Rules for Enterprise Portals

Z Oracle Magazine

By Wayne Eckerson

By now, most of us have heard of Yahoo, Lycos, Excite, and other
Internet-portal players. Their stratospheric stock prices have made these companies
household names (and their young owners extremely rich). Now, vendors of corporate
software are trying to cash in on „portal mania.” Many have stuck Yahoo-like
interfaces onto their software products in an attempt to ride the current wave of interest
in portal products. Others have found that the portal concept offers the perfect metaphor
for describing their products’ unique value proposition.

Whatever the case, a business or enterprise portal is not a
fly-by-night notion. Its core benefit is that it provides busy professionals with one-stop
shopping for all their information needs. Today’s professionals are flooded with
information from all directions, but ironically, it’s getting harder for them to find
the information they need. Corporations have too many tools for accessing data, and busy
professionals have too little time to learn how to use them effectively.

An enterprise portal alleviates this stress, giving business users a
common interface and access point to all data inside and outside the corporation. Users
can access any information object-including structured and unstructured data-without
having to know its location or format.

The concept of an enterprise portal converges functionality from many
IT disciplines, including business intelligence, document management, and intranet-site
development. Not surprisingly, vendors of products in these areas are quickly positioning
themselves as enterprise-portal players. And there is currently a bevy of startup firms
developing portal products.

What are the characteristics of an authentic enterprise portal?
Although the concept is still fluid, there are already numerous distinguishing features.
The following 15 rules summarize the most salient features of an enterprise portal.

  • Rule # 1. Gear it to casual users. Companies should design a
    business portal primarily to support the needs of casual information gatherers who want
    quick and easy access to consistent sets of data. It should be intuitive to use, to
    minimize training needs. A Web browser and HTML are appropriate tools for accessing the
    enterprise portal.

  • Rule #2. Use intuitive classification and searching. An
    enterprise portal needs an intuitive metaphor for classifying objects, readily available
    descriptions of object properties, and a powerful search engine.

  • Rule # 3. Allow access to a publish/subscribe engine. The
    portal should allow users to publish objects into the repository and specify which users,
    groups, or channels may access those objects. Give users the ability to subscribe to
    individual objects or a predefined channel („northeastern sales team,” for example).
    When users are subscribing to an object, such as a report, allow them to define the
    schedule, format, delivery channel, and preferred alert method. Let users define agents
    that continuously scan selected data sources for information on a particular subject.

  • Rule #4. Enable universal connectivity to information resources.
    The enterprise portal must connect to multiple, heterogeneous data stores, including
    relational databases, multidimensional databases, document-management systems, e-mail
    systems, Web servers, news feeds, and various file systems and servers.

  • Rule #5. Provide dynamic access to information resources. An
    enterprise portal should do more than just serve up static objects-it should provide
    dynamic access to reports created by various business-intelligence and document-management
    tools.

  • Rule #6. Set up intelligent routing. To augment
    publish-and-subscribe capabilities, the portal should intelligently route reports or
    documents to selected individuals as part of a well-defined work flow.

  • Rule #7. Integrate a business-intelligence toolset. An
    enterprise portal needs to provide a full range of query, report, and analysis
    capabilities in a highly integrated fashion. It also must deliver the output of
    business-intelligence requests in HTML as well as native formats.

  • Rule #8. Use a server-based architecture. An enterprise portal
    may need to support thousands of users and high volumes of concurrent requests. So, at a
    minimum, the portal must support a three- or n-tier architecture, in which the majority of
    processing occurs on a midtier application server running on UNIX or clusters of Microsoft
    Windows NT servers.

  • Rule #9. Build in distributed, multithreaded services. The
    portal should consist of multithreaded application services (including a high-performance
    multithreaded request broker) that can be distributed across multiple servers and machines
    for load-balancing purposes, if necessary.

  • Rule #10. Enable flexible permission granting. Give
    administrators the ability to define permissions for individuals, groups, and roles within
    the company. The permissions define the topics or categories particular users can view;
    the channels they can subscribe to; the functions they can use; the data they can view;
    and the level of allowable interactivity with reports, such as view, edit, refresh, and
    create.

  • Rule #11. Append external interfaces. Most firms have deployed
    a vast array of user directories, information repositories, and portal-like services on
    their intranets; it’s critical that an enterprise portal provide interfaces to these
    resources.

  • Rule #12. Provide programmatic interfaces. Make the
    enterprise-portal services „callable” from other applications via a published
    application-programming interface (API). Let developers create a custom portal, using the
    API.

  • Rule #13. Establish Internet security. The enterprise portal
    must support network-level security, encryption, session- management, and authentication
    services to safeguard sensitive corporate information and prevent unauthorized access.
    Deploy these security services on a server sitting outside the firewall to support
    external users.

  • Rule #14. Make it cost-effective to deploy. A portal needs a
    thin-client architecture to avoid the overhead of distributing and maintaining software on
    thousands of desktops. Make it easy to install, configure, and maintain.

  • Rule #15. Ensure that it can be customized and personalized.
    Developers and administrators should be able to customize the portal to create a distinct
    corporate look and feel, including graphics, banners, and channels. Let administrators
    control the portal’s functions and graphical interface by user and group profiles. Also,
    allow individual users to personalize the portal to make it easier for them to use.

You want the professionals in your organization to have easy, quick,
intelligent access to all the information they need in order to make good business
decisions. Providing an enterprise portal that adheres to these rules is a giant step in
that direction.

Wayne Eckerson
(weckerson@psgroup.com)
is a senior consultant
with the Patricia Seybold Group.