDI and web, post and courier, fax and phone, and in person. In the B2C part, catalogues, promotions and orders are exchanges with customers via the stores, direct marketing, the web and other means. As for B2E, employees need access to promotional information and regular price changes, vacancies and internal messages, as well as business performance data. This will take the place of notice boards and “huge” spreadsheets. The portal will have to integrate with Lotus Notes email.

A portal must make communication between people and systems more efficient, says Burggraaff. To do this the company must optimise searching and interpretation of information. Systems support can be minimised if Farmers can cut the number of places people have to look for data, he says. It operates 15 business systems on four platforms. “It’s a pretty scary environment at the moment,” he says.

It’s difficult to define one common view, he says. Despite some commonalities, employees want a “task” portal, customers want multichannel access but one “Farmers”, and a supplier portal should integrate their business and optimise their behaviour.

Farmers wants all the usual functionality, personalisation, collaboration, security and the like, and is particularly keen on gathering both structured and unstructured data in the same place. It will start from its core systems and create a central data store with common definitions, and consider EAI tools to glue everything into one view.

Burggraaff is finding challenges in the task. Funding is non-existent. He has also found that older legacy systems abound in New Zealand, whereas modern ERP systems are more common in Europe.

Vendors are yet to be chosen but most important, whether best of breed or total solution, is that open standards are used. Burggraaff says business units are already doing “portal-like” activity because they need it to do their job. Up to 20 people are likely to be involved, with perhaps eight actively. Implementation partners may be considered. The business intelligence staff – six people – are likely to be big users, he says.

Generally, says Arizona State University, portals feature:

- customised views and links for each individual

- authentication of individual users and a presentation based on the user's authorities/role

- access from any computer with a web browser

- the ability for an institution to push messages and services to target audiences

and often

- access to enterprise data

- communication tools (fro example, calendars, email, chat groups, threaded discussions).

As selection drivers, research firm Meta Group adds

- Integration ability with vital enterprise apps

- Querying and navigation

- Development capabilities

Watch out for the following, says University of Auckland portal project manager Boru Kagho:

- Alignment with overall IT strategy

- The need to cope with a plethora of apps, OSes and systems

- Automatically picking a vendor who provides, say, content management

- Vendor viability

- Check what you’ve done in the past, so you can see where you’re going in future

Resources:

Arizona State University's portal and white papers.

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