Enterprise Portals - MphasiS coverage in Sm@rt Partner

February 21, 2001
Join the Mixer Enterprise Portals
By Ed Sperling, Sm@rt Partner

But enterprise architectures need more than just a way to process that data. They also need varying levels of access to it in order to protect vital corporate information. You only get access to what you're allowed to know, and every transaction gets recorded.

The solution is what's known as an enterprise portal, which on paper works something like a funnel with scrubbers. All data goes through the portal, and all access is controlled through the same portal. That means you can control who gets what information in an enterprise, usually through a single log-on, and it means you add in such security features as encryption.

"This all came out of the concept of an application server," says John Chen, Sybase's CEO. "The application server sits between the back end and the Web. That means everything comes together on the application level. It all comes down to integration."

The enterprise portal differs from consumer portals, such as www.yahoo.com, and corporate portals, which are basically intranets within a company. The goal of the enterprise portal is to conduct business with other businesses, using all of the back-end data a company has to offer.

Sybase, for one, has bought into the concept and has bet the bank on its success. Sybase already has lined up 50 partners for its enterprise portal strategy, and Chen says the emphasis in coming months will be on pushing more and more business through those partners.

That puts Sybase in a radically different position than trying to push shrink-wrapped database software. "We're offering a way to bring this to market by partnering with us," says Sherri Richardson, director of global systems integrators corporate marketing at Sybase. "We've had a lot of takers."

Before you dive into this market, make sure you're fluent in middleware- la IBM's MQSeries. The idea of making disparate components and architectures work together through a layer of software has been around for decades. But now it's finally living up to the hype, and consultants are designing solutions based on it.

Still, that doesn't mean anyone likes to talk about it. Middleware just isn't sexy stuff. It's plumbing. When Oracle began trying to attract interest in its Glue project way back in 1990, most analysts and customers rolled their eyes. Not much has changed since then. And while most corporations are now willing to accept middleware as part of a solution, it rarely reaches the audible level.

"Middleware is a crucial tool to bring in information from multiple sources and multiple different platforms," says Michael Baum, president of Relavis, a software publisher and consultant that builds customer relationship management (CRM) solutions. "We sell the front end that connects to data from the back office, which includes [enterprise re source planning] or supply-chain applications. The challenge is getting information to portals. We use middleware to pull it out."

Being an IBM partner, Relavis uses MQSeries to make those connections. Companies like BEA Systems also have been providing similar types of middleware for years. Baum says customers have come to expect a middleware component in solutions. "It's kind of discussed during the scope of implementation," he says, but it's never an up-front selling point.

"Jeroen Tas, president of MphasiS BFL,views enterprise application integration as the core skill set for his company, which focuses on building customer retention and other apps for financial-services firms. The company's signature service is linking best-in-class applications.

To do that, MphasiS creates a framework for integration. It typically uses BEA's WebLogic or IBM's WebSphere as a production-level platform. In terms of standards, MphasiS uses Java 2 Enterprise Edition and XML. Typical best-in-class applications include those from Interwoven for content management and Art Technology Group or BroadVision for personalization, among others. To link those applications to a customer's business partners, MphasiS uses WebMethods or Tibco middleware. The company also develops a meta model of all of the objects in the system it is trying to integrate.

The key value-add, says Tas, is "understanding how to make best-in-class products work in terms of a greater architecture." What you do with a customer's data once it all works together is where things get really interesting. At its most basic level, this is all about managing data. Some vendors have tried to put a spin on it by calling it knowledge management (KM), but previous attempts at KM have been limited largely because all types of data weren't being combined.

Consider this scenario: A corporate sales rep is on the phone with a customer. When the phone call was placed, the rep automatically pulled up the customer's history and buying patterns. But with the new mix of structured and unstructured data, it also pulled up all relevant-and that's a heavy emphasis on relevant-data inside and outside of the company. Included were recent e-mail communication between another rep and the customer, sales figures on how the customer's company is performing, and recent news articles about its plans."

This gets to the heart of where peer-to-peer computing has the most potential. It's not about downloading music files for free. The real opportunity is global information sharing.

It's also where companies like Autonomy are winning major attention among integrators. Autonomy started out looking for patterns for government agencies, a skill that is proving increasingly important in the commercial market.

"This is all about automating processes and the underlying information," says David Appelbaum, Autonomy's general manager for North American operations. "We're able to provide immediate and relevant information that complements a process. It's all built on middleware. What we do is provide the ability for computers to understand content at the document level. That means that if it's unstructured data, the computer can process it in context."
But enterprise architectures need more than just a way to process that data. They also need varying levels of access to it in order to protect vital corporate information. You only get access to what you're allowed to know, and every transaction gets recorded.

The solution is what's known as an enterprise portal, which on paper works something like a funnel with scrubbers. All data goes through the portal, and all access is controlled through the same portal. That means you can control who gets what information in an enterprise, usually through a single log-on, and it means you add in such security features as encryption.

