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Key Challenges in Portal Adoption

By Nikil Sharma

01 Nov 2007 | TheServerSide.com

Context

Gartner Research, in "Hype Cycle for Portal Ecosystems," suggests that the Portal as a technology has reached the "Plateau-of-Productivity" portion of the typical hype-cycle for a technology. Along with many stable products (including some good open-source alternatives) in the Portal space, there are also various standards/specifications (JSRs) to address various pain points. However, the relative maturity in individual organizations with respect to executing a Portal project or Portal Adoption program is debatable.

This article is an attempt to study / enlist the various challenges that are present for the project teams who are planning to embark on the "not-so-smooth" journey of Portal Adoption.

Key Challenges

Portal Adoptions or online transformations are one of most ambitious programs taken up by enterprises. As with any large initiative, there are associated risks and challenges which the enterprise has to deal with on its way to success. Portal adoption poses several challenges in terms of, technology, governance, requirement analysis, scoping, estimation, rollout, integration with other systems, portalizing existing applications to the portal with a unified user experience and more. The following sections present some of the more significant challenges among these.

1. Technology Selection

A number of questions usually come to mind while working on Technology selection for any project –

  • Whether Portal technology is required or not?
  • What should be the platform - J2EE or .NET?
  • Should Open-source alternatives be considered?
  • Who are the market leaders and which is best suited to us?

Most project teams never spend enough time in understanding the core requirements at hand and jump straight to technology/product selection. Requirements should be carefully gauged to identify the need for Portal technologies and subsequent due diligence should be done towards product selection. Product/technology selection has a big impact on the overall program in terms of the cost, development efforts, production run-cost and maintainability, future support etc.

Understand the Portal Objectives

If we look at the various features available in Portal products and the uses that Portals can be put to, there can be a good classification on the various types of portals. Anthony and Ian have provided a good classification in their first of the 6-part series ,on IBM developerWorks so I won't delve into those.

The adjacent figure is my attempt to represent the key objectives of a typical Portal initiative in an Enterprise. It is important to understand the objectives that are targeted in your Portal endeavor and accordingly requirements should be analyzed and elaborated. These objectives will also help in understanding, where the Portal is placed among the classification of Content, Collaboration, Knowledge or Transaction portals.

Having understood the objectives and requirements, the team will be better equipped to make judgments in Technology selection. It will also help in answering the fundamental question of whether a Portal solution is required or not.

Understanding of Portal Space

The next challenge is to understand the various features and attributes of a Portal product. There are numerous features sported by a large number of Products in the market today. But does your enterprise need all these fancy features and how good are these features in terms of customization, flexibility, maintainability and configurability?

An understanding of the Portal space in terms of features to look for will also help in conducting a Product Evaluation exercise as well as Business-fit analysis.

2. Governance Model

The next significant focus area for a Portal project is the Governance model. Governance model is a critical aspect of any project and for a Portal project the need is even more pronounced, owing to the involvement of various departments and the impact of Portal implementation in the Enterprise.

The various parts of a Portal are typically owned, developed and managed by different groups within an organization and hence the need for a well defined set of policies and processes. A good governance model should explicitly state the roles and responsibilities of various team members and departments in the organization, there should be clarity in terms of accountability and responsibility of various segments of the Portal program on different teams. A communication plan should be made upfront to ensure all relevant stakeholders are updated all the times with Program's status and progress.

There are various ways a governance structure can be worked out, which I will not be covering as part of this article, since the purpose here is to just emphasize on the need of one and not advocate or differentiate one over another. Zach Wahl, in "Governance Considerations in Enterprise Portal Deployment," has provided a good write-up on Governance models for Portal deployments and people can refer it for specific pointers.

3. Stakeholder Expectations: GUI Muddle

With portal in mind, different stakeholders have varying images for their requirements. It is important to start UI prototyping early in the portal project and set the expectations with regards to the end product. This also helps educating business users about the portal look-and-feel and the capabilities they can expect.

