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A Portal to the Future
Corporate portals hold the promise of supplying myriad types of enterprise data through one easy-to-use interface, but is the concept ready for prime time?
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Last year, when Xerox decided to evaluate tools for an enterprise-wide data access architecture, they signed onto one of this year's hottest Internet trends: corporate portals. Without realizing it, Jim stranz, information access technology manager at Xerox, became the visionary for a huge corporate portal project.

Why did Xerox get on the corporate-portal bandwagon? The reason is simple. The company wanted to create a browser-based internal system that allowed employees access to various types of corporate information, from relational and multidimensional databases to ERP packages, legacy systems and intranet applications. Xerox Business Services is the first division within the $18.2 billion company to pilot the corporate portal technology, using the E-Portal Suite from Viador.

"We began with the problem of how to get to the business data," said stranz. "Once we solved the data dilemma, it quickly became an issue of `let's capitalize on this Web-based architecture to grow knowledge from the original data.'"

Xerox's game plan, which is to start small and focus on delivering the specific types of content users are most interested in, is a clever strategy. A growing number of startups and vendors of data warehouse, knowledge management and content management software are launching or repositioning products, promising complete, out-of-the-box portals capable of presenting any type of content to users. The truth of the matter is that having a single interface for myriad data types is still a challenge. Vendors who have portal products from the business intelligence sector are better suited to dealing with structured information, while companies repositioning knowledge management or content management offerings as corporate portals are better at-and sometimes limited to-processing unstructured data. Eventually these products will evolve to handle all types of information well, but the technology is still developing.

Buzzwords
The term "portal" is a hot industry word now, but it's being applied to a number of very different tools. Management needs to stand back and determine what problems they're trying to solve. From there, it becomes clear what product or set of solutions they should evaluate.

For example, Xerox isn't pitching a corporate-wide portal plan. Instead, the company is focusing first on providing key decision-makers in one business unit with access to mostly structured data in various warehouses.

Oracle Corporation has chosen to establish a sales readiness model by implementing OneSource Information Services' Global Business Browser. Using Business Browser, Oracle is supplying global company and industry information to more than 5,000 sales personnel worldwide through its intranet.

The goal is to integrate in-depth company and industry information directly into its intranet application. The Oracle sales team can access this information by using a Web-based intranet application, making it easy for geographically dispersed team members to gain access to both internal and external information at the same time.

"We've integrated Business Browser into our sales process," says Nancy Clark, senior director, sales process and automation. "We want to keep our sales force well-informed, and combining a portal browser with Oracle's internal sales automation tools has increased the efficiency of our field sales organization."

Newcomers to corporate portals should start with a pilot progam. While it's fairly easy to get up and running with a limited corporate portal, there is a significant amount of consulting, integration and content management work involved as companies move toward the promise of universal access. There are also hurdles pertaining to ownership of data and encouraging employees to share with the corporate data reserves. Small pilot programs can help companies get a handle on these issues.

Portals look promising
A November report by Merrill Lynch positions what it's calling the "enterprise information portal" market as the next great wave in IT spending, predicting that companies will lay out as much as $14 billion on EIP products and services by 2002. META Group, of stamford, Conn., predicts that by 2003, 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies will manage their own corporate portals to aid in decisionmaking, improve workflow and facilitate business-to-business electronic commerce integration.

The main benefit of corporate portals, according to Merrill Lynch, is that they help unlock hard-to-reach or never-before-accessed data, enabling companies to be more proactive in the competitive electronic marketplace. Proponents argue that corporate portals help companies make more efficient forecasts, improve customer relationships, analyze performance and streamline supply chains.

A number of factors are driving this momentum. Having invested millions in enterprise systems such as ERP applications and intranets, companies now realize there is still a wealth of critical business information that lies untapped. In addition, the emergence of packaged portal products from companies such as Viador, Information Advantage, Plumtree Software and others plays into the corporate desire to buy, rather than build, complex enterprise systems.

"Using a corporate portal optimizes the return on investment on intranet implementations," says Mike West, an analyst with Gartner Group, in Aptos, Calif. "Also, by taking a proactive approach to using a portal for content management, companies can cut down on wasteful Internet browsing by piping relevant content to relevant people."

Corporate portal products on the market today come from three leagues. So far, none provide robust access to all types of content found in an enterprise. One group, which includes vendors such as Information Advantage in Burlington, Mass., has its origins in business intelligence and data warehousing. These products are best at providing Web access to structured warehouse information. They also allow for sophisticated reporting and ad hoc querying. But they have their limits. Some provide access only to data in their own warehouses. And most don't yet do a good job of providing access to unstructured data. Information Advantage's recently announced MyEureka portal product, for example, doesn't yet provide easy access to documents or Lotus Notes databases.

A second group is coming at corporate portals with a content management or knowledge management spin. Vendors such as Vignette in Austin, Texas, and Open Text, in Waterloo, Ontario, are good at organizing and providing access to unstructured data. Their batting averages are lower, however, when it comes to slicing and dicing structured data.

Then there are the start-ups, such as Plumtree Software of San Francisco, that have built products that offer broad access to a range of data types, but are limited in the kinds of reporting functionality they provide and their ability to deal with native formats.

"The moral of the story that's beginning to come out is the same moral for knowledge management-there isn't anything that does everything," explained David Yockelson, vice president and director at META Group.

