Enterprise Value of Portals Is Clear

eWeek Labs evaluates Epicentric, iPlanet, Plumtree, Viador products.

Trendy enterprise-class products often have very short life spans. But a year and a half after eWeek Labs last eValuation on enterprise information portals, the category has avoided the fate of past "must-haves." If anything, enterprise information portals have become even more important.

How has this happened? To a large degree, it is due to the basic value that an enterprise portal can bring to a company. Many so-called enterprise applications ultimately add to business costs by creating yet another large entity that must be integrated into existing systems. On the other hand, a portals main reason for existence is to integrate disparate systems and data into a unified, centrally accessible interface.

In our last eVal of portals, we focused on trying to cut through the confusion of just what a portal is. In some ways, defining a portal is still just as confusing, but weve also seen a clear division of portal products that attempt to meet specific areas of functionality.

In this eVal, we looked at four classic enterprise information portals, which provide centralized access to company databases and applications—anything from proprietary structured databases to dynamic Web-based applications to standard enterprise applications.

We evaluated Epicentric Inc.s Foundation Server 3.5, iPlanet E-Commerce Solutions Portal Server 3.0, Plumtree Software Inc.s Corporate Portal 4.0i and Viador Inc.s E-Portal Framework 6.3. We invited several other portal vendors to participate, including Citrix Systems Inc. (through its acquisition of Sequoia Software Corp.), Hummingbird Ltd., SAP AG (through its acquisition of TopTier Software Inc.) and Yahoo Inc. Several declined because they are working on new versions.

Other portal types include knowledge/document management portals, which deal mainly with access to unstructured content and provide classic knowledge management features such as versioning. There are also portals that focus on collaboration and messaging, and those that serve as central discussion sites. Finally, there are portals that are front ends to application servers.

Given that portals are Web-based, we performed this eVal completely over the Web. We set up and configured the four portals in our East Coast Labs and gave eWeek Corporate Partners access to the systems over the Web. The Corporate Partners tested the portals both as end users and as administrators.

We coordinated all information sharing and discussion of the portals using PHP-Nuke, an open-source portal product.

Of course, we also ran each portal through our own rigorous review process. The testing took place over three months.

All four portals are moving toward broader programming and standards support. Other than the iPlanet portal, which currently runs only on Solaris, all are also moving toward broader platform support.

We also saw greater use of Java and XML (Extensible Markup Language) for building the applets that portals use to integrate with applications and data sources. This XML support will allow portals to take advantage of Web services as they move into mainstream.

Epicentric Foundation Server

Epicentrics product isnt perfect, but it is probably closest to what all portals will be like in the near future.

Where other portals require some heavy application code on the server, Epicentric Foundation Server 3.5 is purely a JSP (JavaServer Pages) application. This gives Epicentric the best platform support and portability of any portal product that weve seen.

Epicentric Foundation Server was very simple to install, will run on any platform that can run a JSP engine (which is just about every platform) and can easily work in heterogeneous environments. It also supports most databases, and, because it is just a JSP site, its performance will be as good as the application server it runs with (which includes any that support JSP).

Although the portal features in Epicentric Foundation Server dont particularly stand out, they arent weak in any way and compare well with most other products. On the administration side, this portal has a very clean and easy-to-use browser interface. User management is simple and easy to figure out.

Using the delegated administrator feature, we could assign some administration capabilities, such as user or content management, to specific users. However, this doesnt work as well as the virtual portal features in some portals.

The Epicentric portal includes a good collection of modules for adding various types of data and applications to the portal. Because it is completely based on nonproprietary languages and standards, custom modules can be built easily.

Epicentric Foundation Server 3.5, released in March, is priced at $180,000 for a two-year subscription on four CPUs and $300,000 for a perpetual license on four CPUs.

iPlanet Portal Server

In the previous portal eval, we praised the iPlanet Portal Server for its extensibility and for its strong data and application integration, but we knocked it for its lack of some key portal capabilities, especially in Web and document indexing and in personalization. Since then, iPlanet released the Personalized Knowledge Pack add-on to the Portal Server, which goes a long way toward addressing those shortcomings.

The Personalized Knowledge Pack is mainly the iPlanet Compass Server, which descended from the Netscape Catalog Server, probably the first-ever corporate portal application, with added integration to the Portal Server. This product provides a powerful search engine and very good Web site and document directory indexing.

The Personalized Knowledge Pack also makes it possible to build classic portal content category taxonomies and lets users build custom search agents that perform scheduled searches and deliver the results to the users portal interface. In addition, it lets users rate content and track what content other users found useful.

Although the Personalized Knowledge Pack adds much-needed functionality to the iPlanet Portal Server, it could be integrated better into the portal. As is, it works very much like an application added to the portal.

Still, the iPlanet Portal Server is a very powerful platform, with the best authentication features weve seen in any portal and with good features for managing multiple virtual portals. The portal is very extensible and very scalable, but it currently runs only on Solaris.

Pricing for fully open access is $25,000 per CPU. Secure portals start at $90,000 per CPU, with a two-CPU minimum. The Personalized Knowledge Pack is priced at $12,500 per CPU.

Plumtree Corporate Portal

Plumtree is one of the leaders in the enterprise information portal category, and its easy to see why. During this eVal, Plumtree received the most-positive comments from the Corporate Partners, who praised its powerful but intuitive administration interface and its flexible user interface.

Traditionally, one of our main criticisms of Plumtree has been on its reliance on Windows servers and ASP (Active Server Pages). In the last release, Plumtree opened the architecture of its gadgets (essentially Plumtree-based services for Web applications and interfaces into back-end data sources) from solely ASP to support languages such as Java and Perl. Now, according to Plumtree officials, a majority of the gadgets are programmed in Java.

Taking the next logical step, Plumtree is no longer reliant on Windows servers: During this eVal, Plumtree released a version of Corporate Portal that runs on Solaris. Unlike the ASP-based Windows version, this version makes heavy use of JSP but is otherwise exactly the same as the Windows version.

Pricing for Plumtree Corporate Portal 4.0i is $150 to $600 per user, with a $100,000 minimum price. Version 4.0i came out in May, and the Unix version was released in June.

Viador E-Portal Framework

Like the epicentric portal product, Viadors E-Portal Framework 6.3 is based on JSP and also has excellent support for standards such as XML. However, unlike Epicentric, Viador includes some server-based code, which makes it a little less portable, although Viador still has excellent platform support, running on Windows servers and most Unix platforms.

Unlike most other portals, which have completely separate user and administrator interfaces, administrators of Viador E-Portal use the same user interface and log-in. Users who are administrators are simply given access to administrator modules—or "portlets," as they are called in the product.

This greatly simplified management because we didnt need to log out as a user and then go to a new administration interface. It also made it simple to delegate specific management functions; we merely gave particular administrators access to certain admin portlets.

Viador E-Portal includes a wide variety of portlets for integrating into back-end systems and for adding capabilities such as analysis, content publishing and collaboration. In addition, because the portal is based on open standards, portlets can be created using standard methods such as Java and JavaScript. Viador E-Portal also has very good support for multiple language interfaces.

Pricing for Viador E-Portal Framework 6.3, released in March, starts at $125,000, plus $75 for a second CPU.