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The term solution can be used to describe both the answer to a problem and the method for solving it. This chapter will explore how both meanings apply to Web-based portal solutions.
Portals have been around since the early days of the World Wide Web. Whether they knew it or not, probably everyone who has ever used the Internet has used a portal. Generally synonymous with entrance or gate, a portal is often the face we see when we use a browser to visit a company's Web site, whether to search for a book or to trade a stock online. Yet as common as portals are, their name is perhaps one of the most abused and misunderstood words in use today. This section attempts to clear up some of this confusion by defining a portal in terms of its general characteristics and uses.
A portal is an integrated and personalized Web-based interface that provides the user with a single point of access to a wide variety of data, knowledge, and services—at anytime and from anywhere using any Web-enabled client device.
Simply stated, a portal is a single interface that provides convenient access to everything a user needs to get the task done, regardless of where it exists. Whether to search for and buy a book, access an account balance and make a transfer, or update your personal information in the HR system at work, the portal brings everything together in one virtual place.
|The fundamental characteristics of a portal:|| |
Similar to a workstation desktop, a portal displays a variety of information and services in a single, consistent, user-friendly interface. Sometimes referred to as a Web top, a portal can be the major starting point or anchor site that users visit when they connect to the Web. Though unlike a traditional desktop, a Web-based portal is accessible via a wide range of Web-enabled client devices.
Figure 2-1: An example of a portal on a typical Web browser
A single point of access to all resources associated with the portal domain
Personalized user experience
Federated access to hundreds of data types and repositories, both aggregated and categorized
Collaboration and user integration capabilities
Integration with applications and workflow systems
An organization has many types of users that rely on its information and services. Customers, partners, and employees each have specific and often diverse needs. To address these needs, many different kinds of portals have been implemented. These can be categorized as follows:
This type of extended enterprise portal (extranet) is associated with CRM  and provides consumers with direct access to a variety of content—for example, product manuals and availability or price lists. Portal customers might also purchase products, check order status, and communicate with customer support. Like any other portal, a B2C portal is usually tailored to match customer needs.
Another type of extended enterprise portal, B2B portals participate in supply chain management (SCM) by providing personalized access to business information by suppliers, resellers, and distributors. A typical B2B portal might provide a business partner with access to purchase orders, invoices, statements, and confirmations. Application integration is also required to integrate business processes in procurement, billing, manufacturing, and distribution areas.
B2E portals (also known as intranet portals) generally serve as a means to aggregate and disseminate corporate information and services to an organization's employees. There are two basic types of B2E portals:
Employee portals provide access to relevant content such as company news, HR information, search engines, sources of expertise, reports, and other types of information generally applicable to all employees. These portals can enable employees to communicate and collaborate via chat rooms, discussion groups, etc. Typically, an employee portal also allows for self-service, where an employee can sign up for classes or benefits, change personal information, etc.
Knowledge worker portals are aimed a particular role or set of roles such as sales. These portals often integrate content in order to support a particular process or processes. For example, an automotive technician might require resources from a number of applications such as service history, scheduling, or parts availability.
Sometimes called Internet portals, these portals are focused on addressing large audiences. There are two major types of public portals:
General public portals address the entire Internet as opposed to a specific community (for example Yahoo, Google, and Excite).
Industrial or vertical portals are focused on specific narrow audiences, (such as retailers, manufacturers, or finance).
It is important to recognize that a specific portal solution can be comprised of multiple types of portals blended into a hybrid solution. Equally important is that just as an organization has many types of users, it can have many different portals to support these users.
Figure 2-2: Categories of portals and who uses them
If we take a step back in time to the original PC days when each application took up the entire screen and used all of the computer's resources, the advent of Microsoft Windows revolutionized the way we interacted with our desktops. A user no longer had to close one application to interact with another. Each application's content was aggregated to the desktop. This same kind evolution is now taking place on the Web with portal technology.
The first portals, known as first-generation portals, were focused on providing static Web content, Web documents, and live feeds. Examples of first generation portals are Yahoo, Lycos, and Excite. In the corporate environment they had a similar objective—providing a single interface to corporate information distributed throughout the enterprise. These typically contained information such as company news, employee contact information, company policy documents, and other key Web links.
Second-generation portals focused on specific information and applications. They incorporated the notion of providing services along with the first-generation idea of providing content. Another key feature of second generation portals is collaboration. Collaboration portals provide the ability for teams to work in a virtual office. They provide content management services (the mining and organization of related information) along with collaborative services that allow users to chat, e-mail, share calendars, and define user communities. Collaborative portals are typically internal corporate portal installations.
Third-generation portals are intended to address full-function e-business. They take portals beyond the corporate boundaries for use by employees, suppliers, and customers. A significant addition to this generation is the integration of application servers. This means they provide a single point of integration for content and applications as well as collaborative services. They also provide access from multiple types of devices to address the diverse user communities in need of services. They offer the richest set of content and application choice through a single user interface to a diverse community, including browsers and pervasive devices. They also provide automated personalization via rules engines. The key to their further evolution is their open framework for common services.
Although portals come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, a few common features can be distilled:
A portal aggregates information and services into one place
It can be personalized for a group or individual
It is accessible at anytime from anywhere
The stated purpose of a portal is to provide users with convenient access to everything they need to get the job done. This includes both information and services—regardless of where they originated.
Structured data is data that as been organized (often hierarchically by keywords) in such a way as to facilitate easy searching. A library card catalog is a good example. Structured data often includes reports, analyses, canned queries, and other types of "business intelligence."
