Portals at the Crossroads

Portals at the Crossroads

Does every single employee have his own portal? That's how it sometimes appears to frustrated CIOs seeking to streamline their infrastructures

The past five years have seen a proliferation of Web applications and portal technologies, particularly among medium to large enterprises. Some of those portals and Web applications have been very effective, while others remain loss leaders in the IT shop - implementations that either continue to lose money or continue to struggle to meet their initial objectives.

As the hard fruits of bitter experience prove again to be their ideal teacher, companies are finding new thinking is needed, at a time when the market remains decidedly schizophrenic.

It is clear the Internet is finally realizing its potential as an enabler of enterprise business processes and applications, as sophisticated enterprise portal frameworks emerge to drive operational and end-user efficiency. As solutions expand, business use of the Internet has evolved considerably from its origins as a humble information presentation layer. With the Internet and network protocols now the standard medium for transactional application interfaces, a common portal platform for enterprise Web applications has emerged.

Will either of the current two major application interface technologies - Web content management (WCM) and enterprise portals - be the enabling technology for tomorrow's business applications? Portal integration standards look to unite these separate systems but the sheer complexity of enterprise information systems and the diverse levels of interaction most users require make it unlikely. There is also a growing need for content and platform integration as well as application integration, something that must be taken into consideration by any business considering a portal implementation.

It is a scary proposition for a CIO to have multiple Web application assets delivering different messages either to the same internal constituents or the same external constituents, notes Yankee Group director Jon Derome. When the company has two or three different applications that share information via the Web to employees, unless in each of those different instances each of those different Web applications share a consistent message or consistent information, problems can abound. Sharing a series of different stories with the customer can be even more damaging.

At this early stage in the development of the Web application market, it remains cost prohibitive for a lot of companies to build a Web application or a portal that integrates multiple back- office systems. Most large companies are dealing with multiple ERP instances, many content repositories, a couple of inventory management systems and at least one CRM application. To build a portal that interfaces with all of those systems and delivers a consistent message to the customer is challenging, and to then provide very granular, role-based information to the user of that portal is extremely expensive.

The scope for making a damaging wrong choice is high. The Yankee Group just wrapped up a Web application total cost of ownership (TCO) survey where it asked approximately 300 companies what it cost to build a Web application. "We found that the cost varies significantly depending on which vendor you go with," Derome says. "So in order to make the right choice you need to conduct a rigorous TCO assessment, or you could end up choosing a product that in some instances is twice as expensive as a competing platform."

It all poses some significant problems for enterprises and their CIOs.

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