Portals – The All-In-One Web Supersites: Features, Functions, Definitions, Taxonomy

By Ramona Winkler, SAP AG – May 21, 2001

Disclaimer: Please note that this edition was written in 2001. Therefore, statements in the articles, particularly those regarding SAP's products, product strategy, branding strategy, and organizational structure, may no longer be valid.

Portals seem to spring up like mushrooms. The Portal-Mania has taken hold of the virtual world and rocks the foundations of traditionally static Websites featuring contents on a specific topic or field without any chance for the user to define what he/she really needs and wishes. This is exactly where the web portal takes off. According to Dataquest, a unit of Gartner Group, a portal enables a joint, personalized access to data, expertise, and applications. With the turning away from completely self-referential web pages and the promise of a single platform which allows the integration of different data types and applications adjusted to the specific needs of each single user, the demand for portals is rapidly increasing. Analysts at Summit Strategies estimate that the portal market will skyrocket to as high as $14 billion by 2003. IDC projects that by 2002 over half of all companies will be portal owners.

This is good reason to take a closer look at what a portal is all about:


What is a Portal?

The Evolution of Portals

Initially, the term portal was used to refer to well-known Internet search and navigation sites that provided a starting point for web consumers to explore and access information on the World Wide Web.

The original portals were search engines. The initial value proposition was to offer a full text index of document content and a chance to take advantage of the hyperlinking capabilities built into the web protocols.

Internet navigation sites, such as Yahoo!, Excite, Infoseek, AOL, MSN, Netscape Netcenter and Lycos, represented the next phase of portal development. The term "Internet portal" (or "web portal") began to be used to describe these mega-sites because many users used them as a "starting point" for their web surfing. The term "search engine" had become inadequate to describe the breadth of the offerings, although search and navigation are still pivotal to most people's online experience. Compared to the original Internet search engines, Internet portals offer a more structured, navigable interface. Browsing an organized hierarchy of categories developed by people (rather than computers) who scoured the Internet for relevant and useful Websites is more effective than issuing a keyword search against the entire Web.

While these public Internet portals continue to flourish, the market for portal technology is increasingly focused on the better delivery of corporate information. Portal technology has significantly matured since the public search sites were first built, and has been used to build a diverse range of portal types, including specialized portals, enterprise portals, workspace portals, marketspace portals, knowledge portals etc.

Definition of Today’s Portals

Traditionally, a portal denotes a gate, a door, or entrance. In the context of the World Wide Web, it is the next logical step in the evolution to a digital culture. Web pages are not completely self-referential anymore, but allow for personalization, workflow, notification, knowledge management and groupware, infrastructure functionality, and integration of information and applications. The idea of a portal is to collect information from different sources and create a single point of access to information - a library of categorized and personalized content. It is very much the idea of a personalized filter into the web.

Portals are often the first page the web browser loads when users get connected to the Web or that users tend to visit as an anchor site. They offer users a surplus value of service based on the features of classic search engines: a well trained concierge who knows where to search and find; a well-assorted newspaper kiosk that keeps the latest market information about the surfer’s personal stocks ready; free communications possibilities like email or discussion boards. Thus, the traditional virtual roadhouses -the search engines- become feel-good entrance halls, a gateways to the internet, easy, one-stop embarkation points for the daily Web-surfing sessions. The hope behind the idea of a portal: surfer start their voyage into the web in a modern entrance hall, and preferably find their way back to the starting point without major difficulty.

Portal Predicates at a glance

What a portal does:

  • Enables universal login
  • Handles both structured and unstructured data
  • Facilitates multi-channel consistency
  • Facilitates messaging and notification
  • Automated tuning: pervasive content can be tuned based on personalization, location, browser, etc.
  • Integration to other systems

Key features of portals:

  • Security
  • Access different data
  • Transactions
  • Search
  • Publish Content
  • Personal Content

What a portal is not:

  • It is not just a Website (which is usually characterized by static information)
  • It is not just a personalized intranet
  • It is not just a personalized extranet
  • It is not just a personalized front end for business applications
  • It is not just groupware
  • It is not just a personalized knowledge management solution
  • It is not just a sophisticated search engine

Instead, a portal is nothing less than just one personalizable, browser based user interface to all the components mentioned above.

