New collaborative functionality and open-source licensing bolster Java System Portal Server 7.0.

Tony Byrne, Contributor

June 19, 2006

9 Min Read

PROS

• Easy to create workgroup collaboration areas with novel wiki support.

• Reasonably clean Java architecture with good support for standards.

• Proven integrations with multiple content management products.

CONS

• Comparatively limited adoption, and doesn't enjoy as broad a customer community as competing products.

• Lacks BI and reporting tools.

• Java Studio Creator IDE lacks Eclipse integration.

When Sun released version 7.0 of its Java System Portal Server last December, the company put the spotlight on the product's expansive embrace of "Web 2.0," calling it "the first platform to integrate wikis and other next-generation platforms." With its emphasis on collaboration, the product clearly takes aim at would-be SharePoint adopters, albeit with a Java twist. What's more, Sun announced in May that it would move from closed-source, no-cost licensing to a less-restrictive approach by making its entire services-oriented architecture platform--the portal, Java Studio Creator IDE, BPEL Engine, Java Message System and other elements of the stack--open source.

Even though Sun will be giving the portal away for free, the package has seen limited adoption in a crowded portal market. Many Sun customers have opted for commercial portals, such as those from BEA Systems or IBM, or for popular open-source portals, such as JBoss or Liferay.

Sun's framework focus makes it suitable for organizations with content management, collaboration or workflow requirements. With the right infrastructure, it can scale to fit the needs of high-traffic, public-facing portals, but it's a bit less usable out of the box compared to other products, such as BEA AquaLogic Interaction Server, Microsoft SharePoint Portal, Oracle Portal and Vignette Portal.

Easy Collaboration

A major theme in Sun Portal 7.0 is better support for collaboration through the concept of "communities"--essentially portlets that run a JSP-based wiki. Each community can roll out its own set of services, including individual and group calendars, tasks, wikis, surveys, polls, workgroup searches and discussion boards. In short, Sun is taking a direct run at SharePoint, with the crucial difference that the portal runs on Java.

In a nod to business users, Sun has developed a reasonably friendly wiki editor that uses HTML rich-text editing as well as wiki tags. This makes it easier for the nontechnical user to work with content in the wiki. Another nice detail is that you can have portlets inside the wiki, which enables integration with useful functionality (such as automatically finding related postings) or external content. You must have JavaScript enabled to get the WYSIWYG features of the HTML editor, which could be a problem for users with older browsers and organizations that choose to deactivate JavaScript--they must learn basic HTML to get along.

You can create as many formal communities as needed, organized by business function and maintained by an administrator. In contrast to the rigidity of many other portal products, Sun Portal communities also can be organized informally around a particular interest and then maintained by users. All communities are indexed by Sun's integrated search engine.

To support live collaboration, Sun has partnered with Elluminate, which provides a separately licensed, Java-based tool for online meetings, much like Webex. For instant messaging you can use Sun's IM product over a provided portlet. Because it's based on the Trillian client, the IM service also supports AOL, Yahoo, MSN, ICQ and IRC instant messaging. For better security and performance, it should be installed on a separate server.

Content Management

Sun doesn't have its own CMS (content management system), but has purchased unlimited distribution rights to FatWire's Java-based Spark PCM (Portal Content Management), which is bundled with the portal at no charge. This full-featured Web CMS lets you manage content ("assets" in Sun's parlance) with functionality, including previews, workflow, versioning, check-in and check-out, all integrated through the Sun portal interface.

Sun relies on other partnerships, so licensees should carefully evaluate the long-term implications of committing to these third-party products. Sun also has a close reseller agreement with Interwoven, for example. Sun salespeople will direct customers wanting to purchase a content or document management system to Interwoven's TeamSite and WorkSite products, rather than FatWire Content Server (the full version of FatWire Spark PCM). New licensees should consider which product is a better fit in their architecture. TeamSite may fulfill broader functional requirements, but the products from FatWire are Java-based, unlike TeamSite, and might be a better and cleaner architectural choice. There is a Java-based version of WorkSite, but integrations with the portal communities aren't available out of the box, which means that the document management and collaboration systems will be inconveniently separated. For organizations that have invested in other products, Sun has integrated other CMSs, including those from Documentum, Stellent and Vignette.

If all you need is file sharing and basic document management, Sun Portal's centralized repository might suffice. You can create folders, upload/download documents and share files with permissions, and all files and folders are searchable.

End-User services

If you're used to working with portlets or Microsoft Web parts, you'll have to get used to Sun's unique lingo. A Sun portal dashboard is called the "front channel," which consists of multiple channels, each with containers inside. Channels can be developed as JSR-168-compliant portlets using Java Studio Creator. You can adhere more closely to standards by employing cascading style sheets in the presentation layer, but Sun provides nothing to manage these style sheets, which makes even trivial changes more complex.

