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Portal Popularity Drives IBM's Bowstreet Deal

IBM's recent acquisition of portal-development-tools supplier Bowstreet Inc. highlights how portals increasingly are being put to work as integration tools. But the popularity of portals underlines just how reluctant companies are to spend a lot of money moving from legacy systems to the service-oriented architectures that IT vendors tout as the future.

Portal technology is increasingly winning favor as a way to minimize custom coding, integrate disparate applications and data sources, and even develop small-scale service-oriented architectures. Fifty-three percent of companies have intranet or internal portals on their IT project lists this year, according to Information-Week Research's Outlook 2006 survey of 300 business-technology professionals.

IBM, in revealing the Bowstreet acquisition in late December, said Bowstreet's tools help businesses use portals to build composite applications that connect apps, databases, documents, and corporate information, especially linking new applications with legacy systems. IBM didn't disclose what it paid for the privately held Bowstreet, which at the time of the acquisition had about 75 employees. Integration-software rivals, including BEA Systems, Oracle, and Tibco Software, tell a similar story about portals and also have been working to bulk up their offerings (see box).

The reality for most IT managers is that, even if they see the value of a service-oriented architecture based on composite applications and Web services, demonstrating the business value to top management is tough. "What companies need from this stuff is quicker applicability to business problems," AMR Research analyst Jim Murphy says. Portals let them show what Web services can do without a huge investment.

Companies can implement elements of a service-oriented architecture by building many software services that can be delivered via a shared Web portal. Such an approach won't solve all issues surrounding service-oriented architectures, but it's a way to get to a tactical, or quickly assembled, services-delivery mechanism, deferring some of the harder integration problems for later.

SOA Functions But Not The Cost

Take integration vendor Tibco's PortalBuilder 5.0, released this month and aimed squarely at producing such service-oriented portals. It makes the portal an easier-to-manage host for multiple software services, minimizing custom coding by having underlying standards-based software perform many functions.

For example, PortalBuilder 5.0 will handle connections to a database server that provides information needed by a service, or it will invoke a servlet engine that runs a set of Java commands to accomplish a business function through the portal. PortalBuilder also allows a new service to connect to Tibco middleware and, through it, legacy systems and packaged applications that may be needed to make the service work. That provides a lot of the functions of a service-oriented architecture without the cost and time of deploying the enterprise service bus needed with more advanced SOA approaches.

It's a practical approach that may make sense for people such as Christina Fogle, E-systems manager at Ball Memorial Hospital, who gives a quick laugh when asked about implementing a concept as sweeping as a service-oriented architecture. Her team used Bowstreet tools to build more than 20 applications for physicians on IBM's WebSphere Portal, and she estimates the tools helped shave 40% off the development time for complex applications and as much as 70% for simpler apps. She'll use them again for new employee self-service applications, including benefits management and travel. But the thought of spending IT dollars on a shift toward an SOA? DOA.

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