Welcome To The "Profit Portal".
The goal of an Enterprise Information Portal (EIP) is deceptively simple: pull together all the information users need to do their jobs--no matter where it resides in the organization--and present it to them in a consistent manner through their desktop browser. Yet how to do just that and what combination of technologies and capabilities will deliver the goods is the subject of tremendous FUD right now, as upwards of fifty vendors frantically scramble for customers in an embryonic market. Nonetheless, some vendors stand out for the clarity of their vision, either as exemplified by their marketing, or by the design of their product, or both. Some that come to mind include Broadquest (See the December 1999 issue of Computer Technology Review), Plumtree, and Hummingbird. It's this last vendor that I want to look at here: they appear to have solved some critical problems in portal design and implementation in interesting ways and to be supplying most or all of the capabilities needed by a general-purpose EIP. The brief overview of the high points of the Hummingbird Enterprise Information Portal that follows highlights some problems in portal design that Hummingbird has addressed and, thus, can serve as a framework for thinking about EIP implementation.
May I See Your Passport, Please?
One of the most compelling problems in the EIP space is one that is often overlooked. The basic function of a portal is to give users access to heterogeneous data sources through a single interface. What this means, of course, is that the security models and requirements of these data sources are also heterogeneous. At the very least, they are all likely to have different usernames and passwords. A portal that requires a user to log on to each information source separately will deliver little benefit to an organization; in fact, it is likely to seriously damage data security--just think Post-it Notes to understand why.
Hummingbird has solved this problem with the company's Common Authentication Proxy (CAP), a server that delivers single sign-on access to every data source integrated by the portal. It supports many different authentication schemes, including LDAP, NT LanManager (NTLM), NIS, ADS, and NDS, and is also integrated into the company's line of enterprise connectivity applications such as the Exceed PC X server and Maestro host access software, giving Hummingbird a leg up on integrating legacy data. By using existing security infrastructures, CAP eliminates a lot of grunt work for administrators and enhances organizational data security. The Hummingbird EIP also offers RSA encryption for SSL support so that mobile users can safely access the portal through the organizational firewall.
In this regard, it should also be noted that Hummingbird is already looking to support mobile appliances via the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), a communications protocol and application environment designed to enable wireless devices to easily access and interact with information and services. As a first step, the company recently announced that their EIP would be capable of delivering information to devices using the Palm OS.
Learning From Egbert Souse
In "The Middle-Aged Man On The Flying Trapeze", W.C. Fields plays a character named Egbert Souse ("with an accent grave over the 'e'[ldots]") who has an unusual filing system: apparently totally random piles of paper on his desk--a situation much like that of a modern corporation, with information almost randomly dispersed throughout many different information systems. Yet Souse can find anything at a moment's notice. A portal must offer users the same capability--even more so since they are unlikely to have "filed" the information in the first place. This capability becomes even more compelling if it applies across all forms of information--structured (e.g., RDBMS, data mart, etc.) and unstructured (e.g., text, email, Lotus Notes, etc.) alike.
To address this need, the Hummingbird EIP offers a unified search capability across all the types of information it integratcs; it can even submit the search to external sites (like Yahoo) and include these results in the search summary returned. It can group the results by source, by concept, or merged according to relevance to the user's query. Search times are said to be unusually fast, in part due to the advanced technology acquired when Hummingbird bought PC DOGS/Fulcrum and, in part, due to advanced caching capabilities.
An unusual feature of the Hummingbird EIP amplifies the product's search capabilities: its ability to scan all the information sources it integrates and automatically generate a business taxonomy--a map of corporate knowledge. This taxonomy can easily be modified to accord with organizational standards and, from that point onward, everything submitted to the portal is automatically categorized according to that taxonomy. Not only can this save an organization hundreds or thousands of hours of work--which must be performed by skilled individuals whose time would be better spent on their core competencies--but it also gives users a better handle on information by enabling them to see clearly how it relates to their job.
Can't We All Just Get Along?
Hummingbird, as a software company, offers an unusually broad line of products, from enterprise connectivity to business intelligence and data warehousing, to document and knowledge management. Yet, with the Hummingbird Enterprise Information Portal, they appear to have avoided the trap that many similar companies fall into: believing that, just because they can provide an end-to-end solution, they can scant third-party integration.
The truth is, of course, that no company can be all things to all people, no matter how good their technology is. Hummingbird has taken this lesson to heart, starting with the design of the Java-based engine that manages the delivery of content and capabilities. The basis of application and information integration in the engine is the Extensible Markup Language (XML), which is rapidly becoming the lingua franca of business computing. Both the Document Type Definition (DTD), which is a formal definition of what names and structures an application should use to be conformant with the Hummingbird EIP's use of XML (in other words, a kind of API, if you like), and the actual programming APIs, are publicly available.
The API of the EIP gives developers the ability to create what Hummingbird calls e-Clips: plug-in XML-based modules that enable other applications to fit into the portal framework. An e-Clip delivers content to EIP users by reformatting information from text and HTML sources and it can also deliver complete interactive applications such as a calculator, a navigation bar, or a user page editor through the Hummingbird EIP. Moreover, administrators can make a selection of e-Clips available to users, who can then use them to construct a personalized home page by plugging in new applications.
E-Clips can be developed using either scripting (making their development possible by web programmers) or as binaries using Java. The company has already posted a number of these on its web site and is working hard to encourage the development of a developer community. In fact, the company has recently released a free Developer's Edition, which is basically a working version of the EIP for developers.
Home Sweet Home
One of the fundamental capabilities of an enterprise information portal is personalization: the ability to customize the presentation of organizational data to meet the specific needs of individual users. The Hummingbird EIP uses a "themes" metaphor that extends the familiar Windows Explorer-type interface to provide both a personal and corporate look and feel. Along with the aforementioned e-Clips, the Hummingbird solution offers a broad array of personalization capabilities.
It also includes nascent collaborative capabilities, which includes the posting of user comments to any EIP page and a bulletin board-style collaboration workspace. Of course, using the extensible architecture, major third-party collaborative applications such as Lotus Notes and Groupwise can also be integrated. For that matter, the PCDOCS/Fulcrum part of the Hummingbird EIP equation has well-developed workflow capabilities--the other part of the collaboration equation, enabling administrators to impose corporate standards for approval and other processes on the generation of documents via the EIP.
As with any credible portal product, there's much more to the Hummingbird solution than can be addressed in a brief overview. However, the company has made it unusually easy to try their EIP: not only is the developer edition freely downloadable, but also the EIP will shortly be bundled with the S.u.S.E Linux distribution--so grab a spare PC, load it up, and see if it addresses your portal needs. Even VARs and integrators who don't themselves need a portal may find this a fun and relatively painless way to learn about enterprise information portals and explore the profit potential of this new market.
Dave Trowbridge is the senior analyst of Survey.com, a market research firm specializing in data-intensive reports on information technologies, where he monitors operating systems, portals, and various aspects of business intelligence.
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|Title Annotation:||Internet/Web/Online Service Information; Hummingbird Enterprise Information Portal|
|Publication:||Computer Technology Review|
|Date:||Apr 1, 2000|
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