Less Is More—At Least to Start With

Corporate Partners compelled by portals' promise.

Like all eWeek Labs Evaluations, this eVal of enterprise information portals was designed to test products in real-world environs and against the criteria of IT professionals. When we put out the call for participation to our Corporate Partners—our most direct conduit to the "real world"—we were amazed at the response: Nearly half of the 28-member-strong board said they would be interested in "co-testing."

But perhaps we shouldnt have been so surprised, given the expectations about the technology. "Firms are struggling to cut costs, and portals offer hope for gaining ROI and making big processes more efficient," said Nate Root, TechRankings analyst at Forrester Research Inc., in Cambridge, Mass. Forrester has been applying its lab- and research-based TechRankings methodology to its own analysis of enterprise information portals (www.forrester.com).

Jim Rapoza, eWeek Labs East Coast technical director and the lead analyst on and author of this eVal, said portals in the truest sense of the word—those that offer a common access point to disparate corporate data systems—are well-positioned to deliver the kind of return that organizations are looking for.

"When done right, a portal can increase productivity and employee knowledge by providing fine-grained access to data and applications that users may have found inaccessible or difficult to use," Rapoza said. "And many companies have found that a portal that was initially built for internal use can be easily modified for extranets or for business-to-business use. When all of these pluses combine, a company can get a very good return on investment from a portal."

Rapoza designed the eVal testbed to simulate real-world use of portal systems. The portals were tested over the Web and over time, with eWeek Labs and Corporate Partner users evaluating the systems from the administrative and user perspectives.

Common requirements

the corporate partners who participated in this test brought to the table a variety of organization-specific requirements, but all of them are looking for a portal system to ease access to corporate data, foster collaboration and cut costs.

Corporate Partner Bill Conati, IS manager at Maax Spas Arizona, a division of Coleman Spas, said his company is looking for a portal platform that will be "all-encompassing," one that will incorporate knowledge management and collaboration.

Conati said Maax Spas is interested in portal technology especially for its customer service and engineering groups, both of which require access to data contained in various databases, as well as dynamic exposure to information generated from other departments.

"Customer service needs lots of info available all the time to answer questions," said Conati, in Chandler, Ariz. "We have a ton of info in lots of different forms, and we want to bring all that information to bear for these people." Conati added that Maaxs engineering department is "developing a variety of different products. We want to give other departments access to info about these products and make it available to corporate management so they know whats going on."

A portal, Conati said, will allow customer service representatives to submit problems they are hearing about to engineers, who could then fix the problems in existing lines and make sure they dont crop up in new products.

"I want the ability to go to the portal and say, Im looking for this, and have it direct you to the proper spot," said Craig French, project manager of headquarter applications and development at Corporate Partner site Gannett Co. Inc., publisher of USA Today, in Arlington, Va.

Like Maax Spas, Gannett is investigating portal platforms for internal use—a place for employees to get and store information. The portal is being considered for use across the enterprise—Gannett corporate and its operating units.

French said they are looking for a portal to provide a mix of knowledge management and document management capabilities so that, among other things, documents such as employee training and financial reference manuals can be more easily developed, produced, distributed and updated.

One organization that has taken the portal plunge is the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore. In June, the school rolled out its portal based on the Sequoia Software Corp. Sequoia XPS platform. The portal services about 5,000 people, including 1,500 students, 1,000 faculty members and 2,500 other staffers. (Johns Hopkins is not an eWeek Corporate Partner site and did not participate in the eVal testing.)

Ross McKenzie, director of IS, said many of the School of Public Healths faculty members do research all over the world, and they needed a way to imitate their desktop—to access applications, send and receive e-mail, and keep in touch with the school.

"It sounds trite, but the anytime, anywhere concept was the driver when we were looking at portals," said McKenzie. "We wanted people to be able to walk into any cyber-cafe and have access to the heartbeat of the school. Its a vision weve had for four years, but we couldnt do it without the framework of a portal."

In March, Sequoia was acquired by Citrix Systems Inc. Citrix officials would not comment on future integration plans.

Forresters Root said we should expect to see further changes in the portal arena, with infrastructure players eventually dominating the market.

"The infrastructure players from the bottom of the stack are working their way up, so app server vendors like Oracle [Corp.] and IBM are preparing their servers as portal offerings," he said. "The point were at in the market now, infrastructure players have caught up with pure-play portal vendors in functionality. "

Whatever the platform, Johns Hopkins McKenzie advocates starting slow and starting with portal applications that people really want—so theyll really want to use the portal.

Coleman Spas Conati agreed: "You need to focus on one area, rather than try to build something for everyone," he said. "Once it is proven, then others will want to use it, too."

Less is more—at first, anyway—for the portal user community as well. Root said, "Firms that try to start by tackling external audience to increase revenue are taking a risk by exposing a new technology to their customer base."

Of course, ROI means nothing if you cant make the investment in the first place. Root said enterprise information portals generally cost about $400,000 to license, and companies can expect to pay two to three times that to implement a portal system.

For many of the small and midsize companies that Corporate Partner Bruce Brorson works with, that price is simply too high.

Brorson, vice president for technology services at the Northern Great Plains Initiative for Rural Development, in Crookston, Minn., has evaluated portals for a number of companies with which he consults. Brorsons key portal criteria are unified administration, advanced policy management, flexible integration services and API support, an interface to decision support applications, licensing provisions for different means of access, customization capabilities, and decent performance.

If a portal can deliver in all these areas, its probably too expensive for small to midsize companies, Brorson said: "Until the services for low-end portals can compete with the high-end ones, you wont see a rush by small and midsize companies to these products."