Portal software services are growing up fast

Perficient, a consulting firm in Texas, has seen great returns since it implemented its WebSphere portal about a year ago, taking advantage of collaboration capabilities to reduce travel expenses and streamline projects.

Perficient, a consulting firm in Texas, has seen great returns since it implemented its WebSphere portal about a year ago, taking advantage of collaboration capabilities to reduce travel expenses and streamline projects.

The company expects in future, though, more than collaboration and access to content and applications from its portal.

"The portal is becoming a key part of the corporate infrastructure," says Andy Sweet, CTO at Perficient. "It's a mission-critical application."

That's an increasingly common refrain among corporate customers as they realise a portal can be more than a simple window into applications and content. With more work being done online, and especially with the advent of web services, the portal is poised to be the new desktop where business is done.

"Portals started out as content aggregation, then became about application aggregation, now it's focusing on application and content integration," says Laura Ramos, director of enterprise portals and enterprise research at Giga Information Group.

"It's no longer sufficient to have these portlet windows in the interface; the portal has to know what to do with them. So things like application integration, workflow, application development, content management, collaboration -- all these things are becoming more and more important."

The idea is to have a workspace that can change according to a user's role and task, offering relevant content, applications and collaboration opportunities as a business process is accomplished, analysts say.

That notion is causing some big shifts within the portal market as vendors jockey to provide more advanced features. Consolidation has been happening in the nascent industry for some time, but the portal market is starting 2003 with a decidedly different feel from previous years: standalone portal vendors are few and far between, and larger infrastructure players such as IBM, Sun and BEA Systems are refining their portal offerings. Enterprise customers will find fewer portal vendors from which to choose this year and a rapidly maturing set of services from those vendors that remain.

In the last few months of last year, Netegrity, which jumped into the market only months before by acquiring DataChannel, opted to forgo its portal efforts. Then Vignette acquired Epicentric, one of the few remaining pure-play portal vendors.

"It's all in line with where the industry is headed, which is toward fewer and fewer vendors and toward more vendors that are going to be packaging collections of related technologies into suites," says Gene Phifer, research director at Gartner. "A traditional portal product will not have a very happy future."

Vignette's acquisition of Epicentric illustrates the trend toward one-stop products that combine collaboration, content management, knowledge management, business process management and other features, all delivered through a portal, an approach that Gartner defines as smart enterprise suites. Plumtree late last year released its content management server to help round out its offerings and plans to release a business process engine, code-named Fusion, this year.

"While enterprises are trying to alleviate the pain of integrating things themselves, capabilities that are going to be made possible by the integration of the suites are something enterprises are going to be demanding going forward," Phifer says.

Phifer also talks about an application platform suite, which is where the platform players such as IBM and Sun began, providing an application server, integration capabilities and the portal. Now, they're adding features of the smart enterprise suite on top of that, making them formidable players in the market, he says.

Future features

Looking ahead over the next 12 months or so, corporate customers can expect to see features such as increased security, business process automation capabilities, more expansive web services support and deeper customisation from portal vendors. Transactions, business processes and application development will become key.

Standards are being developed to make it easier to link applications within portals. In the past, most portal vendors had proprietary portlets, application components that are embedded in the portal view.

Without standards, customers were limited to the portlets available from their vendors or faced the costly and time-consuming task of manually coding their own. Standards will eliminate those hurdles. Web Services for Remote Portals is a proposal before the Organisation for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards that would enable the sharing of WSRP-compliant content and applications among disparate portals. JSR 168 is another proposed standard that defines Java application interfaces for portal applications.

Halliburton, a Texan company that provides products and services to petroleum and energy corporations, has used a Plumtree portal for about a year and a half, but looks forward to taking advantage of web services capabilities to extend the reach of its customer-facing efforts.

"Our customers are building their own portals. What they'd really like is for us to deliver up applications and content in their portals, and now with this technology I could envision how that could happen," says Brandon Lackey, program manager of the myHalliburton.com portal. "We could continue to host the applications and the content, but from a user's perspective it would be delivered in their environment and their context."

Even before ratification of the standards, vendors were moving toward making the integration of applications and content easier. Plumtree late last year unveiled a new strategy that focuses on what it calls "The Enterprise Web", which is basically an open foundation that can combine applications and information from legacy systems, regardless of platform. IBM introduced a tool called Click-to-Action, which enables integration of portlets without help from IT.

"We're going to take Click-to-Action technology about two more stages forward in 2003," says Larry Bowden, vice president of portal solutions for IBM. "We're going to add the theme of automatic wiring so portlets can detect what information should be sent to them and what should be processed by them. So users could set up a process, save it as a template and then treat the entire process as a web service.

"The whole idea is how do you bring a dynamic nature to the portal," he says.

That's what I want

That's what customers such as Perficient's Sweet are seeking. Sweet says he expects the portal to play a key role in how Perficient will do business, acting as the platform for business processes and application development, especially as web services evolve. As a result, Sweet says he's particularly happy about his choice of portal vendor because IBM can provide traditional portal features, and the reliability, scalability and integration capabilities of an application server.

"This way the portal becomes part of the middleware and it's a natural part of your infrastructure, so it's easy to integrate," Sweet says.

Lackey, on the other hand, is happy with his Plumtree portal, which provides all the features he needs without being tied to a specific application server or software system.

The issue for corporate customers, analysts say, is to figure out what they want to use the portal for and then look at the different offerings. This year, they can expect lower prices, easier deployments and portals that help them get work done, rather than simply organising content and information.

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