So you've built your Web site. You now have basic access to key documents, data access and a few key applications (running order status from the iSeries using WebFacing). Both in-house users and outside users were impressed initially with your Web site. After all, you did use nice graphics on the main pages.
After a few months, however, you notice that overall hits to the Web site are not increasing like you thought. Yes, the key data access and order status applications are getting good usage. It's also taking a lot of time and resources to maintain current information on the Web site. More than anyone thought. And users are asking, what else are you going to provide?
So what else ARE you going to provide? Companies that have put up basic Web sites are finding real challenges for both users and the company in many cases.
User challenges for Web sites:
- Finding what you need quickly
- Customizing the site organization to meet your needs
- Adding content you want to the site
- Accessing all the services you need
- Getting good support for the site
- Learning how to use a site
- Filtering site content
- Getting dynamic updates from content sources
- Controlling site layout and navigation
- Integrating site content with yours
- Collaborating with others through the site
Company challenges for Web sites:
- Building satisfied, self-service user communities
- Organizing content from many sources, locations
- Building site traffic for new and return users
- Monitoring site usage patterns
- Providing the right security
- Maintaining content dynamically
- Integrating business operations with the site
- Marketing services and products effectively
- Maintaining applications for a site
- Extending applications for a site
- Integrating with other sites and services
- Integrating with external applications
- Automated site services
- Providing quality support
- Updating site software seamlessly
- Scaling sites when needed
Portal servers to the rescue
Portal servers provide a central, organized Web access point for a group of users. A portal server can be a very flexible, effective "front door" to your Web applications, Web content and Web site. They provide the right content, services and tools to a specific group of users to make it easy to work over the Web.
You're familiar with portals because you use them every day, even if your company doesn't have any portals setup yet. They provide the specific services you need to manage that type of information easily and include the following:
- Public portals such as Yahoo and MSN allow you to check weather, go shopping, check sports scores and more.
- IBM sites such as iSeries server, Support and more allow you to easily find the iSeries information you need.
- eBay makes it easy to buy and sell almost anything through an auction format.
Typical portal servers support a variety of features:
- Aggregation of content
Working with other content management systems that serve a variety of content types, portal servers can deliver database access, host program access, Java applications, images, voice, video, e-mail, even Microsoft objects such as Excel spreadsheets, Word documents and more. A site might need access to a user group's documents to collaborate over the Web. A different site might need an image catalog for users to buy products from. Portal servers work with content management systems such as Cocoon, Domino, DB2 and more to access a wide variety of content.
- Portlets: active applications embedded in a portal page
The portlet API defines the specifications for how a "portlet" (an application running in a portal page) works with its portlet control and the portal page containing a portlet controller. The portlet control defines the visual frame for the portlet application. The portlet controller defines how all the portlets on a page are arranged using a set of customizable layout rules for the page. Many types of existing applications can be adapted to run as portlets.
Unlike custom Web sites that require either re-programming or, at least, HTML page editors to change the look and feel of a company's main Web pages, portal servers provide easy-to-use, browser-based customization tools that give non-technical people the ability to administer a portal: change layout, add and remove applications on portal pages, etc.
Optionally, you can allow users to "personalize" their portal page(s) to add and remove content and applications. Such users are given limited access to the Customization tools so they can manage their pages directly through their Web browser. At Yahoo, for instance, it's easy to create your own personalized portal with easy access to all the applications you'd like.
- Dynamic content
Users need more than just static information and applications from your company to do their jobs well. A brokerage firm will also provide live data feeds to stock quote services so their users can check stock prices. An outdoor sports team might let you buy tickets AND get live data feeds from the weather service. There are services that publish live information for dynamic feeds to Web users. These live services can be subscribed to. At that point, information can be delivered on-demand or continuously from these sites using standard formats such as RDF Site Summary (RSS) and Open Content Syndication (OCS) accessible from a portal server.
Your portal will integrate with other locations inside and outside your company in many cases. Customizable menus can make it easy to set up navigation to other locations.
While any Web site can have a search engine added to it, it's standard in a portal server that search engines are provided as an easy way to navigate the site to find the content users want.
The alternatives to portlets are usually much less attractive to the users. They lack the presentation, management of content, customization, personalization and more that normal portal servers deliver.
