BI Portal Vendors Look to Differentiate Offerings

Right now, the portal phenomenon -- or enterprise information portal -- is a hit. It seems as if just about every vendor is scrambling to put together a portal strategy, and in the Internet world portals are being positioned as an e-business panacea. So how can business intelligence (BI) vendors differentiate their robust product offerings from the chaotic Internet portal marketplace?

According to Mychelle Mollot, director of enterprise business intelligence product marketing at BI specialist Cognos Inc. (, portals aren’t a new idea, at least insofar as BI vendors are concerned. "Historically, portals have been represented in a lot of different ways," she says. "When we were a client-only tool, for example, we actually had a portal product for clients."

What this means, says Mollot, is that BI vendors typically approach the portal phenomenon as a means to an end, rather than as the be-all and end-all of product development.

"We view portals as just a part of our infrastructure," Mollot says. "We’re not even going to be charging for our portal because our real value is in our BI technologies and our end-to-end BI solutions."

In the Internet space, however, portals are often perceived as the strategic asset for businesses in the information age. As a result, many software vendors and Internet ventures are scrambling to incorporate portal strategies into their content offerings. Many of these portal solutions, unfortunately, are little more than spruced-up Web sites accompanied by a number of hyperlinks: The underlying content and infrastructure that define robust portal solutions in the BI space are absent.

"The portal market is becoming very crowded and the term is already misused by some companies that offer little more than a customizable home page," says Mike Schiff, director of data warehousing strategies at Current Analysis Inc. (

According to David Ferris, president of Ferris Research (, the proliferation of portals and the hype surrounding the portal phenomenon leads to a dilution of the portal name and creates confusion in the marketplace. The fact that most BI vendors are basing their portal schemes on Web browser interfaces creates additional confusion, Ferris says.

"We think that people are going to organize their knowledge and information into taxonomies and are going to make those accessible through portals," he predicts. "We also think that users are going to find that having a standard Web browser-type interface is going to simplify their efforts and reduce the support efforts of the IT staff."

So how do BI vendors create value in a marketplace with severely muddled end user expectations? According to Current Analysis’ Schiff, a portal is only as good as its underlying BI technologies. As an example of how to properly put together a portal for BI, Schiff points to Brio Technology Inc. ( The company offers a comprehensive set of enabling BI underpinnings to support its Brio.Portal.

"Unlike some other portal offerings, which are little more than a home page with embedded links, Brio.Portal provides a relatively complete infrastructure with numerous supporting services," Schiff says.

Brio’s supporting services, in this case, include a repository for cataloging structured content and objects -- such as reports and HTML, word processor, and spreadsheet documents.

Cognos’ Mollot says BI vendors can get the most out of their portal products by more fully integrating them with the underlying BI technologies that enable them. "The real difference comes from the underlying content, and we think that it’s the same thing with BI," Mollot observes. "Everybody’s portal is going to do similar stuff in the near future, so we believe that portals will become a commodity and that the real differentiation will come from the tools that support the portal."

As far as Ferris Research’s Ferris is concerned, most BI or knowledge management vendors are taking this approach to portal development, as well. "We think that the notion of knowledge management encompasses many different approaches, and that many knowledge management vendors have only a passing interest in portal technologies because they view them as one aspect among many."