May 21, 2012

Portal - Crushed under its own weight

Enterprise Portal is a web interface that provides single-entry for the enterprise’s products and services to its end users.Sounds like a simple web-page with links to enterprise’s applications, but then you hear about Portal Technology, Portal Server, Portal Standards, Portal Developers …., and  the scariest  of all "Portal Cost". It makes you wonder, how can a simple webpag,e be so outrageously expensive and highly complex.

It may have something to do with the way Portal Products are sold. Portal vendor sell Portal as packaged bundle of tools that allow enterprises to quickly develop and deploy their portals. A typical Portal toolset consists of tools for Content Management, Identity & Access Management, Personalization & Customization, Federation and Integration.

 All these tools do sound like something an enterprise would need, I am not sure i fthat is always the case.The fact is that inspite of the high investment in Portal, most enterprises are far from reaping its benefits. 

·         Not so quick development and deployment: Due to high cost and bulky infrastructure, there are usually limited shared test environments, causing projects to contend for testing time and wait for availability of test environment. It is hard to make all portal components available on developer’s workstation, this impacts development and unit testing time, impacting project schedule and code quality.

·         Limited Skillset availability : Portal technology requires specialized skillset that are hard to find. Also, in most cases there is need for engaging product consultants, which adds to the cost and can be time consuming.

·         Not so easy: The so called out-of-box and ready to use portal features don’t look as easy when it comes time to implement them. Application Integration is one of the basic capabilities of most Portal products, but technologies for integrating non Portal apps like WebClipper and WSRP are way too complex to implement. There are times when vendors themselves discourage to use these solutions.

·         Not real use-cases that can leverage Portal paid-for features like Personalization.

If one is to compare the investment in Portal vs the features that enterprises actually leverage, it becomes apparent that existing Portal is way too complex solution for the problem in hand (single entry point).

It has been over a decade since Portal products came to market; a lot has changed since, especially in open source world. There are better technology options for quick development and deployment of portal features. Some suggestions of open source alternatives for building your own portal on a regular Application server (I used VMWare’s tcServer):

Web2.0 toolkits –ExtJS -Provide easy and customizable User Interface, which is way cooler and easy to implement then Portlets. It comes with an excellent Portlet APIs that will have you Portal up in no time, even on an Apache WebServer, thaz too skinny..
ExtJS also have great support for application integration (alternative of Portlet)-  ExtJS Tab Panel allows you to open a browser-like tab within the your application, which can be managed independently. 
We also used ExtJS iFrame Architecture to embed an existing app (alternative of WebClipper/WSRP)

Spring Security provides an excellent option for Identity and Access Management.
Spring MVC/ REST services – Rendering services for UI.
Federated Search – Solr is an excellent solution for federated search.
Content Management - Alfresco

I think enterprises should re-assess their ROI from Portal investment against these Open Source alternatives. Enterprises are in a better position to avail the flexibility of selecting just the right tools that meet their specific Enterprise Portal needs and thus keep the their cost low and stay lean.