As with most portal products, Java System Portal URLs are quite ugly out of the box unless you employ complicated workarounds. A standard portal URL looks something like this:

http://servername/portal/dt?action=content&provider=JSPTabContainer

Unfortunately, this URL is both product- and technology-dependent, so existing links to your portal will break if you later change portal products. There's also an important, but oft-underappreciated usability deficiency with this sort of cryptic address--it can make bookmarking difficult.

The search engine included with the portal was developed by Sun Labs, and it offers more than simple Web search. Federated search capabilities let users submit a query to multiple repositories and search engines concurrently (including, for example, Google, LDAP directories using JNDI, and databases using JDBC). Search results are presented on a single page and scored across search engines. The engine also offers wizards for importing, building, maintaining and automatically generating taxonomies.

Sun's search technology deserves respect from an engineering standpoint, but it hasn't been broadly deployed, so it's a bit of an unknown quantity, particularly when it comes to indexing nonportal content. Thus, it may not be the right solution for broader enterprise search.

Unlike leading portal offerings, such as those from BEA, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and SAP, Sun's portal doesn't natively provide much reporting on users and system activities. Reporting is available only through an arcane and technical interface or reading log files. Also, you won't find the built-in business intelligence features offered by the products from IBM, Oracle and SAP, so you'll need to rely on third-party integration--and here again there's not a lot of experience with this challenge in the market.

Administration concerns

As you would expect, Sun has substantial experience with large installations that feature sizable clusters. Java System Portal supports various hardware and application server combinations, but most of the high-availability experience with the product comes from running on Sun hardware with the Sun application server. Test performance carefully if you plan to run the software on something else.

The portal server comes bundled with Sun Java System Access Manager, which is a security foundation that enables standards- and policy-based authentication. This lets you secure remote access with "VPN-on-demand" (as Sun calls it). Various authentication models can be used, including Windows NT, Active Directory, X.509 certificates, LDAP, RADIUS and SecurID. In addition, advanced features such as Multi-Level Security can be set up, whereby a user who is logged in with LDAP and wants to select a special portlet would be required to meet a higher authorization level, such as SecurID.

Single sign-on is included with the Access Manager, as well as federation across trusted networks of partners, suppliers and customers. The product is tightly integrated with Sun's LDAP server, so you can support administration within the portal itself.

Java Studio Creator, the IDE for portal projects, is targeted at developers familiar with simple languages (such as Visual Basic). The focus is on ease of use, and there are plenty of drag-and-drop features. More experienced developers might be disappointed to find no plug-ins for Eclipse, though portlet projects can be created and deployed from Sun's new NetBeans IDE. The features of Java Studio Creator are expected to migrate into NetBeans 5.5 later this year, according to Sun.

First-Mover Hiccups

Version 7.0 is still less than six months old and not yet fully battle-tested. Be sure to talk to implementation partners to avoid problems encountered to date. As you would expect in any new product, there are bugs. By default, for example, Java Studio Creator will associate themes--graphical layout templates--with every portlet, but those themes might clash with those associated with other portlets on your page. What developers may really want is to create portlets without any themes associated, so layout can be applied later on a page-wide basis. According to Sun this will be fixed in a future release. Meantime, developers must make HTML changes to move around style sheet references.

Despite these glitches, Sun's community-oriented tools and open-source positioning are welcome departures for the portal market. Like Oracle, Sun is clearly trying to take on Microsoft, albeit with an emphasis on Java-based development. But it will take more than free software and a fresh coat of Web 2.0 to win over the masses.

Sun Portal 7.0 Currently licensed at no charge, but Sun has announced a move to open source. Maintenance and support purchased separately from Sun starts at $4,000 per CPU, per year0.

Janus Boye and Tony Byrne are lead analyst and publisher, respectively, of the Enterprise Portals Report, which critically evaluates 13 leading portal solutions. The report is published by CMS Watch .

About the Author(s)

Tony Byrne

Contributor

Tony Byrne is the president of research firm Real Story Group and a 20-year technology industry veteran. In 2001, Tony founded CMS Watch as a vendor-independent analyst firm that evaluates content technologies and publishes research comparing different solutions. Over time, CMS Watch evolved into a multichannel research and advisory organization, spinning off similar product evaluation research in areas such as enterprise collaboration and social software. In 2010, CMS Watch became the Real Story Group, which focuses primarily on research on enterprise collaboration software, SharePoint, and Web content management.

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