 

What are the Major Functions of Portals?

According to the analyst and consulting company Ovum - as described in their study "Enterprise Portals: New Strategies for Information Delivery", 2000 - the ideal portal is based on eight functionality areas:

Although most of the functionality is not new, what is new is the idea that the business value of the whole is considerably more than the sum of its parts. Thus, a successful portal does not only consist of either a good collaboration support or a good integration of the information sources. Rather it consists of - just like a successful cooking recipe - a well-integrated mixture of the basic portal functionalities.

Search and Navigation

This functionality forms the basis for most of the successful public web portals meaning that a successful portal should support its users in an efficient search for contents.

A portal should:

  • automatically present its users with the information appropriate to the user’s role
  • suggest additional information to the user, and/or allow the user to voluntarily personalize the information presented by the portal
  • allow the user to search for information that was not previously known to be relevant to the user’s role, but which may be available through the portal

Information Integration

A portal should warrant the integration of information from disparate sources. Moreover, the user should also be able to optimally use this information. There are several mechanisms for doing this. One such promising technique of innovative interfaces is the Unified Content API (Application Programming Interface) which speeds up the development of portal applications. The Unified Content API supports all current tools for developing web environments, such as JAVA, C++, ActiveX, Visual- and Non-Visual-Java Beans.

Personalization

Personalization is vital to the delivery of appropriate information to portal users: each user gets only the information which is specifically tailored to his/her needs. Personalization should be based on user roles, as well as user preferences.

There are several types of personalization:

  • Personalization of navigation
    e.g. shortcuts to specific information, mostly known as bookmarks or favorites
  • Personalization of data/content
    e.g. which stocks do I want to see in my stock ticker
  • Personalization of layout
    e.g. what information appears where on the screen, in which format, color or size

An important high-level distinction exists between:

  • Design personalization
    the initial appearance of the portal, which may be ‘pre-personalized’ according to the user’s role
  • Voluntary personalization
    where the user is offered a menu of personalization options to choose from
  • Involuntary personalization
    where the system itself unilaterally makes decisions for the user according to ‘guesses’ about user preferences

Notification

Notification (push technology) is referred to as a system in which a user receives information automatically from a network server. Push technologies are designed to send information and software directly to a user’s desktop without the user actively requesting it. Thus, the user has the opportunity to subscribe to active information sources (such as newsfeeds and periodically updated reports) and ask to be alerted when documents are updated.

Task Management and Workflow

Portals providing task management services can help users take part in and/or manage formally defined business processes.

The workflow functionality allows the automation of business processes. Thus, as part of a workflow-automated business process, a portal should be able to prompt its users when they have tasks to perform.

Collaboration and Groupware

Knowledge management and groupware ensure that the required information is stored in the right place and in the right mode. By this means the right persons are brought together with the right information. Groupware software assists in less formal collaboration than workflow tools. As with workflow automation, groupware increases the value delivered by many types of specialized portals; for example, it:

  • increases the attractiveness of business-to-consumer e-commerce portals
  • enables informal communication between suppliers and customers in business-to-business e-commerce portals

Supply chain portals are also dependent on collaboration support in order to help suppliers and their customers manage their relationships. Moreover, collaboration support is a key requirement for knowledge portals.

Integration of Applications/Business Intelligence

In addition to the already mentioned functionalities, a portal can integrate and support a specific application type, for example:

  • an application service provider (ASP) application
  • business intelligence (BI) functionality
  • support for e-commerce

Infrastructure Functionality

The infrastructure functionality constitutes the fundament for the work environment - the other 7 functionalities mentioned above build up on this one. The runtime infrastructure associated with the portal will have a primary effect on manageability, scalability, security and availability.

