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IBM presses ahead with portal strategy

IBM is moving ahead with its enterprise portal plans branded as the WebSphere Portal.

With IBM's enterprise portal business now tied together into a single package called WebSphere Portal, the company is working to add what IBM's VP for e-portal solutions, Larry Bowden, calls "basic content publishing" to its application server platform. According to Bowden, 20% of basic content publishing is about enabling employees to perform simple "check-in, check-out" tasks between applications. 'Check-in, check-out' refers to the content management process in workgroup and shared-project environments, providing role-based development and application privileges.

The task-oriented check in, check out concept replaces the current application-oriented desktop interface. A portal interface aggregates the multiple, broad types of information -- including content, applications and documents -- required to perform a particular task. The concept requires tight integration with back-end systems. Like its competitors, IBM will look to provide access-based user roles, library services, version tracking, version control, archiving and routing, and approval workflows.

Ultimately, IBM believes the portal will become the virtual desktop of the enterprise. The enterprise portal represents the next major change in the user interface, predicts Bowden. He adds that client/server had Windows, the Internet had the Web browser, while Web services will have the portal.

To further its check-in, check-out concept, IBM is combining its system-centric WebSphere middleware and data-centric Lotus workgroup presentation-level software. Bowden says the work should be complete in March.

Context The enterprise portal market is being driven by the interest in Web services, which make it possible for companies to build bridges between systems without extensive development efforts. IDC estimates the market for infrastructure software and services that simplify integration of business processes will approach $50bn by 2005. The main enterprise software vendors are busy making sure that their enterprise portals have an underlying structure that includes presentation, personalization, framework and integration capabilities. Web service integration is vital when building portals by connecting back-end applications on a common, standards-based platform. Enterprise portals will be required to connect with myriad databases, ERP systems, inventory and accounting applications, third-party systems and Web servers.

Until now, the portal market has been characterized by smaller data-centric portal companies, partnerships with enterprise server companies and custom-built connectors. However, the growing presence of big enterprise software vendors like SAP, IBM and Sybase, and the requirements from customers for ever-tighter integration of presentation-level portal software with an underlying application server, ensures that the large enterprise server companies will dominate the portal market in the future.

Technology At present, WebSphere User Experience -- one of IBM's three WebSphere Portal flavors -- includes Interwoven's Web content management platform as well as IBM's Portal Server. Portal Server acts as a platform for delivering content across multiple channels. In addition, IBM in June announced an extensive deal with SAP to license and integrate SAP's iView portal technology into its WebSphere Portal Server. The deal provides customers with desktop access to a wide range of applications, such as Baan, Oracle and PeopleSoft. In return, SAP licensed WebSphere for SAP Markets CRM and supply chain management software. IBM claims it now has 120 application connectors available. Bowden says enterprises are clamoring for such offerings -- the IBM-Interwoven partnership announced in October already has 40 customers, he claims.

Most current portal implementations run inside a company's firewall and are business-to-enterprise environments, Bowden says. Organizations are using portals to aggregate all the information a user needs to perform a certain task and then personalizing that information to the user's task and environment.

Competition IBM faces competition from BEA, Oracle, Sybase and Microsoft. After a slow start, Microsoft in particular is expected to increase its activities in the portal market as it aims to tightly couple its SharePoint Portal Server and content management from nCompass Labs, which it acquired in April last year for $36m. Microsoft is bundling the nCompass Resolution product with BackOffice and .NET. The software giant is also expected to work to improve its document management approach, attempting to contain and manage business content such as text, graphics, documents, e-mail and standard business documents.

Conclusion Portal sales have continued to see some growth despite the current downturn in IT spending. Competition from larger vendors is a continuing threat. SAP, Oracle and IBM have all released portal products, although they are mostly still aimed only at their own customer bases. Longer term, independent best-of-breed companies, such as Epicentric and Plumtree, will come under increased pressure to survive.

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