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Next generation portals: will Web services make a difference? (Internet).

The Web portals of the late '90s captured loads of market attention. Names like Yahoo, Excite, AOL, etc., were all tagged as the new "up-and-corners" of the Information Age. Although the high-tech industry has cooled somewhat, today's Web portals are still playing an extremely important role in the evolution of Internet technologies. Industry analysts are quick to point out that emerging Internet technologies--especially Web services--are poised to open new doors of opportunity for portal vendors, ISVs, partners and consumers alike.

Next generation portal vendors are working hard to provide internal and external users with personalized, integrated and secure Web-based interfaces to data, applications and collaboration services--a definitive advance from the single-page, information-only Web portals of the past. These forward-thinking vendors are currently taking their browser-based portal frameworks and breaking them down into sections, regions or blocks, where static content and dynamic applications can exist seamlessly and conveniently together. And, in some cases, cursory efforts to integrate Web services into the existing portal environment have already begun. However, the big question still remains: "Can the current portal framework handle next generation portal technologies?" Based on the current portal environment, the quick answer is a resounding "No."

Currently, Web portals are struggling with the emergence of Web services. As Gartner points out, "Web services have already had a dramatic impact on portals...Unfortunately, portals [in their current state] are a brittle integration model. When used with complex packaged applications, for example, portals break frequently" (Gartner, Oct. 2002).

There are a number of issues facing the full adoption of Web services by portal vendors and consumers. And, unless the market can address these significant issues effectively, the future for portals looks somewhat rocky at best. Two outstanding issues include:

* Framework

* Data Aggregation

The Framework Question

Currently, portals struggle to integrate anything more than static content at the presentation level. The current portal framework falls far short in effectively integrating emerging Web services, Web applications, dynamic data or business processes.

The reason for this struggle is the rigid form factor of existing portal frameworks. Traditionally, portals were created in a single Web page presentation model that takes up the entire real estate of the Web browser. Yahoo was the first to create a personalized portal under this model that focused solely on delivering customized keyword searches and subject listings. This groundbreaking technology was based solely on HTML in the browser. Rich searching capabilities were later added, but only captured Yahoo's own content and only worked in a rigid framework.

As the portal environment evolved, Yahoo and others began to focus more on customer relationships, user needs/interests and overall customization. Websites, like CNN.com, established themselves as follow-on portals, specializing in media-centric content. These HTML-based frameworks were largely successful because the information presented was almost exclusively static. People could easily read and digest information in a familiar, newspaper-like format. Although there were a number of drawbacks with page refreshing and navigation, website visitors were generally treated to a user-friendly experience that didn't require extensive interaction with anything more than static text.

Overall, this media-centric framework provided tremendous value to its intended audience, but has not been able to bridge the widening gap of application/service-centric data integration. The early adoption of a static newspaper model continues to haunt portal vendors as they try to integrate Web services into next generation portal frameworks. Dynamic, application-centric data (Web services, dynamic Web applications, business rules and collaboration services) are all beginning to push the envelope of most media-centric frameworks--slowing the overall acceptance of business-centric portals to a crawl.

The bottom line for current portal vendors is that HTML-based presentation frameworks simply don't work for Web service and Web application delivery. They're extremely inflexible when anything more than static content is integrated into the portal environment. What's more, developers will struggle to deliver advanced, application-centric data in a "dumbed-down" HTML framework; and statistics show that these developers are much more likely to abandon the old framework, rather than deal with the major drawbacks it presents.

So, what options are available for today's portal vendors? For one, instead of shoehorning Web services and Web applications into an HTML-based portal environment, portal vendors need to focus more on establishing a better, more flexible portal framework for next generation, application-centric technologies. This emerging framework must be able to handle both static HTML content and dynamic Web application data and services equally well. The next generation framework must also appeal to both end-user and developer alike and must be as ubiquitous as current browser technology.

To date, rich-thin client Web application development--technologies that rely on XML, JavaScript and HTML--and proprietary mechanisms (like Java Applets and Flash) are the only options available that can effectively bridge the widening gap between the old HTML-based framework and the next generation portal framework. Although both options are viable Web application delivery methods, it should be noted that Java Applets and Flash introduce a number of significant issues associated with standards compliance and maintainability within the portal environment.

