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A tour of WebSphere Portal

Portals are emerging as the next-generation desktop, providing employees, partners and customers with the specific information and tools they need.

Portals are emerging as the next-generation desktop, providing employees, partners and customers with the specific information and tools they need. A portal can be used to provide access to various types of corporate content, to third-party information sources such as stock prices, and, more importantly, single sign-on access to multiple enterprise systems such as e-mail, ERP and CRM applications.

If your organization is a Domino shop, and you're thinking about building an enterprise portal, then odds are you're looking at IBM's WebSphere Portal, as it has the capability to seamlessly integrate your Domino infrastructure, allowing you to leverage the intellectual capital stored in your Domino databases.

WebSphere Portal and portlets

WebSphere Portal is implemented as a collection of J2EE applications running on a WebSphere Application Server. It employs portlets -- essentially content containers, or windows, which display specified content -- that can be configured for individual user viewing preferences or device requirements.

The great thing about portlets is they can be created from scratch for specific needs, with IBM's WebSphere Portal Application Integrator (WPAI), Portlet Builder for Domino, or one of the third-party portlet builder tools. You can also use IBM's WebSphere Studio Site Developer (WSSD) and the Portal Toolkit to build your own completely custom portlets. WSSD and the Portal Toolkit enable you to create, test and interactively debug portlets, and best of all they come with WebSphere Portal in-the-box.

You can also leverage over 500 pre-built portlets from the IBM Portlet Catalog, which can be purchased as out-of-the-box components. (See "Building Portlets for WebSphere," SearchDomino.com.) Out-of-the-box portlets are available for a variety of functions, such as accessing news or weather alerts, reading newsgroups, getting e-mail, displaying Word or PowerPoint documents, or for instant messaging. The IBM Portlet Catalog contains portlets for accessing specific ERP business functions, or you can use the WebSphere Portal Application Integrator (WPAI) to bring full ERP application access into the portal.

Leveraging these pre-built portlets can significantly reduce the cost and time to develop your portal.

Today, most portal products, including WebSphere Portal 5.0.2 and later, support the Sun Microsystems JSR 168 standard for Java portlets. However, that does not mean all portlets created in WebSphere are JSR 168 compliant. WebSphere developers in need of more features than are available in the JSR 168 specification may opt to create portlets using the IBM Portlet API. It's a trade-off between features and portability. For further details, read Mastering IBM WebSphere Portall by Ron Ben-Natan, Richard Gornitsky, Tim Hanis, Ori Sasson (Wiley, 2004).

Key features and functions

To create and manage all of these portlets, WebSphere Portal provides a number of tools to enable administrators and developers to manage the portal configuration, create pages, place portlets onto the pages, define access privileges, and add search, collaboration and personalization functions. It also is able to identify the client device type, deliver content in the appropriate language (WebSphere Portal is multilingual out-of the-box) and format for the device from which the portal is being accessed.

However, keep in mind that not all versions of Portal support all features. Only WebSphere Portal Extend -- the most advanced of the WebSphere Portal line -- includes everything mentioned below. The others -- Portal Express, Portal Express Plus and Portal Enable -- contain some, but not all of the features. Selecting the right package is a key factor in establishing a good balance of cost versus benefit for your company.

  • Content publishing. All of the WebSphere Portals except for Portal Express can aggregate, personalize and publish content. Portal comes with a portlet called the Portal Document Manager, for creating, editing, approving and publishing content in the portal. PDM provides a common folder hierarchy, enabling users to define their own folder structure, securing folders and publishing documents or putting them into a workflow for reviewing and approval.

    WebSphere Portal does not, however, provide for content management. That capability has to be added by purchasing and integrating an enterprise content management application, such as IBM's Lotus Workplace Web Content Management, FatWire's Content Server, or Interwoven's TeamSite and Vignette's Content Management.

    Selecting the right content management product is a critical success factor for your portal. With the exception of Vignette, portal vendors provide "lightweight" content management capabilities at best. Indeed, too many portal projects come to a screaming halt when suddenly faced with the need for managing and publishing the content.

  • Search capabilities. Portal provides search capabilities to help users find content. It can index and search text as well as 200+ file types. A sophisticated search engine supports free-text searches and query assistance. In addition, the IBM Extended Search (included only in Extend) provides seamless search integration with relational databases, Domino databases, and Internet, intranet and extranet sources.

  • Personalization. Developers can make portlets that are "personalization-aware" and the WebSphere personalization engine determines which content should be delivered based upon the rules. This saves developers from coding the logic to determine what content to deliver to which users, and allows business users to change which content is delivered to whom and when without assistance from developers. Personalization is available in all of the Portal versions except Express.

  • Collaboration. WebSphere Portal comes out-of-the-box-enabled for collaboration in the form on a programming interface, which can be leveraged in custom portlets. This programming interface is called the Collaboration Components. The Express Plus and Extend packages also include a collection of pre-built collaboration portlets called the Collaboration Center. If you're using the Express or Enable package, you can download the Collaboration Center portlets from IBM at no charge. The Collaboration Center contains portlets for Lotus QuickPlace team environments as well as instant messaging via Lotus Sametime.

    Given the seemingly endless list of capabilities which are provided in varying degrees in the different WebSphere packages, it's critical to devote sufficient time to selecting the right Portal for your business needs and budget. Evaluating your content management needs and addressing those needs up-front will also improve you chances of a speedy and successful portal deployment.

"In the next column, we will take you through the key steps and common traps involved in setting up the WebSphere Studio and the Portal Toolkit for creating, testing and interactively debugging portlets for WebSphere Portal."

About the authors:
Tony Higham is the chief solutions officer at FatWire Software and an expert on Lotus, WebSphere and Java technologies. He can be reached at tony.higham@FatWire.com.

Sue Hildreth is a contributing writer and editor based in Waltham, Mass. She can be reached at Sue.Hildreth@comcast.net.

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