Open Source Portals: Frustration and Promise

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Enterprise portals have become a common component of IT infrastructures, even if many portal software customers struggle to get full value from their portal investments amid basic questions about their purpose and value. While portal remains a broadly misused word, enterprise IT leaders consistently rank portal technology near the top of their investment plans. Not surprisingly, open source portal projects are trying to claim their share of the buzz.

There is a case for and against the open source alternative. The case against open source portals is this: they are generally immature, and adopters struggle with persistent performance bottlenecks, implementation delays, cost overruns, and poor usability. However, the very same problems also tend to plague projects with commercial portal software. And the good news is that there is a handful of fairly large open source projects whose communities can provide substantial support in what is typically a difficult implementation journey.

It turns out that portal tools available today represent just the tip of the project iceberg, and nearly all portal customers are struggling with adoption. Understood in that light, it might make sense to consider open source alternatives for your portal technology project—if you can match the right tool to your specific needs. Below we examine three open source portals to give you a sense of how they might match up against your specific goals.

Not a Magic Bullet
Portal is a term that bears many definitions. Telling colleagues at your enterprise that you are "heading up a portal project" offers no guarantee that they will understand it nearly as well as you do.

Some of the confusion stems from the fact that portals—like any enterprise-scale software—can offer a wide range of functionality, in contrast to more self-contained applications. Portals are certainly not self-contained; they reach multiple points in an organization but do not necessarily have a single "owner." For the purpose of this article, we've used Wikipedia's current definition: 

Portal: a framework for integrating information, applications, and processes across organizational boundaries. 

This framework enables enterprises to address a variety of business initiatives, such as the following: 

  • employee and customer self-service 
  • enterprise intranets
  • workgroup and enterprise collaboration 
  • ebusiness networks 
  • enterprise integration 
  • dynamic web publishing

As we'll see later in the article, the most significant open source portals available on the market today mainly address the last use case—dynamic web publishing—and remain rather weak for most of the other use cases. 

No portal, open source or commercial, should be considered an "out-of-the-box" solution today. Sometimes additional modules are available for an open source portal, which can help reduce the need for customization and additional development. In other cases, many enterprises are left with a framework (a tip of the iceberg) requiring a lot of subsequent effort in order to mold that framework to their requirements. 

Open source portals are more appropriate for organizations familiar with using and maintaining open source software, especially with regard to what can be challenging issues of integration with existing commercial products in the enterprise. The most mature open source projects have a strong developer base, and some (such as Plone) have reached widescale commercial adoption, albeit principally at smaller enterprises. However, if you are not already familiar with using open source platforms, you might want to avoid experimenting under such high business stakes as a portal project. Remember that open source infrastructure projects, such as the MySQL database and Apache web server, are significantly more mature and widely adopted than open source portals. 

In our research for the recently released Enterprise Portals Report, we interviewed customers, consultants, and system integrators around the world, and identified three open source portals that seem to have established themselves on the scene as the most significant projects: JBoss Portal, Liferay, and Plone.

Open Source Portal Projects 
Liferay portal builds on open standards, including the well-known JSR-168 specification for portlets, and multiple other open source technologies. Similarly, JBoss is designed for J2EE-oriented environments. Plone is a content management- and collaboration-oriented portal built on top of Zope. Zope is a Python-based application server with many services supporting content management, user management, and workflow.

Like other open source platforms, these three have the advantage of minimal or zero licensing cost, as well as full access to the underlying source code. All three of them are backed by commercial ventures offering consulting and other customization services. 

Usability is not a key strength for any of these projects. Their user interfaces are typically designed for the super-user who works with the system every day. Your occasional business user may well find the interfaces intimidating. To foster wide adoption you will need to look at ways to tailor the user interface to fit your business scenario. However, you will want to avoid doing so much customization that a future upgrade becomes an excruciating project in itself.    

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