Rich-thin client Web technology, on the other hand, helps extend the browser's native capabilities to meet the emerging needs of portal vendors, ISVs, partners and consumers without requiring additional client-side software downloads or plug-ins. Emerging technologies, like Vultus WebFace, are becoming critically important to the market's adoption of next generation portal frameworks.

The Data Aggregation Problem

As portals become more accepted within the enterprise environment, companies will encounter severe data aggregation problems, especially in multi-portal scenarios.

It's easy to imagine every division within a large enterprise with its own unique portal delivery mechanism, Web service connection process, form factor, screen presentation, color scheme, brand messaging, etc. The outcome of this type of unfederated portal architecture is chaotic from an end-user, business, and technological perspective. Internal IT departments and independent divisions, struggling against one another in an inconsistent data aggregation model, can easily waste huge amounts of time and money. Business suffers, IT staffs become frustrated, and end-users lose interest under this self-defeating model. And unfortunately employees, supply chains, partners, consumers, etc., are the ones that suffer most. Without a defined data aggregation model in place, every portal user gets a different message when he or she accesses unique pieces of functionality supplied by each independent division. No one gets a consistent user experience. No one gets a familiar look and feel. Application and service present ation must be re-learned on every unfederated portal platform.

So, why should we worry about such a major data aggregation headache? It's easy when you consider the tremendous upside of federated portal technology. Many industry analysts believe that federated portals will become the new framework of the business desktop. In other words, when you come to work in the morning you're just as likely to connect to your portal as you are to your desktop. Portals have the potential of providing a single interface to everything you need to do in your job (or even live your life). Applications, business intelligence, analytics, email, instant messaging, alerts, etc., will all become much more rules driven in the future. With the emergence of Web services, business rules can easily change any content, regardless of back-end processing. Businesses gain the unique ability to alert users when actions need to be taken, rather than the other way around. Next generation portal frameworks can easily become the single interface to a more flexible, more usable desktop environment. (An Ente rprise Integration Framework: The Role of Portals and Web Services, Colin White, Intelligent Business Strategies, 2003.)

What's on the Horizon

It's more than likely that most companies will host multiple portals (by division or job function) within their organizations. However, unless each independent portal can be integrated into a federated portal architecture, the overall usefulness and practicality of a portal framework will be weakened significantly. Next generation portal frameworks must have the ability to aggregate data between Web applications and static content blocks, in a multi-portal and multi-platform environment. Vendors should also consider the merits of "unportal" portals--flexible frameworks that easily allow end-users to "dock" and! or "undock" Web applications, static content blocks, etc., from the existing portal framework. These undocked Web applications can deliver a much richer user experience and still maintain the integrity of the federated portal framework.

The "unportal" portal extends and enhances the federated portal framework by increasing flexibility and reclaiming important real estate lost by traditional, media-centric frameworks. Developers will also enjoy developing for a framework that allows them to abstract an application away from the portal without losing anything in the process. Endusers will also enjoy the ability to display Web applications in any format they want. The value here is the ability to mirror an operating system within a portal--an extremely powerful message for next generation computing. People multi-task. Applications are often related. Data aggregation must be effectively addressed with these ideas in mind.

If emerging technologies can help portal vendors address integration and data aggregation issues, the full adoption of Web services into the portal environment will become a much easier sell. However, in order for this change to occur, next generation portal technology must deliver a more flexible, interoperable framework. Currently, the "form factor" of traditional portals is a single Web page model that takes up the entire real estate of the Web browser. This rigid form represents one of the most inflexible aspects of the portal environment.

If this form factor and other associated issues can be overcome, enterprise portals can then move more rapidly to a model that encourages the creation of flexible "functionality sets" or application groupings that are specifically tailored to meet the needs of each individual end-user--and, more important, are flexible enough to adapt to specific workflows and patterns set by the end-user.

Bruce Grant is CTO, Scott C. Lemon is chief strategy officer and Marc Modersitzki is director corporate communications, at Vultus, Inc. (Lindon, Utah)

www.vultus.com
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Author:Modersitzki, Marc
Publication:Computer Technology Review
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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