Here's an old joke: "When is a door not a door? When it's ajar." The enterprise Java corollary? "When is a portal not a portal? When it's trying to be a full blown, full featured content management system (CMS)." Sadly, software architects and software developers know that the historical problem of integrating a full blown content management system into a pre-packaged enterprise Java portal solution is not a joke, and even today, the integration of the two technologies remains a pain point.
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Historically speaking, enterprise Java portals seem to have a numbingly predictable tendency to disappoint when you try to use them as a content management system. They make even simple tasks into needlessly complex multi-step processes. And this shouldn't be seen as a pot-shot at any one vendor in particular, as all the major portal products on the market seem to be mired in this problem of trying to do too much, and not focusing on the core capabilities that would make a portal server helpful and useful.
Red Hat's Jason Andersen "gets it"
Jason Andersen, Director of Product Line Management forJBoss at Red Hat, admits that this is a knotty issue. "The content management piece is really a very complex problem. There have been a few different approaches over the years – and we've attempted some of them." One approach was to leverage the existing administrative graphic file management capabilities of the portal for content management. The results were mixed, with the tool simply not being full featured enough on the user authoring side, as line of business users wanted more of a WYSWIG interface. And this experience certainly isn't endemic to only the open source community. Even the big vendors like IBM with their WebSphere line of products have been watching long-time clients ditch their expensive portal-based CMS systems and just go with a free WordPress or Joomla solution instead.
The bottom line is that people who actually create content want an easy way to get it up online fast. The portal is great on the application delivery and content aggregation side of things, but actually feeding a steady stream of content onto the web using a typical portal's interface as the user upload point is simply not an intuitive process. Andersen says it's not really fair to blame the portal, "Part of the reason portals are getting such a bad rap is that people are trying to do too much with them and turn them into something they're not."
Is the portal really the problem?
Ray Augé, Senior Software Architect at Liferay, sees the issue a little differently. He's thinks it's trying to turn portal engineers and developers into something they're not that is really the underlying issue. He's a strong internal advocate for making content management a snap-in component of Liferay rather than part of the core. That way, a dedicated team can take it along the correct path as its own vertical subset. "We're a portal company. If we want to have any kind of content management aspect to our portal, we have to give it to content management people. We have to let content management experts work on that."
If the content management piece was decoupled from the rest of the core, it wouldn't have to be driven by the same set of requirements. As it is, there's just not enough freedom to innovate and perfect the content management side of things. Ray believes this is why even the interesting content management aspects of the portal don't quite measure up to standalone solutions yet. For example, Liferay has a decent blogging capability but there aren't any organizations using the portal as a massively distributed blogging infrastructure. It just isn't on a par with infrastructures that care only about blogs. Ray says the key is to give the experts free rein to take full responsibility for the content management aspect of the portal. "You have to release the hounds. You have to say: blog guys, go work on the blog and make it the best blog there is."
While Liferay may indeed find that the best way forward is with internal experts, the JBoss team is actually taking a step back from trying to create and package a full scale, industry leading content management system that is above and beyond what vendors who are focused exclusively on that segment are creating. Instead, Red Hat is integrating with partners who can fill the gap with Best of Breed CMS solutions. In the end, it's really the same fix for the same problem. Either way, we may finally see a blended solution that actually works in the near future.
The bottom line? Portals are here to stay
In the meantime, there's still a critical need that portals do fill. In fact, there are a few things that portals do better than any other type of platform – that's why they remain so popular with enterprises. It's not just the fact that a properly implemented portal is highly reliable and very secure. The portal is the ideal way to connect with occasional users such as customers and partners who may access your site a couple of times a month. You have very good visibility into who your users are so you can serve up a compelling, customized experience. User tailoring has enormous business implications for maximizing the profitability of every contact with customers. For example, a financial institution can automatically serve up special offers and a VIP experience to customers based on their account balances and past activity.
Why choose open source portals like JBoss and Liferay? According to Andersen, these solutions are very lean and effective, and they solve many of the biggest challenges large organizations have when it comes to managing users and applications. Portals also play nice with other systems so there's no need to force a monolithic stack into a customer's environment. In the end, a portal is about opening up a doorway to your users to improve your organization's relationship with them. It's simply a matter of giving portals a chance to do what they do best.
What is your experience like with portal server technology? Let us know what you think about the future of the Java-based portal.
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