It’s a door, an information starting point, a tool that pulls disparate corporate data together in a single interface, or the instrument of enterprise integration. The enterprise portal is one of those technologies that can be almost anything, depending on who you ask.

“”In the broadest sense,

a portal is a simplified user interface into a rich pool of information,”” says IDC Canada analyst David Senf. “”That can mean so many things; almost anything that you want.””

In its strictest sense, Senf says, the enterprise portal enables the knowledge worker and provides access to business information in a useful format, but even with the definition getting fuzzy around the edges, it’s a hot technology. “”We are forecasting significant growth in the enterprise portal market,”” Senf says. “”That’s being driven, in part by the adoption of XML and Web services. It allows enterprises to integrate the back end and drill into it with greater ease.””

“”Integration,”” in fact, was the big promise held out by vendors when portals last were the hot new enterprise technology. If you go back far enough into the recent prehistory of IT — at least before the great e-business asteroid of 2000 and the subsequent extinction of a good portion of the then — “”new economy”” — you’ll find that the world “”portal”” stood for two distinct ideas. On one hand, it was an integrated navigation starting point, like Netscape’s NetCenter, the big prize in America Online’s $4.2 billion acquisition of Netscape Corp. in 1998, but that was only part of it.

The real buzz was around the portal as the central access points to a company’s diverse operations, business processes, data and applications — the vital tool in the push to integrate everything in a single, easy-to-use and control Web-based application. The problem was that meant integration, and portals were frequently mentioned in the same breath as data warehouses. For enterprises still flinching from the agony of enterprise resource planning (ERP) integration, it all seemed a bit too much.

“”When portals did emerge, there was some sense of intimidation,”” says Ben Watson, senior product manager of Web services for Microsoft Canada. “”There was a sense of it being a stand-alone line-of-business application.””

And what an application! The integration process seemed so daunting. After the dot-com die-off, many enterprises wondered whether the benefits outweighed the risks of handing over business processes to outsiders who might not be in business a year down the line. “”I wouldn’t say it was intimidating, but we had questions of practicality and ‘doability,'”” says Akhil Bhandari, CIO of CCL Industries Inc., one of the world’s largest contract manufacturers of consumer products. “”We looked at one solution and asked ‘are we going to be involved in this, or are we going to be dependent on consultants?'””

The bottom line was that portals had to evolve to prove their return on investment, and to become something other than the all-encompassing instrument of integration. Overcoming those earlier perceptions has become a big part of portal vendors’ pitches. “”It’s a tough environment,”” says Enrico Asta, Canadian business development manager for portal vendor Hyperwave AG. “”Folks aren’t going to invest if there’s no ROI, so we have to show them the ROI.””

Indeed, the once comprehensive portal has evolved into a much subtler and more scaleable technology. Integration is still important — in many ways, more important than ever before — but the portal is part of the process, not the key tool. “”Our customers are pushing us to take care of the integration thing,”” Watson says. “”But the portal is not a line of business application now, so much as an extension of your lines of business.””

That could mean using portal technology to sit on top of heterogeneous data stores and applications to pull everything together in a nice, consistent interface. That’s the reasoning behind Abbott Laboratories Canada’s internal enterprise portal, built with IBM’s Websphere, says IT Director Rosy Bellemare. “”One of the requirements was to use databases the way they were without having to redesign existing systems,”” she says. “”Information stored in Notes Databases and in PDF formats are currently available, we also provide access to our back-end systems via the Portal through Citrix.””

That, of course, is the whole idea behind Web Services, says IDC’s Senf; data is available dynamically, on the fly, as it’s needed, in a more flexible, services-oriented paradigm. “”There is a greater abstraction between layers of user interface and back-end enabled by Web Services and XML (Extensible Markup Language),”” Senf says. Nevertheless, he notes “”back-end integration still has to happen. There is still a need to build a compelling user interface to integrated data.””

Yet, it’s not quite the monolithic integration of the nineties. Senf says there’s a movement toward a more modular approach to IT integration, with the portal being nothing more than the point of interaction. Unlike the days of ERP and data warehousing, when integration was all-of-a-piece, today it’s more like a collection of Lego blocks that can work together seamlessly, but in any number and order.

“”It doesn’t mean re-architecting a line of business applications,”” says Microsoft’s Watson, “”A portal that’s clean extends your existing technologies.””

Indeed, Yvette Imbleau, IBM Canada’s Websphere portal sales manager sees integration — and the portal’s role in it — in ecumenical terms. “”The portal is just one style of integration,”” she says. “”It makes it easier for the end-user to interact with enterprise data and applications, and it allows you to represent those applications as a single application even if they aren’t. The point is that it’s another option enterprises have for bringing things together.””

Despite the options, however, the enterprise portal is the integration power tool par-excellence in the fields of knowledge and information management. Access to applications might be convenient, but users see the real return on their investments when they deploy portals to create a single point of entry to their enterprises’ collective knowledge and experience.

Content, says Abbott’s Bellemare, is king. “”The Abbott Canada Portal will provide Abbott users the capability to publish and manage content, to pull and push information automatically to all Abbott Canada employees through a unique access point.””

As much as they are expected to embrace the technology in droves over the next few years — the Gartner Group forecasts that enterprise portals will be a $6 billion industry by 2006 — they are typically cautious.

“”In utopia, the portal would be the single point of access to all of an enterprise’s applications and information,”” Imbleau says. “”But that takes a lot of work. Right now, in a time when companies are focusing IT spending, they’re looking for payback.””

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