Portal Buzz, Again

Creating enterprise portals can be lucrative, but they're tough to implement.

One year ago, internet consultancy Groundswell was armed with a fistful of VC dollars and a goal to build Web-based business communities. Now, with the boom gone from the dot-com economy, the company has repositioned itself as a portal integrator and evangelist.

"One of the things we want to do is to dispel customer confusion over the mishmash of portal products hitting the market," says Dean Alms, co-founder and co-president of Groundswell.

But Groundswell is not alone. Other integrators are eyeing enterprise portals as a strong opportunity. For instance, IBM Global Services rolled out a portals practice in December that revolves around IBMs new WebSphere Portal Server.

The buzz around enterprise portals—which, unlike the broad or public portals like AOL and Yahoo, can be accessed by employees as an intranet point to conduct company business—is picking up again. But it may not be a sweet spot for everyone. It takes a formidable amount of front-end creative skills, strategy and loads of technical back-end integration talent.

Despite that, Groundswell says enterprise portals make a strong case for customers concerned with ROI.

Its Getting Hot Also, new and old vendors are jumping in. Last week, Microsoft announced 13 integrator partners for its upcoming SharePoint Portal Server. Meanwhile, Dell has launched a portal practice, and vendors like BEA, Oracle, PeopleSoft and Sybase have stepped up their activities in the portals space once populated mostly by smaller developers.

Groundswell launched in l999 with $100 million in funding to focus on portals, but the conditions werent right. "There just wasnt enough traction behind portals back then," says Alms, adding that at the time, Groundswells customers were focused on e-commerce.

Similarly, two years ago, integrator Project Performance Corp. began marketing enterprise portals through its New Media Solutions practice and has implemented 22 portals with customers that include Chevron, Reebok and Staples using portal products from Plum Tree and Oracle, says Robert Haddad, VP at Project Performance.

Also, companies like Intergnosis that are new to enterprise portals are aligning with key vendors. "Were evolving along with Microsoft," says David Gonzales, Intergnosis partner management manager. During the beta of SharePoint, which was released to manufacturing last week, Intergnosis worked with a law firm and insurance company.

No Kid Stuff Enterprise portals are a new opportunity where an ROI argument can be made in helping corporations to streamline their data and processes, but they are not easy to implement, solutions providers say. One of the biggest headaches encountered is the integration of legacy systems and third-party products because most portal vendors do not make integration easy, thus requiring a lot of customization.

"Portals can be tremendously complex. Its probably not going to be a single solution. Knowing what works and what doesnt is key," says Paul Pedrazzi, director of marketing at Groundswell.

Secondly, another important issue to consider is that there is plenty of up-front consulting that is required to help customers cull through the hundreds of products. "Some are rich in document management or knowledge management capabilities. Others are nothing more than user interfaces," Pedrazzi says.

But heavy consulting costs have to be weighed in this current economic climate, because some companies may balk at those costs, solutions providers say.

Skill Sets On the technical side, vendors are touting ease of use. "All you really need is XML," says Trina Seinfeld, product manager for Microsofts SharePoint. Meanwhile, IBMs WebSphere Portal Server requires knowledge of Java and XML, says Larry Bowdoin, VP of E-Portal Solutions at IBM. "IBMs portal server is cross platform, and it can be used with tools from any vendor," Bowdoin says.

The SharePoint and WebSphere portal servers both are built around plug-in architectures using bundled, shrink-wrapped and custom-built components for connectivity to both Web content and back-end systems.

Also needed are skills in personalization, business processes, and Internet/ intranet security, experts say.

In short, building enterprise portals is not for everyone. From a technical and consulting standpoint, they are intensive, needing a solid deployment strategy, says Haddad of Project Performance.

While analysts paint rosy projections for portal growth, there is an economic factor. "[Portal] business seems to be growing a bit more slowly... on the new business side, rather than the accounts we are already in," says Haddad.