Some companies, however, are successfully using portal technology to address enterprise-wide data issues. Wells Fargo's Wholesale Banking intranet usage was expanding at an astronomical rate, and the intranet team needed to find a way to efficiently manage both the content and the process. The goal was to provide an information distribution channel that would enable business managers to easily share documents with coworkers, reduce workloads, manage customer accounts and access an arsenal of sales, training, promotional and competitive tools from the office or on the road. Wells Fargo selected Glyphica's PortalWare.

"What we found was that PortalWare provided us with the right tools we needed to turn our existing infrastructure into an information distribution solution," says Jim Maxedon, vice president of the Wells Fargo Wholesale Marketing Group. "A portal addresses many of our key initiatives for 1999, including increased usage, distributed publishing, improved intranet navigation, better management of content, reduced workloads and secured content. By making our department's tasks easier, this technology helps us achieve our larger objectives of providing better quality information and resources across all our business units."

What to look for
Regardless of their strengths and weaknesses with different types of content, all corporate portal products should have several key components. Corporate portal products should include security mechanisms that are consistent with the security in source systems. They should also have personalization capabilities so users can create custom filters as well as automated mechanisms for collecting new material and alerting users when they've received new, relevant content. An indexing or hierarchical scheme for classifying data is also essential, as well as a publishing scheme for combining the different types of data.

Corporate portals shouldn't be viewed as a replacement for existing data warehouse or knowledge management initiatives, but rather as the next logical front end. That's the case at Hewitt Associates, a $1 billion global human resource management company that is eyeing Information Advantage's MyEureka corporate portal to augment its ongoing data warehouse efforts. Hewitt, which operates data warehouses in seven areas of its business, has been struggling for years to create order in the architecture.

"Portals are a new twist to something we've been trying to do for a long time," says Meg Feldner, director of data warehousing and business intelligence solutions at Hewitt. "What the portal does is leverage all the work being done in a distributed organization."

The key to the portal's appeal, Feldner says, is the browser interface. Hewitt had rolled out Cognos' online analytical processing tools earlier, but said the general user population was intimidated by the interface and avoided building queries and reports. "If you can make those kinds of capabilities feel like the Internet, people feel like they can't break anything," she explains.

There are currently two portal projects under way with MyEureka. So far, Feldner's group has been able to integrate user access into four of the seven practices. The projects, which will be completed over the next six months, integrate client information from Hewitt's outsourcing business along with actuarial customer data on pensions, 401(k) and some financial information on client profitability. If all goes as promised, Feldner plans to explore integrating nonwarehouse data into the portal, including information in Lotus Notes databases and other unstructured material from the Internet.

Beyond Data Warehousing
AG Consulting in San Francisco, like Hewitt, is in the human resources consulting field. The 400-employee division of Automated Data Processing needed a corporate portal to augment a two-year-old knowledge management project designed to improve the way consultants shared best practices. Specifically, AG Consulting was looking for a way to give on-the-road consultants remote access to unstructured information, from Notes databases to legacy documents and material posted on competitors' Web sites.

"Consultants had to proactively seek out information, which was labor-intensive," sayes Wayne Lord, vice president of IT for AG Consulting. "It was frustrating. The biggest complaint was, `I can't find it.'"

Finding the right portal product to manage the specific type of data its users were after was difficult. AG Consulting failed on its first try when it chose a document management system. The document-oriented approach couldn't handle all of the data types being accessed by AG's consultants, so the company switched to Plumtree Software's Plumtree corporate portal product. Version 3.0 of the software not only handles a wider variety of data, but it also allows users to easily create customized, up-to-date reports or tickers via its support of what Plumtree calls Gadgets.

Similar in appearance to the custom stock portfolios and sports scoreboards that grace Internet portals such as My Yahoo!, Gadgets aggregates key services for business users. In the long term, AG Consulting may explore integrating structured data from Oracle Corp.'s Oracle Financials into the portal as well as expanding it to function as an extranet, so clients could check their own billing information, for example.

The limitations in the existing lineup of corporate portal products are prompting some IT managers to develop their own offerings. General Motors Chief Technology Officer Dennis Walsh buys into the concept of a corporate portal, but he's skeptical that any one product can perform on the scale needed by his company. As a result, GM is using DataChannel's XML framework to "Webify" its architecture and give users access to legacy data through a portal. "Most of these portals-in-a-box point in one direction," Walsh said. "I haven't seen many of them plug into everything we have in our environment."

But even though most current products are well-suited to presenting only portions of data and information types, portals can still deliver value, say advocates such as Xerox's stranz. He is using Viador's E-Portal Suite as the platform for the Knowledge Center, a model for cross-organizational reporting and knowledge management. According to Tamara Burris, manager of Xerox's field operations management support, Viador extends the group's data mart efforts with a platform that will encourage coaching and sharing of best practices.

The next step, Burris says, is to get business sponsorship for extending the Knowledge Center to more Xerox business units and to persuade users to begin sharing information via the portal. If and when that happens at corporations such as Xerox, the corporate portal concept will have proved it's ready for the big time.


Contacts


Cognos
13-738-1440
www.cognos.com

Glyphica
(650) 428-1800
www.glyphica.com

Information Advantage
(612) 833-3700
www.infoadvan.com

Open Text
(800) 499-6544
www.opentext.com

Plumtree Software
(415) 263-8900
www.plumtree.com

One Source Information Systems
(800) 554-5501
www.onesource.com

Viador
(650) 685-3000
www.viador.co

Vignette
(888) 608-9900
www.vignette.com

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