"This all came out of the concept of an application server," says John Chen, Sybase's CEO. "The application server sits between the back end and the Web. That means everything comes together on the application level. It all comes down to integration."

The enterprise portal differs from consumer portals, such as www.yahoo.com, and corporate portals, which are basically intranets within a company. The goal of the enterprise portal is to conduct business with other businesses, using all of the back-end data a company has to offer.

Sybase, for one, has bought into the concept and has bet the bank on its success. Sybase already has lined up 50 partners for its enterprise portal strategy, and Chen says the emphasis in coming months will be on pushing more and more business through those partners.

That puts Sybase in a radically different position than trying to push shrink-wrapped database software. "We're offering a way to bring this to market by partnering with us," says Sherri Richardson, director of global systems integrators corporate marketing at Sybase. "We've had a lot of takers.

In conjunction with the enterprise portal,other companies are springing up to make various types of data-everything from XML to Word files-work together.

That requires a translation filter, which is where new companies such as NQL fit in. NQL's flagship translation tool is Content Anywhere. "The average time to build a portal is 62 months," says David Pallmann, chief technology officer at NQL. "With this tool, it takes about 62 hours."

NQL currently is working on a usage-based pricing model and building relationships with developers and integrators for bolt-on products. In Pallmann's view, any content can be managed.

All of this relevant data, in turn, can be packaged for the user by the enterprise portal. And it can be sold as a business-process solution, or a solution to a conglomeration of computing architectures that need to be sorted out.

"Most companies know they need it," says Todd Price, COO of Navigator Systems, a consultancy. "What's different is our engagement happens in iterations. It's more a process of exploration. You provide the tools, they get hungry for more."

But working with it also means your own staff needs to be better trained in a variety of disciplines. When GRCI built the FirstGov.gov site, it had no more than 12 people working on the project at any time. "But in those 12 people, we had a lot of expertise-everything from systems to software," says Joe Brito, GRCI's technology director. "Before, engineers understood languages or routers, and they were experts in those areas. Now they understand technologies."

In this complex world of integration, that's no longer optional.

In computing's mainstream, middleware,along with client/server computing, has always been fundamentally about small boxes working vertically with bigger boxes, or servers. Historically, there was always another choice: peer-to-peer (P2P) computing.

P2P, the mainstay of such once-popular low-end networks as Artisoft's LANtastic and Novell's Personal NetWare, fell into disuse, as the greater speed, security and manageability of server operating systems took hold.

Of course, P2P never fell completely out of favor. P2P networking comes with Windows 9x. P2P also is the engine behind well-known videoconferencing and real-time interaction programs like CUseeMe and Microsoft's NetMeeting.

Today, it's back to the future for P2P, as popular distributed file-sharing applications such as Napster and Gnutella show that new-fangled, but old-fashioned, P2P file sharing still can be compelling. The new part is that with modern P2P, there is no file or resource directories as such; instead, resources are dispersed into serverless databases that can be accessed with P2P applications.

These next-generation P2P applications rely upon the Internet staples of Web servers and single-purpose specialized browser applications. Data and files tend to be kept in simple distributed databases with a minimal (Napster) central database for coordination or, in the case of Gnutella, no centralized information base whatsoever.

The new P2P has several advantages. The least relevant for business is user anonymity. MP3 song traders love it, but it has little business use. However, the other advantages-transaction speed, no single point of failure and improved network performance-could convince business users to give P2P a try. Another point in P2P's favor is that it doesn't require server capital expenses. For most P2P "servers," well-aged Pentiums do just fine.

The business question is whether P2P will become compelling again for our customers' business uses. Some observers, like Anne Zieger, chief analyst for Peer to Peer Central, don't believe that simply revitalizing the old P2P file concept will work for business.

Instead, Zieger, borrowing from Roku Technologies' definition, describes modern P2P as "a networking architecture that facilitates direct person-to-person communication." Intel's more conventional definition of P2P as "sharing of computer resources and services by direct exchange," she believes, is "too general a description to benefit technology buyers."

Instead, Zieger sees P2P business opportunities in four functional areas: "managing and sharing information, collaboration, networking/infrastructure and e-commerce enablement."

The first is good old P2P file sharing.Collaboration seeks to enable groupware without the expense of centralized groupware programs like Lotus Domino. Groove Network's Groove is the unquestioned leader in this arena. Some of the network infrastructure crew, like myCIO.com, are looking at P2P to enable software updating. Others, such as Cytaq, are planning to use P2P to enable scalable, cross-platform resource sharing across the enterprise.

E-commerce,though, might prove the most profitable P2P area. In particular, B2B players that have grown disenchanted with server-based B2B exchanges are beginning to look at P2P exchange alternatives. Companies like Biz2Peer are exploring P2P to enable B2B and supply-chain transactions. Others, such as Syndicator from AgentWare, already are being used in business. The thought is that P2P can provide faster one-on-one transactions with less equipment.

Steven J.Vaughan-Nichols

 
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