Portal Proliferation Benefits E-Business

SAN MATEO (04/21/2000) - With the e-commerce market exploding, portals are becoming a key element in bringing together an enterprise's employees, business partners, and customers through one interface. For this reason, portals are rapidly expanding into the b-to-c (business-to-consumer), b-to-b (business-to-business), and business-to-employee arenas.

To help companies create such portals, vendors, including Viador Inc., Sun-Netscape Alliance, and Plumtree Software, are adding capabilities such as XML support and syndication to their products and are creating platform-based or modular portal frameworks, which can be tailored to fit a business's needs.

Most corporate portals began as internal company intranets, but their role as aggregators, which serve as a single access and management point for information, applications, and other data, has sparked the interest of companies taking their business to the Web.

"Portals are evolving [into] a fundamental platform for the business itself," said Nathaniel Palmer, a senior analyst at The Delphi Group, in Boston. "[Users are] looking at the portal first for employees -- being able to provide HR, inventory, and personalized information through one interface -- then at using that same device to extend [data] to partners ... then, long-term, to customers and prospects, going all the way down the value chain."

For Viador, which focuses on portals for e-business information, portals are also finding a role as development platforms. This week, Viador will unveil E-Portal XML, adding native XML support to its E-Portal Suite. Expected to be available in the third quarter of 2000, E-Portal XML will allow transformation of portal content to XML as well as multiple-portal access through XML connections.

"The beauty of XML is that it separates the data from the rendition of the data; once you communicate information in XML, you can then quite easily have the data made available by applying style sheets to it in a different format," said Steven Dille, vice president of marketing at Viador. Dille also noted that this will enable portal access from wireless devices.

XML support is high on the priority list for most portal vendors, but Sequoia Software has already embedded the technology as "the fundamental DNA" of its Sequoia XML Portal Server, said Mark Wesker, president of Sequoia.

XML's capacity to allow change and manage disparate data formats on the fly makes it a natural choice to link the multiple applications represented in a portal, Wesker said.

According to Wesker, Sequoia's next portal server release, code-named Normandy, will unbundle its platform components and portal features, allowing customers to leverage them as separate applications or tools. One of the first pieces that will emerge is Sequoia's XML indexing component, called XDex.

Other than resource aggregation, Wesker also sees business simplification as a major benefit of portals.

"I think portals are truly facilitating more e-processes than anything else," Wesker explained. "They are changing the way business processes have been done to give customers access to information they'd otherwise be calling around for and [are] streamlining business processes by reducing the transaction costs of carrying them out."

John Fanelli, director of portal product marketing at Sun-Netscape Alliance, agreed that portals have the capability of changing how online business is conducted.

"You're starting to see companies realize the value of portals in the b-to-c space and b-to-b portals being implemented in the guise of digital marketplaces," Fanelli said. "Portals are enabling the optimization of business over the Web."

Sun-Netscape Alliance's iPlanet Portal Server is a horizontal platform on which companies can build various types of portals rather than having to purchase single-portal solutions from several vendors.

"We look at the portal as being kind of the next generation of infrastructure; so it's got to have that broad [development] capability, and it's got to have ISVs that support that broad capability to enable rapid development of customized portals," Fanelli said.

For Epicentric, which recently unveiled its hosted corporate portal service, customization and rapid deployment are vital to a company's success.

"Portals are really going hand-in-hand with a lot of the b-to-b exchange activity we're seeing," said Ed Anuff, chairman and founder of Epicentric. "The portal really serves to provide the context for e-commerce transactions."

Future Epicentric products will continue to focus on rapid rollouts and improving management, Anuff said.

Syndication, the capability of sharing portal components and content between several companies, is also a fundamental part of both Sun-Netscape Alliance's and Epicentric's portal visions. According to Glenn Kelman, vice president of marketing at Plumtree, this is an area that Plumtree is addressing.

Syndication allows a company to "strip giant applications for parts," turning those business applications into smaller chunks, which Plumtree calls Portal Gadgets, Kelman said. "[Through syndication] those parts can be distributed to other Web sites, so I can take a chunk of mySAP or a chunk of 'mySiebel' and put that on my customer's intranet."

The Plumtree Corporate Portal currently sports a modular architecture, so customers can choose which Gadgets to include in their portal interface. Future plans include providing large portals for Fortune 50-size companies, as well as expanding the Gadget library through business partnerships.

Bob Breton, senior director of product strategy for the enterprise solutions division at Sybase, noted the recent push to turn e-commerce transactions into fuller and more personalized relationships.

"We see [portals] stepping up over the longer term, moving from just purely trying to pull someone in and engage them in a business transaction to really managing this whole business relationship life cycle from the beginning all the way through that whole customer experience," Breton said.

Sybase's Enterprise Portal will be targeted at large financial, telecommunications, and health care enterprises that have a b-to-b focus, Breton added.

"We sort of believe that b-to-b will become the lifeblood of future e-business," Epicentric's Anuff said. "With all these marketplaces and other approaches to business entering the market now, it will be interesting to see how this all shapes up."

Viador Inc., in San Mateo, California, is at www.viador.com. Sequoia Software Corp., in Columbia, Maryland, is at www.sequoiasoftware.com. Sun-Netscape Alliance, in Mountain View, California, is at www.iplanet.com. Epicentric Inc., in San Francisco, is at www.epicentric.com. Plumtree Software, in San Francisco, is at www.plumtree.com. Sybase Inc., in Emeryville, California, is at www.sybase.com.

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