They're back

Portals return as agencies standardize and seek a return on investment

Bells and Whistles

Some other benefits of Web portals:

  • Streamlined security and access management

  • Search engine

  • Content management system

  • Document management system

  • Knowledge-management application

Newscom photo illustration

Web portals have seen some ups and downs. In the late-1990s dot-com craze, so-called "pure play" vendors such as Plumtree Software Inc. and Epicentric (now part of Vignette Corp.) made fortunes when analysts and IT departments hyped their wares as the answer to pressing Web development demands. But then came the crash, and portals were absorbed in Web development platforms and relegated to a slot as one of a list of features.

But, if recent government buys are any sign, the software technology is on a major upswing again.

"The trend now is in interaction," said Jason Smith, vice president of the federal team at Vignette. "There's been a sea change in what the portal is supposed to do to generate business value."

One reason for the renewed interest is automation, as high-volume, customer-service-oriented agencies, such as the IRS and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, try to reduce call-center volume and shorten response times.

There are just a handful of vendors whose portal offerings are comprehensive enough to meet government specs.

In the past year or so, portal projects have replaced the Web "e-gov" projects of a few years ago. Increasingly, agencies have come to realize that putting a pretty front end before constituents requires a new, Web standards-based Service Oriented Architecture to back it up.

While the portal user interface itself is little more than a Web page that provides access to content sources and applications, a portal can include or link with other elements as well:

  • Single-sign-on technology can manage each user's security and access rights, letting them use the same username and password everywhere.
  • A search engine can locate and retrieve information.
  • A content management system handles legacy data and Web content in the preferred electronic formats.
  • A document management system can be used to convert and manage paper.
  • Less commonly, a knowledge-management application may also be part of the implementation.

Government sources suggest that recent portal projects have both accelerated the feds' ongoing IT standardization efforts and increased the value of earlier investments in integration software.

"A portal's a natural place for an agency to get started in implementing a service-oriented architecture," said Dennis Reilly, BEA Systems Inc.'s vice president for public-sector sales. But some organizations haven't fully made the transition to Web services, said Christine Wan, the company's director of product marketing.

"The IT staff and workforce need to become familiar with SOA and Web services," Wan said. "Migrating IT staff off the older development platforms and onto the new platform is probably the biggest challenge."

The trend now is to beef up portals by incorporating the newest, Web-based collaboration technologies, especially wikis and blogs, essentially, personal Web pages that groups and individuals, respectively, can easily edit. "Collaboration has always been part of the value proposition of portals," Ray Valdes, a Gartner research director. Now that all portal software offers about the same level of simplified access to content and applications, collaboration features have become the battleground of differentiation for portal providers.

"Portals are evolving to accommodate new front-end technologies such as Ajax [Asynchronous JavaScript and Extensible Markup Language] and new methods for delivering content, such as [Really Simple Syndication] and new styles of collaboration," Valdes said. Don't choose a portal primarily for its collaboration features, he said.

Early adopters of portals are those agencies that must deal quickly with disasterss, said Vignette's Smith. The Air Force uses a portal to facilitate communications among service personnel and their families, said Joe Snell, engineering program manager for operational support systems at portal integrator Lockheed Martin Corp. "In deployed situations, the ability to get to a phone to call is kind of restricted," Snell said.

The Air Force portal runs on software from BroadVision Inc. and offers thin-client, browser-based instant messaging from Bantu Inc. The service also is considering adding wikis and blogs to the mix.

The cross-application, enterprisewide purview of robust portals makes them much more than multimedia communication hubs, however. They are increasingly the entry points to new business process management and workflow applications. Portals provide the two critical elements: security technology that identifies people by their roles in business processes, and the software standards required to develop new applications that can share information across boundaries. The portal world calls these new workflow and BPM programs "composite" applications, some of which exploit the new collaboration tools for added impact. "Now they're starting to use a portal to provide a context for workflows that involve a lot more human interaction," BEA Systems' Reilly said.

What's driving government demand for workflow? "End users are spending way too much time trying to do processes that should be done by the software," said Greg Crider, senior director of product marketing for portal vendor Oracle Corp.

Vignette officials claim the company's out-of-the-box setup goes much faster than does setup of portals sold by the big platform vendors. But today, Valdes said, tradeoffs in setup time and functionality are not as sharp as they once were. "Portals have matured a lot, so they are more alike than different," he said.

Scalability has been an issue for large federal portals; it's one of the major concerns hindering the IRS project, according to published reports. Three solutions are common: using a content-delivery and performance-management network such as that of Akamai Technologies Inc. to distribute Web traffic, caching to make commonly accessed content more readily available, and network edge devices that super-charge bandwidth where it's most needed.

The Air Force portal, which has a whopping 895,000 users and sharp memories of the early days of the portal when performance was inadequate, uses all three, Snell said. "If the information's not findable, they're not going use the portal, and if it takes too long to access the information and the tools, they're not going to use it, either," he said.

Although government portals tend to be constituent-facing, some, such as the Defense Department's planned Defense Knowledge Online portal, face inward to employees.

"One of the major decisions that a government purchaser should make is whether they're doing an external-facing or internal portal," Valdes said. "That might mean different portal products."

Some federal government agencies are using both types, BEA Systems' Reilly said. "Some agencies will go public-facing first, then build internally," he said.

A BEA study showed that roughly 60 percent of customers had intranet portals, he said.

Test the portal with constituents and other end users to ensure its usability, Vignette's Smith advised. "IT cannot bear the whole burden."

Many of BEA's government customers find a lot of value in having the company to build and test a prototype, Reilly said. It's a key part of the evaluation process and can help identify those applications that can come online in the first 90 to 120 days.

This approach helps justify not only the investment in the portal, but also in the broader SOA strategy, Oracle's Crider said. A good way to start is by first concentrating on front-end implementations of an SOA, he said, perhaps by adding wikis, blogs or instant messaging. "Doing these can create the impression that there's a new look and feel," he said.

BEA officials said the company is working on development tools to make it easy
for business users to develop or contribute to new portals and related collaboration technologies such as wikis used on MySpace, Amazon and other popular and highly personalized portals.

Such highly participatory "Web 2.0" portals might be necessary to accommodate younger workers. "How do you satisfy someone who is entering the workforce today and is used to these very personalized interfaces?" Oracle's Crider said. "You have people used to that experience, but they go into the office, and they have to log onto six different systems."

David Essex is a freelance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.

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