Having a User Experience (UE) prototype will also help in outlining and listing the various static-content placeholders and Portlet components that need to be developed. In portals, UE plays a significant role and there are various permutations in terms of navigation, layout, customizing themes, changing Portlet states based on context and flow etc., which can become a nightmare during implementation and testing phases. Having a well defined UI strategy and Presentation design will assist in keeping the project on track and will ensure traceability across all phases of the project.

4. Roadmap: Aligning with Enterprise Strategy

It is found that portal projects are often executed in silo and is treated just another project in the organization. The far reaching impact of portal adoption is often over-looked and hence the overall program fails miserably.

Portal technology has matured and is gradually evolving more into a Platform than being a mere server. A well-conceived Portal solution has the ability to impact various departments and systems in the organization. Portals are being used to aggregate application functionality, contents, provide interface to customers, employees, and partners and is more seen as a platform for collaboration.

Many articles are presently available on the net which describe Portals as a stepping stone for the SOA implementation in enterprises. More and more Portal product vendors are enriching their products with SOA-ready features and are even pitching their solutions in the SOA space. Hence, it makes more sense for organizations to look at Portal Adoption on a larger scale and accordingly identify the key stakeholders to influence the foundation.

This will ensure that any strategic decision taken by Enterprise architects on the architecture strategy doesn't hamper the ongoing Portal Adoption in severe manner and the Portal initiative can lay a sound foundation to other future initiatives for the Enterprise.

5. Approach: Big-bang!

In a selected few cases, where the knowledge and awareness of Portal technology is present in the organization, the team is often found overwhelmed with the Portal features and try to achieve everything in one shot. This leads to the big-bang phenomenon, which is particularly chaotic and fatal for Portal projects.

I have seen ambitious transformation programs with Portals at their core, usually leading nowhere even after considerable efforts on analysis and conception phases. Eventually such initiatives are parked or shelved only to be forgotten or in select few cases, broken into smaller parts and taken up in subsequent budget cycles.

There are numerous facets to any portal program, ranging from integration of a number of existing systems/products, to content aggregation and repurposing, to UI aspects to rationalization and harmonization among existing functional applications. Each of these should be attacked one by one and a phased approach should be adopted to successfully roll-out Portal in an organization.

Summary

To summarize the points, a thorough understanding on the various dimensions and relevant focus areas of Portal project is a must for the team members.

  1. Identify all the stakeholders; seek buy-ins and involvements of all relevant units and parties right from the beginning of the initiative. Rope in enterprise architects and not just Portal or technical architects to ensure alignment of Portal adoption with future Roadmaps.
  2. Educate all stakeholders on the portal space and capabilities of the portal, so that they can actively and effectively contribute.
  3. Establish and circulate a formal Governance model which will cover the Portal adoption in all phases ranging from conception, design, implementation, and rollout to collaboration. Processes and policies should clearly identify the ownerships, accountabilities (RACI) on various segments of the portal.
  4. Technology selection should be done carefully after evaluating all possible options and bearing in mind the attributes of costs (development and run-time), future support, compliance to standards, ease in customization, out-of-the-box support for requirements, ease of integration with other products etc.
  5. Initiate early UI prototyping to bring clarity in requirements and paint a realistic picture of the proposed solution. UI prototyping will also help in identifying the various screen elements and components that would be required and will also assist in arriving at a reasonable effort estimate.
  6. Lastly, the big-bang approach is particularly dangerous for an ambitious initiative like a Portal and hence should be planned out intelligently. Best is to go for a phased approach.

References

[1] Gartner Research: Hype Cycle for Portal Ecosystems, 2006
http://www.gartner.com/DisplayDocument?doc_cd=141165

[2] IBM: Creating a new portal : A 6-part series
http://www.ibm.com/developerworks/websphere/library/techarticles/0508_bernal/0508_bernal-intro.html?ca=drs-

[3] Zach Wahl: Governance Considerations in Enterprise Portal Deployment
http://www.ppc.com/modules/knowledgecenter/governance.pdf

Author

Nikhil Sharma is Technical Architect with Infosys Technologies. For more than 7 years, he has been involved in architecting and designing Enterprise Applications primarily on J2EE platform. He is also a Sun Certified Enterprise Architect for J2EE Platform (SCEA). His areas of interests are SOA, Integration Architectures, Portals.