Second-Generation E-Business Portals

The enterprise information portal has moved from technology du jour to mission-critical system. First-generation portal systems were primarily aimed at knowledge management applications--aggregating corporate data and content for internal use by employees. Now, a new breed of portal products has begun to appear targeting uses beyond the walls of the organization for e-business applications with partners and customers.

Market analysts predict that implementing a business-to-business (B2B) portal strategy may point the way to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. A January 2000 report from the Gartner Group forecasts that worldwide B2B sales over the Internet will grow to $7.9 trillion in 2004. Of this figure, about 37 percent will flow through "e-marketplaces," including large multi-industry centers established by Ariba, Commerce One and others, and vertical industry sites ("vortals") that target specific industries such as utilities, chemicals, metals and energy.

Growth in Internet transactions will accelerate as entire industry supply chains create many-to-many relationships online, in a shift more massive and rapid than in one-to-one retail markets, where consumers must be won over individually. "When an Intel or a Cisco tells its suppliers to buy over the Internet, it's an offer they cannot refuse," says the report's author, Gartner analyst Leah Knight. "That is leading to a B2B explosion that is going to be more aggressive and will happen sooner than anyone expected."

Electronic B2B transactions are not a new phenomenon. Led by Detroit's Big Three, automobile manufacturers have been working for several years to wire their supply chain. But implementing this plan has often stalled because the original concept was designed around proprietary technologies and expensive leased lines. As Internet bandwidth has increased, Web-based development tools-particularly portal tools-have helped to shrink deployment windows significantly.

Vendors and analysts would have us believe that the portal is a panacea for opening up corporate information and generating e-business revenue. Though it is difficult to discount the momentum portal technology has gained, a reality check is always in order.

Portal Varieties
First-generation portal products fit into a variety of market segments and technology classifications. Market segments included business-to-business (B2B), business-to-enterprise (B2E), business-to-consumer (B2C) and vertical portals. Technology classifications included business intelligence portals, unstructured data portals, mobile portals, hosted portals, collaborative portals and application integration portals. With second-generation tools, it is becoming difficult to pigeonhole products in a single category as most now deliver functionality that address a variety of market-focused solutions.

"Last year people could throw the term 'corporate portal' on any product," says Ed Anuff, co-founder and executive vice president of Epicentric, a San Francisco-based B2B portal provider. "Now they need to define their long-term strategy around the needs of customers."

Another reason for the rapid transformation and validation of portals from a boutique industry into "must-have" technology is the arrival of portal tools and related applications from large, influential companies, including IBM/Lotus, Microsoft, Oracle, the Sun-Netscape Alliance and Sybase. At the same time, smaller portal vendors have formed partnerships with leading outsourcers, systems integrators and e-business innovators.

So far IBM has elected not to enter the portal applications arena directly, opting instead to create a middleware infrastructure it calls the IBM Enterprise Information Portal. To ensure that its EIP can be deployed in virtually any type of environment, IBM has formed partnerships with leading vendors in the software development community. These include BI solutions providers (Brio and Hyperion); portal infrastructure experts (DataChannel); and portal application suppliers (Epicentric, Plumtree and Viador).

As for some of the other big names joining the fray, the Sun-Netscape Alliance's iPlanet products are built on a communications and security infrastructure to enable e-business and e-commerce initiatives (see sidebar).

Oracle is developing a business intelligence portal infrastructure to link its database technology with Oracle Financials and other application suites and development tools. Sybase is similarly focused on migrating its database expertise to a portal application.

Microsoft's "digital dashboard" portal initiative integrates its Windows 2000, Office 2000, Exchange 2000 and Commerce Server technologies. According to Delphi Group analyst Larry Hawes, Microsoft obviously possesses tools it can integrate into a powerful portal-like offering, but it hasn't brought anything to market yet and most of the digital dashboard solutions are coming from partners like InfoImage.

Portal technology is also breathing new life into enterprise resource planning (ERP) products from Baan, J.D. Edwards, PeopleSoft and SAP AG, some of which have stagnated or experienced declines in revenue growth over the last 18 months. SAP's alliance with portal vendor TopTier has enabled the company to sell its MySAP product into its huge installed base of worldwide customers. An estimated two-thirds of SAP's new growth revenues are the result of portal sales.

