The Right Choice
There are a variety of other open source portals as well, including eXo, Magnolia, Apache JetSpeed, and several other lesser-known alternatives. In the open source world, size matters. When selecting an open source portal, look carefully at some of the project intangibles, in particular:
- Community: Most can claim a growing community, but still the quality of the mailing lists and online sites vary, and except for certain areas of the U.S., expertise may be long and far between.
- Funding: As demonstrated by the recent acquisition by Red Hat of JBoss, there is big money in open source.
- Management: While idealistic young entrepreneurs aiming to solve some web problems start some projects, seasoned management lead others.
Of these, community is perhaps the most important factor. It may not seem so at first, but when you start your project you'll begin to see the value of tapping the community, as well as eventually contributing back to it. A JBoss Portal developer put this nicely: "I learned how to use the product more efficiently using the forums, as documentation provided in the user manual and reference guide is not exhaustive."
In our experience, most enterprises initially consider the community as analogous to the support team at a commercial vendor—in other words, a place to turn to resolve technical problems. The community can indeed be helpful in such situations; some might even be faster and easier than a typical large commercial software vendor. But you can benefit from seeing the community in a wider perspective. This freely available network enables you to contact project managers at other enterprises who have completed similar projects with the same open source portal. By exchanging experiences at this higher level, you can get a better handle on processes and planning to help you avoid repeating the same mistakes.
At What Cost?
Some companies choose an open source portal because they want to save money. In reality, it can end up costing you more, due to potentially higher implementation costs. As mentioned earlier, open source portals are frameworks—essentially toolkits—and at least today work best for simpler forms of dynamic web publishing and collaboration. If this is mostly what you want to accomplish, an open source portal may indeed save you some money.
Unfortunately, many enterprises misunderstand this point, and instead they try to stretch their open source package to fit other use cases, such as an ebusiness portal or enterprise intranet. The desire to consolidate systems is healthy, but to avoid excessive costs, you should remain open to using multiple solutions to fit very different business scenarios for portal technology.
Of course, integration costs are known to be high in most web projects. This is even more with open source portals, as they tend to do very little, if anything at all, to help you drive down integration costs. Where commercial portals might provide adapters or connectors to your existing IT investments (e.g., SAP, Oracle), open source portals rarely have significant experience in this area.
Another word of advice: before you make your portal go live, you should carefully investigate caching and performance optimization. None of the open source portals are built to be fast delivery platforms; they leave those tasks to proxies in front of them, like Apache or Squid. The later you begin to test performance, the more expensive and painful it tends to become in practice.
For projects that span the enterprise, customers often turn to outside integration help. It's widely available for open source portals, but the profile of any consulting firm might be a bit different from what you might expect. The typical large systems integrator usually has experience with multiple commercial portal packages, with few or no open source portal implementations under its belt. So instead you may need to go searching for a boutique consultancy, independent specialists, or contract directly with the open source sponsors.
For many large enterprises, this will be a new experience, as they'll be used to dealing with the larger and often more mature project methodologies available at a major integrator. On the plus side, smaller consultancies tend to be more agile but can also have a hard time staffing a large project. If your enterprise is spread globally, you might need to work with multiple implementation partners, as the one open source consultancy your headquarters employs typically will not have offices around the world.
The classic choice faced by most enterprises is, how much to build and what to build on? Open source portals can boast lower startup costs, and are typically just as flexible with respect to basic application development as their commercial counterparts. Unfortunately, they face nearly all the same drawbacks as commercial portals and may offer less in the way of pre-packaged integration capabilities.
Of course, if you are looking to support a personalized website or a simple workgroup collaboration area, integration may present less of an issue. If you are looking to surface data from your SAP repository, you might be better off with a commercial portal solution. With portals—as with all other software—your choices should be guided by your specific business needs.