 

What is the Basic Architecture of Portals?

If you bring to mind once again the eight functionalities of an ideal portal and then take a look at real portals, that is portal projects already put into action, you will probably notice some discrepancies: Some portals may attach importance to collaboration while others lay stress on notification, depending on the specific needs of the portal’s clientele, but also on the technological capabilities of the portal’s carrier.

Most of today’s portal solutions meet the requirements of only single functionalities, thus providing a partial solution for particular problem areas. This is exactly were the theoretical distinction between horizontal and vertical portals becomes crucial.

Definition of Horizontal Portal

Horizontal portals target the entire Internet community. These sites, often referred to as "megaportals", usually contain search engines and provide the ability for user to personalize the page by offering various channels (i.e. access to other information such as regional weather, stock quotes or news updates).

Yahoo! and Lycos constitute megaportals. These portals are also gateways to contents and services of other offerors.

Definition of Vertical Portal

According to Gartner Group, vertical portals differ only in their more specific objects and contents from horizontal portals, the technology employed remains the same.

Most of the times, vertical portals offer information and services customized to niche audiences about a particular area of interest. Vertical industry portals, known as vortals, are sites that provide a gateway to information related to a particular industry, such as, insurance, automobiles, etc.

There are innumerable possibilities for establishing special vertical portals on the market. The numerous solutions can be divided into 3 major groups that partially overlap:

  • Corporate Portals:
    provide personalized access to selected information of a specific company
  • Commerce Portals:
    support business-to-business and business-to-consumer e-commerce
  • Pervasive Portals:
    support access via Pervasive Devices such as PDAs
    Particularly this type of vertical portal will have a great stake in the future.

Common Architecture of Horizontal and Vertical Portal

Yet, no matter what type of portal - they all should conform to a basic architecture. Vertical portals make only sense if they are not established independently, but as a particular occurrence of a common platform - that is the horizontal portal. This horizontal portal performs and fulfills all the functionalities of an ideal portal discussed above.

The basic architecture of portals is depicted in figure 1. The middle part encompasses all the functionalities and services of an ideal portal, the horizontal portal. These functionalities should at least in part be fulfilled by any portal, no matter how narrow its focus. The bottom part - connectivity services - should be able to integrate any data type that comes into question. Finally, the upper area corresponds to the user interface which enables the presentation of all data and applications.

The basic architecture of portals

Figure 1: The basic architecture of portals

Any portal meets the requirements of this 3-layer-architecture and any portal should meet the mentioned basic functionalities. However, despite this common feature, the market keeps ready a huge palette of various portals. One of the richest taxonomy of portals is the one provided by Ovum.

 

What are the Major Portal Types?

The analyst and consulting company Ovum has set up a detailed taxonomy of portal types, their hierarchical affiliations included. Figure 2 depicts Ovum’s hierarchy of portal types. Following you will find short descriptions of the major portal types.

Ovum's taxonomy of portals

Figure 2: Ovum's taxonomy of portals


Specialized Portals

Specialized portals are designed for a specific purpose. One such specialized portal is an ASP (Application Service Provider) portal that provides its customers with access to applications via an extranet or the Internet.

Marketspace Portals

Ovum: Marketspace portals exist to support business-to-business or business-to-consumer e-commerce.

Major functionalities:

  • software support for e-commerce transactions
  • ability to find and access rich information about the products on sale
  • ability to participate in discussion groups with other vendors and/or buyers

Public Web Portals

Ovum: Public web portals exist to provide easy-to-use and attractive services to the public.

Major functionalities:

  • extensive search and/or navigation system
  • great variety of service offerings
  • mega-sites used as "starting point" for the web surfing

Enterprise Portals

Ovum: An enterprise portal (sometimes called a corporate portal) provides personalised access to an appropriate range of information about a particular company.