According to observers, the relative youth of the market and corporate infatuation cannot sustain forever the large numbers of separate portal technologies. Consolidation is inevitable. "Coming out of this year and going into next year, there won't be 100 players," predicts Epicentric's Anuff.

To avoid becoming victims of this shakeout, vendors are scrambling to diversify the breadth of their product offerings. Keeping track of the shifting scene isn't easy, even for those who watch it closely. "We're struggling to keep on top of all the new portal spins," says Carl Frappaolo, executive vice president of the Delphi Group.

As portals become ubiquitous, their use is diversifying. Here are some of the prominent new wrinkles in the fabric.

The New Look of B2B
Business-to-business e-commerce has evolved through proprietary EDI systems to extranets and beyond. Midsize companies and start-ups now are able to run data securely over the Internet instead of using costly leased lines. Java code that runs on all platforms speeds development times. The abilities to cross-link data sources at the back end for building reports and personalizing information views are necessities in this age of one-to-one marketing.

B2B is also about reinventing the business and getting new products or services to market ahead of competitors. So-called dot-coms use portal technology as a rapid application development environment for creating B2B business models, as is shown by the explosion of virtual e-commerce communities such as McGraw-Hill's Aviationnow.com (built with 2Bridge's 3.0 portal technology).

Portals offer huge savings in time, paper and manpower for supply chain management and B2B communications. For instance, Gadgets from Plumtree Software of San Francisco allow users to take components from traditional applications and build a personal experience on their desktop portals. Gadgets can automatically place the top five e-mail messages and your daily appointment calendar from Lotus Notes in a portal page every day, along with inventory reports from ERP systems and sales leads from a CRM system.

Gadgets can lay out views in 15 different ways to suit particular applications, such as sales databases or travel and expense databases. A developer kit allows users to change or adapt any view.

The second phase of Plumtree's gadget vision was announced early this year. A Syndication Module allows users to place any information gadget on the networks of business partners and customers, who are able to display the gadgets without having to buy Plumtree's software.

Turning the linear supply chains of the industrial age into dynamic supply webs is another emerging use of portals. Top-Tier's portal enabled Herman Miller Co., an office furniture manufacturer in Zeeland, Mich., to build a supply chain management system that networks 70 suppliers of raw materials.

According to Mike Brunsting, e-commerce team leader at Herman Miller, the company's manufacturing divisions and suppliers have been able to reduce inventory levels through better managed just-in-time deliveries. Herman Miller will roll out its portal to finished goods suppliers and distributors in the U.S. as well and later to its international operations.

Vertical Portals
Also called "vortals," vertical portals target specific industries. The ability to conduct commerce is important to this market, but in more complex ways than in B2C sales to consumers. OpenMarket has released an integrated commerce and content management application called TransAct for marketing personalization services and data analysis over the Web. Companies such as Ariba and Commerce One are hot in electronic procurement. Vertical communities like Vertical.net, Plastics.net and e-steel offer content as well as commerce.

For instance, New York-based e-steel is a neutral market like NASDAQ and the New York stock Exchange, where buyers and sellers of raw steel and ores can get together. Someone who has scrap steel left over from a project can go online, advertise it and take bids, just like an online commodity market. E-steel also posts news and related content about the steel industry.

A leading exponent of the vortal is SageMaker of Fairfield, Conn. This company spent several years working with trade publications and information sources specific to the energy industry to create standardized taxonomy and indexing mechanisms. Capitalizing on what it has done for the energy industry, SageMaker is replicating its portal to other vertical markets, including telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, insurance and financial services, and soon will add construction, airlines, automotive, agriculture and media.

SageMaker's portal is the jumping-off point to a worldwide information base. Access to reports and statistical trending from government publications and trade associations is free. There are also links to individual magazine Web sites where users can search for articles related to specific areas of interest. SageMaker also sells subscription services, in which the portal gathers daily or weekly content about an area of interest and feeds it to users' e-mail accounts.

