Portal/KM Mix Gains Mind Share

Picking the right portal has always been a tricky decision; adding KM to the mix just makes it more confusing. But if companies can first understand their own requirements and then be realistic in their expectations, they may be able to find their way to

First there was knowledge management, and it promised to bring order to all the documents and other content generated by corporations. Then came portals, which took many of the features of KM and combined them with powerful search engines and intuitive, customizable Web interfaces. These were followed by enterprise information portals, which forsook their KM ancestry in favor of providing centralized browser-based access to databases, applications and other enterprise systems.

But a funny thing happened on the way to enterprise salvation. Customers of traditional EIPs began to ask for more KM functionality. And EIP vendors faced increasing competition from KM vendors adding portal features, as well as from products created from the ground up to be KM portals.

Picking the right portal has always been a tricky decision; adding KM to the mix just makes it more confusing. But if companies can first understand their own requirements and then be realistic in their expectations, they may be able to find their way to the one true KM solution for their business.

In recent years, the best EIPs have shown a good return on investment when implemented properly—something that most KM vendors and their customers can only dream about.

But as competition has increased and the work force has become, how shall we say, more fluid, an increasing number of organizations are realizing that the ability to intelligently harness, classify, store and access information has a return that is difficult to quantify but invaluable nonetheless.

Although the convergence of KM and enterprise portals can add a great deal of functionality to company portals, it also adds a whole new set of issues and questions for organizations to address.

Organizations in the evaluation phase will need to take a hard look at where their information is, how their employees use it and what types of enterprise systems they have in place.

Whatever solution your company chooses, the most important thing to keep in mind is the flexibility of the portal system. If at any time it seems that the portal will force your business to change to meet its requirements, then its time to move on. A portal solution works only when it can easily coexist with corporate information and culture, accepting and integrating content wherever it comes from and however it is created.

Companies with enterprise portals in place should talk to their vendors to find out what, if anything, they are offering for KM. And organizations with existing investments in KM will want to find out which portals work well with their chosen systems.

Dedicated KM Portals

Companies starting fresh should first consider a well-integrated portal/KM solution or a dedicated KM portal such as Microsoft Corp.s SharePoint Portal Server.

In addition to including most of the standard portal features, SharePoint has strong document management and KM capabilities, including versioning, check-in/check-out and document collaboration. However, compared with EIPs, it comes up short in the key area of development flexibility, connecting easily to only the back-end databases and enterprise applications for which pre-built connectors have been provided.

Servers such as SharePoint can be a good fit for companies that create a lot of document-based knowledge (although to use SharePoint, a company must be Microsoft-centric). Businesses with many knowledge workers who generate a lot of content, such as those in financial research or the government, are especially well-suited. Not only does SharePoint bring some control to knowledge and prevent it from slipping away when workers leave, but it also makes it easier for employees to access this information, hopefully preventing wasted labor.

SharePoints base price of $3,999 is low when compared with many EIPs, but SharePoint requires a $72 client license for every device that accesses the portal server, meaning that the price can quickly jump for any business doing a companywide deployment. Products with similar functionality include Imanage Inc.s WorkSite and products from OpenText Corp.

EIPs With KM Features

Organizations that dont generate a lot of unstructured content and work mainly in databases and enterprise systems will probably be better off sticking to standard EIPs for their KM needs.

When it comes to hooking into back-end data sources and applications, traditional EIP vendors such as Plumtree Software Inc., Sybase Inc. and Epicentric Inc. are easily the best bets. These portals also tend to have the best support for Web development standards and are best equipped for working with Web services.

All the EIP vendors mentioned above have added or are in the process of adding modules for KM. Plumtree, for example, recently released Collaboration Server, which provides much greater shared document and community project capabilities to the core portal server. However, these add-ons cant compete with the more robust capabilities found in servers designed specifically for managing knowledge.

Integrated EIP/KM System

For organizations seeking a middle ground, the best option might be a combo EIP/KM system. One of the best examples is IBMs WebSphere Portal, which started out as an EIP and now integrates the Lotus KM Server. WebSphere Portal is also tightly integrated with Lotus collaboration tools, making it possible to launch discussions and chats from within the portal interface.

With a portal that simply links to external KM and collaboration applications, in contrast, capability is often limited: Basically, the KM and collaboration work like any other portlet dropped into the portal and have little or no interaction with the other portlets.

As you might expect, WebSphere is one of the pricier options available. WebSphere Portal pricing starts at $55,000 per processor and can quickly jump to the high six figures in a corporate implementation.

KM System, Portal Features

One of the major strengths of KM vendors is their skill in helping customers classify information. Classified correctly, the information in a KM/portal system can help an organization increase productivity, reduce redundancy and safeguard business continuity. Classified incorrectly, information can render a KM/portal system virtually useless.

This type of classification is not easy or inexpensive. Portal vendors that started out in the KM area, such as Plumtree, have considerable taxonomy expertise in-house. But many enterprise portal vendors rely on KM vendors such as Autonomy Corp. to provide their indexing, search and taxonomy classification capabilities.

With this in mind, its no wonder that KM vendors such as Autonomy have begun to offer more in the way of enterprise portal features in their offerings. Products such as Autonomys Portal-in-a-Box are mainly Web front ends to a KM system and search engine. These products have added personalization, collaboration and extensibility, making them more attractive in enterprise environments, either as stand-alone KM portals or as systems that can be easily integrated with traditional EIPs.

Web Services Integration

Whether a portal application is mostly KM, mostly EIP or a combination of the two, another element of growing importance is integration with Web services. All portals will benefit by being able to either accept Web services as portal applications or deliver their own portal applications as Web services.

Portals that are based on XML and common languages such as Java or .Net will function well as Web services platforms, while those that use any proprietary coding could have problems down the road. Epicentrics Foundation Server 4.0 portal not only works well with open standards but is also based on open standards (mainly XML and JavaServer Pages). Other portals such as SharePoint are still in the process of improving support for open standards.

Another important point to consider is how easy it is for a business to develop custom portal applications or portlets, and whether they can share portlets with other portal customers. Plumtree, with its gadgets technology, was an early mover in this area, making it possible to create portal applications in common languages and then facilitating the sharing of the portlets. This can greatly reduce the cost of customizing a portal because companies can save some development time for standard but important portal applications.

To assist in evaluating KM and portals, eWeek Labs has put together a sample document that can aid companies in developing request-for-proposal or request-for-information documents. This document can be downloaded here Download Sample RFP

East Coast Technical Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at jim_rapoza@ziffdavis. com.

Links to other stories in this package
  • Knowledge Management: Value is Relative
  • Tools of the Trade
  • Standards to Drive Services