Enterprise portals have become one of the hottest new technologies of the Internet. Initially called intranet portals - enterprise portals existing for the benefit of the company’s own employees, this set of technologies has developed to assist and provide access to a company’s business partners (suppliers, customers) as well.

As opposed to public web portals, enterprise portals aim at providing a virtual workplace for each individual using them - executives, employees, suppliers, customers, third-party service providers. Rather than offering access to consumer goods, services, and information, enterprise portals are designed to give each individual using them access to all of the information, business applications, and services needed to perform their jobs.

A company’s public Website itself is not automatically a corporate portal. It can become one if the Website provides personalization and navigation functionality, as many are beginning to do.

More advanced enterprise portal solutions provide access via mobile devices, such as cell phones, PDA’s, handheld PC’s etc. facilitating on the road work, decision making, and business processes.

Workspace Portals

Ovum: A workspace portal is a single, coherent, integrated portal that presents its users with all the information they need to carry out their jobs.

According to Ovum, the workspace portal represents the radical vision of a portal providing the user interface people always wanted and never had: A user interface making available all the information necessary for an employee’s job role. The current alternatives to a workspace portal are specialized portals and/or the contemporary Windows desktop. Thus, the advantages workspace portals have to offer over these alternatives ought to be evident and convincing.

A ‘complete’ enterprise portal - an enterprise portal that provides efficient personalization with the appropriate information - is a promising candidate for a workspace portal.

Knowledge Portals

Ovum: Knowledge portals increase the effectiveness of knowledge workers by providing easy access to information that is necessary or helpful to them in one or more specific roles.

Knowledge portals are not mere intranet portals since the former are supposed to provide extra functionality such as collaboration services, sophisticated information discovery services and a knowledge map.

 

Who are the Major Portal Contenders?

After all this more or less theoretical part of trying to find typologies and distinctions, one should not forget to inquire the portal landscape and to take a look at real portals.

Following I have listed some links to exemplary real portals, so that you can make up your own mind about who offers the most extensive, sophisticated, and user-friendly functionalities. All of these sites offer core portal features: web searching, news, reference tools, communication capabilities, and personalization techniques. Though their specifics might differ, the portals look and feel quite similar.

Exemplary portal sites:
AltaVista
Excite
Infoseek
iView
Lycos
Microsoft’s Internet Start
Netscape’s Netcenter
Oracle Portal Studio
Plumtree
Yahoo

If you are looking for more in detail statistics and comparisons of web portals, there are many addresses on the web. The Open Directory Project holds an extensive list of portals (over 250 links) with short descriptions of their functionalities. Other in-depth statistics are provided by leading web traffic and usage measurement services such as Media Metrix, netScore, WebSideStory, Alexa, and Nielsen Netratings.

 

What is the Future Trend?

A great number of analysts’ reports inquire the future development of portals. One of the most popular reports is the hype cycle of emerging technologies for 2000 released by the Gartner Group. The cycle is depicted in figure 3.

Hype cycle of emerging technologies
Figure 3: Hype cycle of emerging technologies

The hype cycle covers information such as which emerging technologies should early adopters be examining for competitive advantage and how technology planners should identify the technologies and applications that will generate maximum benefit for the organization. Technologies at the peak of inflated expectations in this hype cycle include wireless Web/WAP, ASPs, and Webtops.

The Gartner Group expects the first portal euphoria to calm down within 2 years. Only by then will the broader market exactly know which specific portal functionalities are relevant and indispensable.

Ovum, on the other hand, places the emphasis on the portal mix which is supposed to become the new GUI (Graphical User Interface) standard. According to Ovum, "by 2005, applications that cannot present themselves via a fully-functional portal interface will be universally rejected by IT users".

What is for sure by now: No portal plan today can fail to take into account the boom in wireless devices and mobile computing.

 

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