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Portal to the World

Portal to the World

One of the more interesting conversations I have with IT organizations is over what constitutes a portal. While issues vary, it is clear that there is a business definition of a portal that is distinctly different from the technology definition of a portal. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as you can separate the two and clearly make the transition between one definition and the other. When that doesn't happen, a bit of chaos can result.

Most businesses see a portal as a means of consolidating the way the Internet "views" their company. As such, it's used to standardize a look and feel, promote branding, and in many cases provide a personalized user experience that in theory increases the stickiness and friendliness of the site.

What sometimes gets in the way for the IT organization is its translation into applications. I've spent a great deal of time helping groups define the distinction between "content" and "application" because that's where the problems with portals really tend to crop up.

Portal technology is pretty good at the personalization of content, but mostly useless at the personalization of applications. There's always some overlap in this area that makes it difficult to discern, but in general portals are good at a couple of things. One is mixing and matching (personalizing) content (HTML for the most part) based on user profiles. Another is profiling itself - tracking the user implicitly via links that are clicked, or explicitly via user-supplied information or company-defined groupings. Finally, portals are good at defining and providing screen navigation.

Surprised that things like providing a 10% discount to frequent customers aren't part of that group? Well, they can be, but in most cases it's really additional vertical functionality such as an e-commerce package that is providing the ability, rather than the portal itself.

With this definition it's somewhat easier to understand how the business definition and expectations can get out of line with the technical definition. The business users in most cases want to unite their applications, and want to have a single interface to do so. They want to define business rules and have them carried out effectively through the delivery mechanism, which, of course, is a portal. Sometimes where the functionality actually resides gets lost in the shuffle, as the important thing is that the functionality exists, not which package implements it. As long as you're a business user, that is.

For the technical user, where the functionality is definitely has an impact. It determines whether you need someone who understands stored procedures, or who can write Java code, for example.

The problem with portals is that they are short on application functionality and long on content functionality, a result of their origin in the Internet world. Sometimes even if the portal provides functionality, the corporate architecture dictates a different approach. A clear example of this is that most portals provide a mechanism for direct database access, but most IT organizations prefer to restrict this and have the access go through a middle tier (for reasons such as caching and consolidation of business logic). This makes sense to the IT staff, but may be lost on the business side of the house. You end up with the classic argument: "We need a portal. No, what we really need is an application server."

Fortunately for BEA customers, it's not an either/or proposition. BEA WebLogic Portal sits on top of BEA WebLogic Server and integrates tightly into the J2EE container, making most of these architecture discussions an exercise in semantics. With the release of the revised BEA WebLogic Workshop, it will become even easier to create portal applications alongside standard J2EE components like EJBs.

As you might have guessed, the focus of this issue is portals.

Also, on a housekeeping note, Jason Westra has stepped down as editor-in-chief of WLDJ after accepting a new position in the industry that requires a much greater time commitment from him. While our new appointment to the top spot, to be announced shortly, gets ready for the year ahead, I'll be serving as managing editor and keeping everything running smoothly. I've been on the Editorial Advisory Board since its inception, so I'll be able to provide all the continuity we need to continue this fine publication. Good luck Jason, and thanks from us all for your hard work.

More Stories By Sean Rhody

Sean Rhody is the founding-editor (1999) and editor-in-chief of SOA World Magazine. He is a respected industry expert on SOA and Web Services and a consultant with a leading consulting services company. Most recently, Sean served as the tech chair of SOA World Conference & Expo 2007 East.

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