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Analysis: Processes, Composite Apps Put Portals in the Spotlight

The layering of an interesting mix of service-oriented architecture, composite applications and business process management possibilities on top of the portal platform may just bring back some of the portal's pizzazz.

Much of the feature fanfare and pioneering pizzazz seems to have drained out of the portal market in recent years as it's been largely consolidated into the hands of top players including IBM, SAP, Oracle, Microsoft and BEA. But some of the spark is back this year as an interesting mix of service-oriented architecture (SOA), composite applications and business process management (BPM) possibilities is being layered on top of the portal platform.

In announcing its WebSphere Portal Server last week, for example, IBM put a great deal of emphasis on "new collaborative capabilities with templates built on a Service-Oriented Architecture that can be used... to deploy role-based composite applications." The new server is aimed at facilitating low-cost, entry-level portal deployments. But the larger point is that portals aren't just infrastructure: You have to deliver applications and/or processes through them to make them relevant.

It's not news that IBM has a "portfolio of 800-plus portlets" at the ready--a prospect that was exciting five years ago. What is new is the bundling of the WebSphere Portlet Factory (acquired last December through the Bowstreet acquisition) to string those portlets together into composite applications. "The Portlet Factory lets you build those components without any Java coding," explains Chris Lamb, WebSphere Portal Marketing Manager. "That fits the SOA methodology of creating assets and reusing them, and you can assemble them using application template capability in WebSphere 6.0."

IBM's vision sounds like a portal-flavored version of SAP's xApps game plan. But IBM's list of internally developed apps seems short--Lamb mentioned only two: a Business Controls and Reporting app and a Business Strategy Execution app--putting the onus on systems integrators and other partners for templates/solutions/complete composite apps. Partner solutions and apps were also cited by IBM as one of the attractions of its plan to acquire FileNet, announced August 10.

IBM's portal messaging also strikes some of the same cords as BEA's. Having acquired Plumtree late last year to gain a foothold in composite apps and Fuego early this year to gain a BPM suite, BEA is also talking about the combination of SOA, business process management and collaboration.

"The process portal is a perfect example of where people have started to blend BPM with SOA," says Shane Pearson, vice president of product management and marketing at BEA. "Process portals are where you add the orchestration component, so it's not just integrated access to an ERP or CRM system. It's the addition of an orchestration layer, so you're stringing along multiple tasks that people need to complete. It becomes the single workspace for the user."

SAP and Microsoft shared some of the same messaging in their Duet announcement, pointing toward interaction with enterprise systems at the desktop. In its coming announcement of the next generation of SharePoint, expected in November, Microsoft is even taking "portal" out of the name of the product "because there's so much other more important stuff going on," says Jeff Teper, general manager of the Microsoft SharePoint Group. When the portal becomes the spot for collaboration, interaction with enterprise apps and use of personal productivity tools, that it's a portal is kind of beside the point.

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