Unstructured data, often hard to search, is unorganized data residing outside a database. Unstructured data can be text, audio, video, or graphics and take the form of office documents, memos, e-mails, meeting minutes, or any other such "knowledge."
Syndicated content is commercially available material (such as news reports, stock quotes, cartoons, and trivia) supplied specifically for the purpose of reuse and integration with other material.
Collaborative services (also known as communication services) allow people to chat, locate expertise, share calendars, participate in discussion groups, use whiteboards, etc.
Content management services provide search, tracking, and data mining capabilities.
Self-service (also known as transactional services) enable users to "interact" with systems directly without going through an intermediary such as a customer representative or salesperson. This allows users to buy products, schedule meetings, check account balances, enroll for classes, etc.
One of the more interesting aspects of a portal is its ability to be different things to different people. One of the ways it does this is through personalization and customization.
Personalizing a portal involves choosing what should be displayed (the content). Often this is chosen automatically based on business rules such as the user's role in an organization. For example, when salespeople sign into the system, they are automatically presented with a list of new products.
Customizing a portal involves choosing how the portal looks (theme and skin), what the navigation model will be, and where on the portal screen the content should be displayed (layout). A portal can even be "branded" to appear different to different types of users.
Personalization and customization allow a portal to target a specific community of users (such as customers, partners, or employees). Some portals may even be "individualized" to the preferences of a particular user.
Since a portal is Internet-based, it is accessible at anytime from anywhere using a standard Web browser. The advent of numerous Web-enabled devices such as cell phones and PDAs has enabled the portal to be extremely versatile and useful in a variety of settings.
Portals provide a secure single point of access to diverse information and applications, personalized to the needs of their users. In some respects, enterprise information portals, B2B marketplaces, employee work spaces, and public Web portals have common requirements. All of these require scalable infrastructure, a flexible and powerful presentation framework, and a framework for building portal components easily. Each requires a high degree of personalization so that the most relevant information is delivered to the user, enabling a more productive interactive experience and encouraging user loyalty to the portal.
Depending on the nature and sensitivity of the information, some portals may require a greater degree of security, including specialized forms of authentication and access control. Depending on the size of the user base, some portals might require very high availability and scalability. Consumer portals generally allow users to enroll themselves and manage their own accounts. Conversely, enterprise portals often require integration with existing user databases or enrollment systems.
|The portal framework simplifies the development and maintenance of portal sites.|| |
A key building block in most portal frameworks is the portlet. Portlets are Java-based reusable user interface components that process requests and generate dynamic content. Executing in a runtime environment called a portlet container, portlets present their content in a window-like display on a portal page. Similar to a window on a desktop, the portlet window has a title bar that contains controls that allow the user to expand (maximize) and shrink (minimize) the application.
Figure 2-3: Elements of a portal page
Web clients interact with a portlet using the standard request/response paradigm. For a given request cycle, each portlet (identified via a configuration mechanism) generates specific content called a fragment. Each fragment represents a small portion of markup (for example, HTML or XHTML) that is aggregated with other fragments to form the complete response document.
A portlet is visible on a portal page as a single small window. Each portal page can have many portlets. The portlet is the content inside the window, not the window itself.
Most portal frameworks provide the runtime execution environment for the portlets known as a portlet container. This is responsible for instantiating, invoking, and destroying the portlets it hosts in response to requests it receives from the portal server. Content aggregation is not a function associated with the portlet container, but rather with the portal or portal server.
Figure 2-4: Depicts the context in which a portlet exists
Portlets rely on the container to provide the necessary infrastructure to support a portal environment. The portal infrastructure provides the core sets of services required by the portlets.
Personalization services enable the portlet to make use of rules engines and user profile information to modify content in order to make a user's visit to the portal more productive and satisfying.
Event notification services enable portlets to respond to various requests in a fashion that is decoupled from the portal environment.
Communication services provide portlet-to-portlet communication.
Content management support facilitates connections to virtually any content or application source.
Search services support heterogeneous searches across many data sources.
Collaboration services enable users to communicate and participate in "communities of interest."
User and group management services allow users to enroll at the portal and to self-manage their own preferences and account information.
Page transformation services provide support for a wide variety of client devices.
Other services provide or manage:
User profile and other types of persistent data
Security and access control services, including user authentication and authorization
Performance monitoring, load balancing, and content caching
The portal server is a specialized application server that provides business logic for a portal application. Typically built on top of an J2EE-compliant application server, the portal server provides development and runtime infrastructure for the portal. A portal server often works in conjunction with a Web server to process a client request.
Whereas a servlet can be viewed as a means of extending the functionality of the application server, a portlet can be seen as a way to extend the functionality of the portal server.
Figure 2-5: The portal server extends an application server to support portal applications
The following is a example of a typical portal request processing scenario. This scenario is initiated when the user requests the portal page from the client device.
A client device (for example, a browser or PDA) makes an HTTP request for the portal page to the Web server.
The Web server recognizes the request for a portal page and forwards the request to the portal server.
The portal server determines if the request contains an action targeted to a portlet on the portal page. If so, the portal requests the portlet container to invoke the portlet to process the action.
The portal server requests the portlet container to invoke the portlets associated with the portal page.
The portlet container requests each portlet associated with the portal page to render a fragment of dynamic content, and each does so.
The fragments are returned to the portal server, where they are aggregated to form the portal page.
The portal page is returned to the client device for display.
Figure 2-6: Typical portal page request processing scenario
Customer Relationship Management
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