Portals: Window on the Future of Web to Host?

EIPs may turn out differently than EIS.

Does anybody out there remember the great executive information systems movement? If you were around in the 1980s and '90s, you may recall hearing how EISes were going to change the world, put everyone on the same page and turn CEOs and CFOs into dedicated computer users. Well, after several years of hype, hope and glory, the whole effort fell flat on its face.

What we had here was a failure to communicate. It seems top decision makers didn't want to do their decision-making while pounding at keyboards and clicking through online reports—they wanted someone else to do that for them. The information hunters and gatherers that were tagged to sit in front of EIS screens didn't seem to appreciate its value either. Technical barriers were daunting—companies maintained islands and stovepipes of information that couldn't be reached by one system. Vendors moved on, either abandoning EIS efforts altogether or repackaging the software as decision-support systems.

What goes around comes around. Fast-forward to 2001, and we see a phenomenon being pushed called Enterprise Information Portals (EIPs). Coincidentally, or maybe not so coincidentally, the rationale for the EIP looks and sounds a lot like that for the EIS. "We've had portals around for a long time in one form or another," says Darcy Fowkes, analyst with Aberdeen Group, who has been watching this phenomenon unfold. "It's just repackaging many of the things we have already implemented." The portal is, in many respects, the Internet generation's version of EIS. However, things may turn out differently this time around, Fowkes points out.

Portals represent a golden opportunity for employees working on front-end e-business initiatives to work with mainframe and midrange systems staff. Previously, these two groups worked separately, Fowkes explains. "The people maintaining that the AS/400s and S/390s weren't close to the front end of the organization." However, with Y2K past, and thanks to initiatives, such as portal development, the chasm is closing. Mainframe and midrange systems professionals are increasingly speaking the language of e-business, and e-business evangelists are recognizing how much they need back-end system access. Ultimately, the future of Web-to-host connectivity is in portals.

Portal Bandwagon Overflows
Major vendors, including IBM, Computer Associates, SAP and Oracle, offer portal-enabled products or interfaces. Microsoft offers its "Digital Dashboard," a Windows-centric kind of portal. The Web-to-host vendors are getting into the act, as well, moving their solutions to more portal-like interfaces. One survey by Delphi Group finds that 43 percent of organizations had deployed business portals by the end of last year. Another survey by Evans Data Corp. finds that more than 23 percent of software developers who do any Internet work are now spending most of their time working on corporate Web portals for internal use, mainly corporate communications.

Potentially, portals, like Web-to-host products, can put a new browser face on mainframe and midrange applications, adding the usability and functionality that's expected in an e-business environment. Unfortunately, at this time, many portal products do not directly support legacy applications, so unless you purchase a portal-enabled package from a Web-to-host vendor, you will face extensive middleware integration work. More mature Web-to-host environments offer highly-integrated middleware links between back-end databases and front-end e-business systems. This enables the newer front-end systems to better leverage business processes already programmed into the mainframe.

The greatest promise for portals appears to be at the business unit level—supporting or viewing specific business functions—such as self-service environments linked to an intranet. The Delphi survey confirms that most portal deployments are on a departmental level. Intranet portals can substantially reduce administrative, printing and purchasing costs.

Portals are not only a cost-cutter; they may provide benefits as a means of decision support and knowledge management. Portals could play a role in directing end users to appropriate stores of both structured and unstructured corporate data and information. In addition, such knowledge sharing can be extended out to the supply chain. By enabling access to collaborative data that may be stored in a data warehouse or data mart, managers can use analytical tools to monitor and measure developments in the supply chain.

Not only do portals represent a new means to get your mainframe data out to e-business end users, but also they also have the potential to increase profitability. That's a formula sure to warm the heart of any C-level executive, no matter how much he or she avoids computers.

About the Author

Joseph McKendrick is an independent consultant and author, specializing in surveys, technology research, and white papers.