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Web services based portals: The wave of the future?

In this first part of a two-part column, we'll look at what Web services-based portals are, what benefits they offer and whether they really are the wave of the future.

The Web Services Advisor
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Portals powered by Web services may well be the wave of the future for the enterprise, according to some analysts and vendors. They maintain that Web services-powered portals are the ideal way to give employees and managers tools for gathering information, making decisions and getting their work done most effectively.

In this first part of a two-part column, we'll look at what Web services-based portals are, what benefits they offer and whether they really are the wave of the future. In the next column, we'll examine the standards and technologies that make these new age portals possible.

What's a Web services-powered portal?
The concept of an enterprise portal has been around for several years. On a single Web page or series of Web pages, portals offer access to a wide variety of corporate and IT resources, or serve as a front-end to enterprise data and applications. For example, it has become increasingly common for companies to offer portals to their employees for human resources-related purposes, such as requesting vacation time, making changes to 401K plans, and getting information about health plans and benefits. In addition to enterprise portals built on intranets, some companies also offer external portals to customers and business partners over the Internet.

A Jupiter Research survey in February, 2003 found that 80 percent of corporations already have portals or will have portals in place for their employees. Forty nine percent said they already have customer portals, while 29% say they have one for channel partners and 25% say they have them for suppliers.

But portals, to date, have largely not been powered by Web services technology. Instead, they've used specialized servers, software or other Internet-related technologies to deliver data and access to applications.

A perfect match
That is about to change, if some analysts and vendors are to be believed. Web services and portals are a perfect mix, they say. Because Web services are written as reusable components that can be accessed in a variety of ways, it should be relatively easy to create portlets that provide portal-based access to already written Web services. Since Web services are also useful for accessing older applications and legacy systems, they're an ideal way for providing portal-based access to those applications and systems. A single portal would be made up of many Web services-based portlets, which can be changed whenever necessary. Custom coding wouldn't be required and it would be easy to piggy-back onto existing Web services. For example, if a Web service had been written to expose a legacy vacation-scheduling database to the accounting department, it would be easy to allow employees to gain access to their own records on a portal by writing a portlet to tie into that existing vacation-scheduling Web service.

There are many benefits for doing this. When portals are built using Web services, they become more dynamic and simpler to change, so that it's easy to constantly redo them as the needs of the corporation and its employees change. As IBM Corp.'s Thomas Schaeck, chief architect of IBM's WebSphere Portal Server and chairman of the OASIS Web Services for Remote Portlets (WSRP) technical committee, told Eric Parizo of SearchWebServices.com, Web services have "simplified integration in companies and can save corporations huge amounts of money, so there's an immediate ROI when you introduce a portal."

What the analysts and vendors say
Most vendors and analysts believe that Web services-based portals will become increasingly important in the coming year. For example, Ashish Larivee, Novell's director of product marketing and management for NSure and Novell's eXtend technology group, says they are a key part of Novell's push into Web services.

"Users don't want a fixed interface to work with all the time and so using Web services in portals makes it easy to deliver new services and data. Portals need to be able to deliver something that's already built -- the ability to integrate applications using Web services is what brings power to the enterprise portal."

Analysts warn, however, that it will take some time before these kinds of promises will come true -- and the first Web-services-powered portals will not necessarily deliver on all of the technology's potential. Sandy Rogers, IDC's director of Web services and integration software, notes that "there are security limitations with being able to use portals as a mechanism to actually run business processes, so the first Web services-based portals will be used for information gathering and information display rather than for business processes."

Sophie Mayo, director of IDC's Web services implementation service, says that the Web services portal market isn't really a single market, but rather fragmented among knowledge management portals, e-commerce portals and others. She believes, however, that there will be a substantial need for building "dashboards and cockpits, which are succinct portals targeted at specific users in an enterprise. For example, for a senior executive, you'd provide a stripped-down dashboard that contains only the information that's necessary to make decisions during the day." That way, instead of the executive spending his time making calls, attending meetings, and gathering data, all the information he would need would be found on the portal and he could use his time more productively than in merely searching for information.

Of course, as with anything having to do with Web services, it's unclear whether the technology will get off the ground. To a great extent, the success of Web services-based portals will be determined by whether standards for building them become widely used and accepted. That's what I'll cover in my next column, so stay tuned.

Continues in Part Two

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About the Author

Preston Gralla, a well-known technology expert, is the author of more than 20 books, including "How the Internet Works," which has been translated into 14 languages and sold several hundred thousand copies worldwide. He is an expert on Web services and the author of a major research and white paper for the Software and Information Industry Association on the topic. Gralla was the founding managing editor of PC Week, a founding editor and then editor and editorial director of PC/Computing, and an executive editor for ZDNet and CNet. He has written about technology for more than 15 years for many major magazines and newspapers, including PC Magazine, Computerworld, CIO Magazine, eWeek and its forerunner PC Week, PC/Computing, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Dallas Morning News among others. As a well-known technology guru, he appears frequently on TV and radio shows and networks, including CNN, MSNBC, ABC World News Now, the CBS Early Show, PBS's All Things Considered and others. He has won a number of awards for his writing, including from the Computer Press Association for the Best Feature in a Computer Publication. He can be reached at preston@gralla.com.

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