When, nearly a year ago we published a report entitled “The Portal Framework: The New Battle for the Enterprise Desktop” (March 2002), an almost audible scoffing could be heard from our audience. To be honest, we had our own qualms about the aptness of the title.
The argument then was that the portal framework, a construct combining security administration, personalisation, content management, integration, and community definition, would expose, deliver, and sometimes process information derived from various other systems and applications. But now the desktop is taking a more prominent role.
Until recently, the terms “enterprise” and “desktop” seemed mutually exclusive. Enterprise software was the strategic backbone of the biggest businesses; desktop software was a peripheral, albeit expensive cost of enabling the masses. In addition, enterprise and desktop purchases reside on entirely separate lines on the typical IT budget. SAP and Oracle were the embodiment of the enterprise; Microsoft championed the desktop. They were destined never to compete...until the economy turned them against each other. While Microsoft obviously has designs on the enterprise market, enterprise vendors, through their portal products, are battling for a piece of the desktop.
Heightening the urgency, portal software has been a bright spot in a dim enterprise software market. As AMR Research’s “The Enabling Technologies Spending Report, 2002-2004” points out, 52% of companies have allocated budgets for portal projects in 2003, and portal projects rank fourth (behind application integration, databases/data warehousing/OLAP, and application servers) in terms of dollar investment and strategic importance.
Enterprise vendors invade the desktop through the portal
The concept of a portal framework is a real threat to the growth of Microsoft’s desktop business. As portal framework vendors boast their independence from client code other than a browser, they argue to obviate hefty, excessive, and cumulatively expensive software like Microsoft Office and Outlook. If corporations can deploy adequate and appropriate capability through a browser, they can save a great deal on client software and the maintenance costs that go with it. And - they would argue - the portal offers centralised control and security as well as a more efficient use of information assets. Of course, Microsoft’s heritage and livelihood depends on software on the client - preferably its own software.
While little more than a nuisance to Microsoft yet, other vendors are introducing or adapting desktop productivity and workgroup software for the portal environment. Most impressive of these is IBM’s Lotus line of products, including the well established Notes and Domino. These are decidedly becoming a more cohesive part of the WebSphere Portal picture. IBM also recently introduced a lightweight office productivity suite, including word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation applications, which will be deployed and managed through the portal. Oracle has its new Collaboration Suite; Sun has its Star Office.
Microsoft invades the enterprise through the portal
Though numerous companies use Microsoft technology as the basis for their portal frameworks, Microsoft’s only nominal portal product, SharePoint Portal Server, is decidedly not an enterprise portal framework, nor does it aspire to be one.
SharePoint will exploit Microsoft’s dominance of the desktop, in fact, encouraging users to upgrade Office, Outlook, and Windows, to employ new server-based applications like Microsoft Project, to invest in .net infrastructure and development tools, and to consider Microsoft’s own emerging enterprise applications. While it’s hard to regard SharePoint as a strategic application, it may well be the glue that ties the Microsoft desktop to the enterprise.
While companies that invest in enterprise portal frameworks often struggle with organisational issues like governance and adoption as well as technical issues like identity management and content management, SharePoint lets smaller, more manageable groups of users get going right away. Of course, the Microsoft approach comes with numerous caveats, but users have so far found SharePoint valuable and effective.
Peering into the future of portals
The shakeout of the portal framework market is well under way, and it’s going entirely in the same direction as the application server market - not to mention the database market before that. The portal framework is becoming an architectural consideration rather than an application consideration, with elements like personalisation and security administration quickly becoming part of expected application server functions. In the meantime, most enterprise application vendors are running or planning to run atop one or a number of other vendors’ portal frameworks. Seems like old times. Here’s some of what you can expect:
Though Microsoft won’t abandon its bottom-up approach to portals, it will likely offer a more cohesive package of servers and applications that lend themselves to a multipurpose enterprise portal framework. The Microsoft Solution for Intranets, which includes SharePoint and Content Management Server, is the initial manifestation of this strategy.
IBM will take a share in the lead, with BEA and Oracle continuing to be strong presences.
With its multipronged application and infrastructure approach and loyal (or is it captive?) customer base, SAP will retain a large share of the portal framework market.
While the framework becomes commoditised, room still exists for distinction in the realm of portal services, including collaboration tools, knowledge management, search and indexing, analytics, and content and document management.
Former pure play vendors like Plumtree and Epicentric (now part of Vignette) will quickly move up the stack, working atop other portal frameworks while providing specialised, refined portal services and, in some cases, specific Web applications.
Application vendors will continue to “portalise” their applications, either utilising one or the other portal framework as a platform or providing portlets that work atop a range of portal frameworks.
New boons and burdens for the enterprise
Certainly, the portal framework can make enterprise information pertinent to a wider range of end users. Better yet, connecting the portal framework to the desktop, in the form of document management, project management, and collaboration tools, can bring personal productivity more firmly to bear on enterprise performance. Ultimately, companies will measure the productivity of employees and the effectiveness of collaborative processes on the portal.
But companies will be left with difficult decisions. In fact, IT departments that once considered themselves either “Microsoft Shops” or “Anything But Microsoft Shops” may soon be forced to integrate with the other half. While it’s still unclear how .net and Java might work together (putting all empty Web Services claims aside), Microsoft’s desktop productivity software is also notoriously hard to integrate with. More than a few content management and portal vendors have made a business of this problem.
Set strict corporate policy regarding the deployment of portal technology, including SharePoint. Such inexpensive and easy-to-deploy software could lead to the primary problem that the portal framework sought to solve in the first place: the uncontrolled proliferation of intranets and other sites.
Investigate the simplest ways to integrate your most commonly used desktop applications, most likely your e-mail and scheduling applications, into the context of a portal framework. Many companies start with a simple alerting/subscription mechanism that works with e-mail.
While most groupware applications on portals are sub-functional now, a shift to portal-based e-mail will soon be more appealing and feasible. Plan accordingly.
If your desktop strategy depends on Microsoft software, assess SharePoint Portal Server’s worth as an ad hoc document management, search, and collaboration mechanism. Ultimately, a well-organized SharePoint deployment could act as a content foundation for a more robust enterprise portal framework.