"Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?" —T.S. Eliot
This quote greets MDS Capital employees when they log in to their Eliot enterprise portal. Jacki Jenuth, director of business intelligence at MDS Capital, describes the Eliot portal, which is used by directors and analysts at the venture capital firm, as "a hub of information." One of the ways that Jenuth's team helps users of the portal make the leap from information to knowledge is to carefully combine internal information with external news and financial data. "Content in context is the major business driver," Jenuth explains.
The importance of external content to the MDS corporate portal is not unique. Since their early days, enterprise or corporate portals have incorporated data that comes from internal systems along with news feeds, stock quotes, weather information, and other types of content that is "syndicated" or licensed from outside of the enterprise.
Too often, however, this external content becomes little more than a checked box on a to-do list with little relevance to a user's role or portal tasks. Laura Ramos, VP at Forrester Research, explains, "The integration of external content is often meant to be something to intrigue users to come to the portal, not something that is part of how they do their job."
Content provided on enterprise portals may be delivered via links, pop-up windows, or portlets, which are the portal components or views that comprise a portal screen. Portlets, which are often full of links themselves, are most common today. While none of these content integrations is easy, emerging standards promise to improve the process.
In checking the external content box, many portal managers use free content available from some content providers. This free content tends to come from basic sources and offers little customization. Greg Gerdy, VP of channel marketing at Factiva, says, "There has been a dichotomy in the marketplace where some companies recognized the need for quality content and for others it was a checklist item."
While free content offers little customization, even those customers purchasing premium content are not always able to integrate this content into the user's workflow. In most cases, these content portlets sit side-by-side with other portlets that display corporate data, the company phone book, or the portal user's email. There is often little integration between the external content and the internal data that the portal delivers.
As the portal market matures, some customers are looking at more innovative ways to combine external content with their internal systems. At MDS Capital, which uses Plumtree Software's Corporate Portal, Jenuth's team has combined industry and company news from Dialog's NewsEdge into the workflow provided on the portal. When an analyst enters a company name into the portal, he can quickly access news on that company along with data that comes from the firm's internal databases.
Phil Soffer, director of product management at Plumtree Software, explains how Plumtree-customer Mazda is doing more than deliver generic content portlets on its portal, which, through content enhancements, allows Mazda field managers to monitor dealership performance. "Mazda bought specialized content that provides benchmarks from other dealerships about how many cars are sold by make and by geography. Mazda integrates that data directly into the portal application. It's not a separate portlet so it provides a good example of content that is being provided in context."
Content providers agree that customer demands for more sophisticated portal integration are increasing. Gerdy at Factiva says, "In the last six to eight months, we've detected that people are starting to ask for something more substantial. We've started to look at drilling more deeply in our relationships with a number of leading portal vendors."
Gerdy's reference to the relationships that Factiva maintains with leading portal vendors is indicative of the manner in which most customers have pulled external content into enterprise portals. Portal vendors and content providers have partnered extensively over the last several years to provide their joint customers with prebuilt portlets. These portlets allow the customer to "plug-and-play" a particular content provider's content into a specific portal vendor's portal.
The reality is that these integrations are not always easy or straightforward. Scott Harrison, VP of business information at MarketWatch (formerly Pinnacor), explains, "There is a decent amount of work to make these things interoperable. The technical aspects require a lot of collaboration to ensure that when a customer gets a portlet, it works and there is the right customer support mechanism set up."
Harrison continues, "Each portal vendor has their own way [of integrating], and they're proprietary. If you want to build interesting functionality, you're actually creating code that is compatible with the portal application. Somebody has to write the code, quality-assurance test it, and there has to be customer support."
The portal software market, until very recently, hasn't had any industry standards that would enable reuse of portlets across portal products from different vendors. Adam Abramski, product line manager for the Java System Portal Server at Sun Microsystems, explains saying, "Each portal product had its own application programming interface (API) and so for each portal server, there was a specific way of interfacing with content and applications. That made it difficult for third-party vendors—a content aggregator, for example—because if they wanted to support all portal servers, they would have to write ten different integrations for ten different portal servers and then maintain all of these."
While this integration work has been a burden on vendors, it has also made life difficult for customers looking to integrate numerous content feeds (as well as other applications) into a particular portal. If a customer chose a content provider that did not have an established relationship with a given portal software provider, the integration work would likely fall to the customer. The customer has also had to worry about making sure these integrations stay up-to-date as they upgrade to newer versions of portal software.
Abramski explains that, historically, Sun "worked with each content provider to write portlets so that Yahoo! or Factiva content could be delivered to the Sun portal server. They were always one-offs with each provider."