Inside the Enterprise
Not every company needs a portal for B2B or related applications. They may want simply a point of aggregation for their corporate knowledge bases, bringing metadata to an intranet portal through which departmental employees can search with a desktop browser.

A plethora of developers-including Autonomy, Brio, Corechange, DataChannel, Dataware, Glyphica, Hummingbird, Intraspect, InXight, KnowledgeTrack, OpenText, Portera and Verity, as well as those mentioned earlier-also offer metadata indexing of unstructured and structured information within an enterprise. Portal tools can help by cutting across disparate operating systems, hardware barriers and file types of back-end systems. Most companies begin implementing such B2E portals by targeting specific areas where there is a definite value proposition, such as sales and marketing, customer service or research and development.

One of the next-generation portal opportunities is mobile portals, which extend customized views of the portal paradigm to field personnel, small remote offices, travelling sales and marketing teams and those who work from home. Common corporate information (such as company news, key performance indicators and human resources data) is available, and activity information is published to secure user folders on a corporate portal. Access can be fed through an Internet service provider to laptop computers, over cellular connections to Palm VII and Windows CE devices and soon to cellular phones.

Three companies appear to be first out of the gate: DataChannel, KnowledgeTrack and Oracle. To provide wireless portal data to handheld devices in XML and HTML formats, KnowledgeTrack acquired Axiom, a mobile application development specialist, for its forthcoming Portal-in-a-Pocket solution. Oracle's Portal-to-Go, built around the Oracle8/Lite database is a suite of enterprise software that lets companies deploy and centrally manage mobile applications that synchronize with central database servers.

Hosted Portals
Portal implementation costs start between $100,000 and $275,000 (with initial consulting of two to six weeks) and rise with the number of servers and clients, so many small or medium-size companies may not be able to afford one. Some large enterprises prefer to manage a few particular applications in house and outsource the rest.

Through a hosting arrangement, a company can save significant dollars, avoid costs of development and buying a server while freeing IS staff from maintaining the portal. Some licensing options allow the company to bring the portal in house in the future. For example, Hewlett-Packard and Viador have an alliance that will develop and host a portal for as little as $10,000 initially.

A hosted portal can be focused as a corporate intranet or an e-business or e-commerce site. Both HP and Viador offer consulting services to help companies build their e-commerce opportunities. The hosted portal has attracted some entrepreneurial dot-coms that lack the technical expertise or finances to put their business plan into action. Through hosting, some can begin earning revenue streams in two to four months.

There are many spins on the hosted portal concept, including a growing list of Web hosting firms that handle application outsourcing over the Internet. Application service providers (ASPs), such as Interliant.com and Concentric.com, will administer e-mail systems and workgroup applications like Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange via the Web and remote technical support. Some portal vendors, such as 2Bridge, have moved their pricing structure from a per-user basis to a subscription-based model that includes software implementation and related servicing.

Web-based portals for project management and collaboration also are coming to market. Enterprise TeamCenter Portal from Inovie Software is built on a real-time middle-tier conferencing architecture that can run over a corporate LAN/WAN or the Internet. Professional services firms KPMG and Proxicom and public relations agency Hill and Knowlton recently moved to Intraspect's "c-business" portal.

Portal Potpourri
As KM and BI software developers jump into the arena, there are more variations on the portal theme than one can track at any given time. For example, the Hyperwave Information Portal will sit on top of the Hyperwave Information Server and provide automatic linking of critical content relationships. iRenaissance has an intranet platform and Web server infrastructure whose interfaces simplify the integration of portal tools and business applications. Sequoia Software offers XML Portal Server, which it calls an interactive enterprise portal that allows users to retrieve, view and work with application-specific content through a single, personalized Web page.

"There's no question that the portal is going to stay with us for a long while," says Delphi Group's Frappaolo. And because the tools and applications are diversifying so rapidly, it's becoming more difficult to distinguish which are best suited to a user company's particular needs.

But in the end, all the variations on the theme offer users a hybrid of knowledge management technologies (data aggregation and information organization with personalized access and scalability) and e-business (speed to market, ease of implementation, reduced cost of ownership and revenue generation). Whatever a vendor may call it, to users one quality appears consistent across the board: Portals help to breed success in the networked economy.

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