Open Source Portals: Frustration and Promise

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JBoss is best known for its widely popular open source application server—soon to fall under Red Hat, since the famous Linux company acquired JBoss in the spring. Built atop the application server but less than one year old, JBoss Portal is a relatively new offering. The product shows promise, but in its current form still lacks several key features such as search, collaboration, and integration, which can be found in other comparable offerings, including other open source platforms.

Like other open source portals, the community behind the JBoss Portal is growing, so the product is likely to mature and fare better in larger implementations. However, early-stage upgrades have presented a major challenge for most other portal offerings, and prospective JBoss adopters should keep an eye on this.

JBoss as a platform is more focused on middleware than applications. This means that the product is architected for dynamic content delivery, and not as an out-of-the-box self-service portal. The platform can be deployed on both intranets and websites. However, the JBoss feature set is most suited for simple web-based portal sites where limited web content management is sufficient. It lacks the collaboration features typically required within an intranet environment.

To foster a greater sense of community, JBoss has created a resource called PortletSwap, an online gathering place for JBoss Portal developers to publish and share portlets, themes, and layouts. With the goal of making it easy for developers to actively extend the portal, the community makes both commercial and free portlets available.

The acquisition by Red Hat is still very fresh, but the implications of this will be interesting. Red Hat has deeper pockets but has traditionally remained much less partner-friendly than JBoss. It remains to be seen how well Red Hat embraces the JBoss community. In any case, consider JBoss Portal for your current portal initiative if you would like to start with a simple website-oriented portal. For more advanced use cases, you may need to look elsewhere or be prepared to invest heavily in extending the platform.

Liferay is a popular open source portal system, downloaded almost 20,000 times a month, which is more than other comparable open source projects. It boasts a large and growing developer community, and the team has kept the system clean and simple—perhaps a bit too simple for some requirements.

Liferay was originally conceived to support intranet sites. It is worth noting, though, that the product is, like most open source projects, lacking in integration with important information-worker tools like Microsoft Office and Lotus Notes. Later versions have added functionality to make Liferay more suitable for more general-purpose web publishing requirements, including shorter, prettier URLs, a blog-like "journal" portlet, and navigation and breadcrumb portlets. Liferay Portal is currently available in 14 languages and can be translated into additional languages by partners or users.

A new major release, version 4, is due out later in 2006. Enterprises considering Liferay might want to wait a bit so that they can start with the new edition, which brings several important new features. Unfortunately, it will not offer integration with Outlook or Lotus Notes. Integration more generally with commercial packages is the major shortcoming of the package.

Out of the tarball, Plone provides a combination CMS-plus-portal test site that some customers just adopt as-is. Based on the widely tested Zope application platform, Plone can form the foundation for more customized applications ranging from corporate brochure websites to full ecommerce portals. Its real specialty, however, seems to lie in community-oriented sites, which can take advantage of Plone's pre-built collaborative workspaces, interaction facilities, and knowledgebase capabilities.

Even if collaboration features are not desired, Plone provides a considerable amount of administrative functionality for general website management. Using Plone as a starting place also opens the door to many Plone- and Zope-based add-on modules. 

Note, however, that those modules are not portlets, per se. As a (rare) non-Java-based portal, Plone does not follow the Java-oriented portlet standards, and may not feel as "portal-like" as Liferay and JBoss. Any serious customization requires expertise with Python, a powerful but somewhat obscure scripting language. Plone is not well-suited to self-service portals or use cases centered around ebusiness integration.  

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