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Portal or the non-Portal way?

Guest Post by

Devendra Singh, Senior Project Manager, MFG ADT - Digital Transformation, Infosys

 

The core of a Portal is to integrate content, people and processes from various sources within the organization, in a seamless and efficient manner and server as a single point of access to the key information. Generally these can be classified as B2E, B2B, and B2C depending upon the stakeholders accessing the portals - customers, employees, suppliers, dealers etc.  Based on the stakeholders, Portal is also classified as Intranet, Extranet or Web.

 

Many pre-packaged Portal frameworks are available from various leading software vendors like IBM Websphere Portal, Oracle Webcenter etc. Open source Portal frameworks are also available such as Liferay.  These frameworks provide basic building blocks to build a Portal for the Enterprise. There is always a valid thought, which comes when the Portal requirements get defined? - Why can't we write a custom built web application instead of going for a Portal framework or tool?

To answer this question, let's first see some core features of a Portal. As mentioned earlier, Portal is pre-packaged framework, it provides key features which are critical to enterprises and can become a tedious job if every website tries to custom develop these.

 

Some of the key features of a Portal are

 

1.       Content Ingestion: Rendering the content from various sources.

2.       Personalization of content and pages: Displaying the content and/or pages based on the user role, business unit or any other attribute.

3.       Controlling access to part of pages using Portlets / web part access control: Part of page can be controlled using access control features.

4.       Ability to users to customize pages as per their own need and style.

5.       Providing search from various content sources within organization.

6.       Providing Single Sign on: Providing log in once and then use same credential to render other pages in the Portal. Behind the scene the information may be coming from other system altogether.

7.       Integrate with other systems in the organization using web services, Portlets.

 

Pre-Packaged portals provide out-of-the-box Portlets / web parts for better productivity in rolling out Portals for enterprises. Developing these from scratch will be very time consuming and a costly endeavor. If you notice, some of these features are mostly required in web applications as well. E.g. Single sign on, Access control, search etc. Now the question comes why all the web applications are not developed using a Portal software. Let's see some key points for Web applications first -

 

·         Web applications are targeted to meet a specific business requirement for specific set of users.

·         Web applications do not offer any OOTB Personalization or Customization of pages for users.

 

In very simple terms we can say that Portal can be an access gateway to many Web applications in an Enterprise. This is similar to notion of aggregation and specialization. To make it more generic, Aggregation is Portal and Specialization is Web application. For e.g. Supplier may need to access various applications to complete the business processes. The access to supplier can be provisioned via a registration process on Portal where Suppliers can request access to various applications.

 

We find that Portal frameworks are fundamentally providing the features, which are highly desirable for each IT department in enterprise. The adoption of portal is still very low in the enterprises. Answer to this low adoption in my knowledge is due to following.

 

1.       Very less out of the box features which meet business need as is. Customization is needed most of the time.

2.       Performance of the Portal. This is biggest learning for me that performance of a base Portal is always a key for the success of any Portal initiative. Non-functional aspect of a Portal is mostly missed or handled deficiently. It can be due to various factors such as organizations infrastructure team and infrastructure architect coordination, ignoring the user base and heavy Custom Portlets etc. As a professional, we should have this as a key focus in any portal implementation and make sure that the base portal setup in an organization is considering the current and future user loads.

3.       Custom Portlets causing performance issues. Portlets are nothing but web applications extending the Portal platform. We should never ignore the best practice of any J2EE Web application development. I have come across instances where simple points such as rendering the result set has caused major performance issue, because while developing, simple consideration of record pagination was not considered.

4.       Portals are mostly seen as productivity improvement tool and lead by IT organization without much buy-in from business stakeholders.

5.       In few cases lose integration with the Content management tool, leads to issues where business user cannot create content in WYSIWYG mode.

 

When going for a Portal framework, we should see analyze the requirements carefully and check if requirements have mention of providing capability to users to personalize home pages, provide capability to ingest content from various sources, provide single sign on to various set of information and whether the information need to be rendered based on the role of the user, but not limited to, then it will be good to go with Portals.  If requirements talk about providing an ability to file a claim or provide an ability to purchase parts, create corporate site with public information about the company, or provide features of Internal Job Posting, Travel arrangements etc. , but not limited to, then light weight web application is the way to go.

 

Guest Post by

Devendra Singh, Senior Project Manager, MFG ADT - Digital Transformation, Infosys

 

Comments

Indeed very well written!
The business side has been very well articulated.
I am new to portals & have a query,though on a completely different track. Lately CMS products like Adobe CQ have been fulfilling the purpose of a portal by providing excellent & intuitive user interfaces, How do you see this trend and are portals going to survive the onslaught?

Good articulation Devendra. As rightly mentioned, personalization, aggregation, Single-sign-on are the key differentiators for a portal platform as compared to a normal web application. Another point I want to add here is that normally portal products offer out-of-box features like integration portlets, security management which is another plus point as compared to web applications where we need to hand code them.

Good read Devendra. The decision whether to go with a packaged offering which provides a framework and core building blocks (COTS) versus pure bespoke development is always difficult. The pre-packaged offering will typically provide a good fit but not necessarily meet every requirement. Custom/bespoke development will provide a good fit and meet most requirements (even SSO/personalisation can still be met but may warrant the use of third party modules). It seems the 80/20 rule can equally be applied when making this consideration. The decision will be depend on not just the specific requirements and technical fit/alignment, but the strategic view of the enterprise that is making evaluating the alternatives.

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