IBM offers many WebSphere portal servers
IBM has MANY portal servers. All called WebSphere, of course. Express, Express Plus, Enable, Expand and Extend -- there are lots of choices. WebSphere Portal Express comes in two versions: Express and Express Plus. The WebSphere portal servers come in three versions: Enable, Expand and Extend. Customers can run these portal servers on the iSeries (in most cases) or a front-end server such as Windows or Linux to an iSeries host.
The different WebSphere portal servers include different combinations of content management software as well: IBM Content Publisher, Domino, Content Manager and more.
The WebSphere Express portals are supposed to be the "lightweight" versions of Web portals in comparison with the WebSphere portal family: lower cost, easier to use with perhaps fewer features.
While larger companies with significant resources often choose to implement WebSphere portal servers, smaller companies and those with budget constraints will look to find less expensive alternatives to implementing a portal server initially.
WebSphere Portal Express Servers have both advantages and disadvantages in their pricing options for companies just getting started with portal servers. On the positive side, if you are setting up a portal for employees only, you can purchase WebSphere Portal Express servers on a per employee basis very reasonably: less than $100 per user for basic Portal Express and slightly more than $125 per user for Portal Express Plus users. It's a very affordable way to get started. The downside is if your portal targets anyone other than employees, you'll need to buy the full licenses, which are very expensive -- approximately $35,000 and $49,000, respectively, for just the software.
One trivia question about WebSphere Portal Express. Does it use WebSphere Express? No. It uses the full WebSphere Application Server. If you have WebSphere Express and want to run a portal server on it, look at Apache's Jetspeed portal server.
Apache Jetspeed Portal server
Apache Software Foundation offers a no-charge, open-source, standards-based portal server, Jetspeed, that you can download from its Web site. While Jetspeed lacks some of the built-in features the more higher-end WebSphere Portal servers come with, it offers many key benefits to iSeries customers just getting started with Web portals:
- No software costs for licenses
- Easy to install on iSeries, Windows or Linux servers
- Easy to administer through a Web browser interface
- Supports all the portal features listed above when combined with content management frameworks
- Uses IFrame to run existing JSP applications, including WebFacing as portlets
- Easy to plug in more applications
- Easy to customize and personalize
- Integrates well with iSeries Web applications, WebFacing and Domino
- Low cost setup from experienced business partners
All of those features make it a good choice for smaller businesses setting up a Web portal for users inside and outside the company. The low implementation costs are a real help for companies that haven't yet proven a real business case for Web portals up front.
There are also other open-source portal servers you can look at, although I don't find them commonly installed in iSeries accounts: Zope, Plone and more.
The current version of Jetspeed is 1.4.b4. It runs on any version of Tomcat Web application server (also from Apache at no-charge) or IBM's WebSphere and WebSphere Express application servers. If you have a choice, it will cost less to setup on Tomcat.
Getting started with portal servers
The easiest way to PROVE your business case is to spend some time and money and implement a Web portal for a specific user community. Measure the results, good and bad, from your experience to set bigger plans moving forward. Usually you learn a lot about what is valuable to users AFTER your portal server is running by looking at support issues, what's used and so on.
Bottom line on portal servers
If you have a significant budget for portal servers, look first to WebSphere.
If you are a smaller company and don't have a large budget, look first to Jetspeed.
Both can run Web applications accessing iSeries data, WebFacing, server apps, Domino and more.
Contact an iSeries e-business partner for more information on WebSphere portal servers. You may also go to www.ibm.com/Websphere/portal to get more information on the WebSphere portal servers.
For Jetspeed, there are fewer iSeries e-business partners with experience, but you may find one. You can also search on Search400.com for more on portal servers for the iSeries. The QuickWebSupport site provides free tutorials on building Web applications for iSeries developers using IBM's WebSphere tools (enrollment is free here, too). We're adding a tutorial later this year for building portal applications.
---------------------------------------About the author: Jim Mason, president of ebt-now, is an iSeries WebSphere engineer. ebt-now provides iSeries WebSphere, WebFacing project management, engineering, development and training services. You can reach Jim at email@example.com or call 508-888-0344.
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This was first published in September 2003