Q&A: Portal and Portlet Power

As portals mature, business users should expect more freedom

Carol Jones is an IBM distinguished engineer who is the chief architect and technical visionary behind WebSphere Portal. We sat down with her recently to talk about IBM’s WebSphere Portal product, as well as about emerging trends in the enterprise portal space.

Q. Where are you with WebSphere Portal these days?

A. We’ve just released WebSphere Portal 4.2, and we’ll do another release later in the year. We try to keep [releases] coming pretty often, a couple of major releases a year, [with] point releases a couple of times a year.

Q. And what’s new for customers in WebSphere Portal 4.2?

A. What we focused on was really getting the out-of-the-box experience to be much better. What this means is that the day that you get it to install it, you see a really nice home page coming up, better navigation, usability enhancements like that.

But we also want to get across to people the one thing the portal provides you is WebSphere ready to go, so you don’t have to worry about how you get all of that stuff set up. It’s ready to go [in WebSphere Portal 4.2]. That takes away a lot of the infrastructure stuff that they don’t want to worry about.

Q. What are some of the most important trends in portal design today?

A. There’s a lot more that we can do to have the portal itself provide tools for building portlets. I have always made this point about who’s an administrator, who’s a developer, and who’s a user, and what their different requirements are. So what we have been working on is basically a portlet that makes new portlets for accessing SAP, Siebel, PeopleSoft—we’re working on Oracle financials and others. What it does is, an ordinary user can choose which functions they want to access, and which data fields, and answer some questions in a wizard-like aspect, and it will configure everything for them.

The portlet will have a nice refined look, will be very standard-looking. We kind of wanted to put the power in the hands of the business user so that it doesn’t require the developer or the administrator.

Q. That’s a popular, but often elusive, goal among many BI vendors, especially. How do you propose to deliver on this?

A. The hard work falls on our shoulders, because for us to build each of these factories is a significant amount of work, but for the customer, it’s pretty straightforward. They just need to know the functions of the systems that they want to access.

Everything we do in the Portal team builds upon the work of all of the rest of our colleagues throughout the software group. Not just WebSphere, but DB2, Lotus, and others. This is where we have an advantage over our competitors, because we can concentrate solely on usability, on things like building these factories, while the WebSphere team tackles [issues] like integration.

When we focus our efforts together, it’s quite an amazing thing, the productivity that we’re able to achieve as a development team is astounding. That’s the secret to our success. If we had to do all of this stuff ourselves as one small development team, we’d never be able to.

Q. You’ve mentioned placing more power into the hands of business users in terms of allowing them to construct their own portal views, complete with information from systems such as Siebel, SAP or PeopleSoft. What about the Web developers who are constructing these views for them? Does that mean that their jobs simply go away?

A. Where developers would disappear? No … there’s so much more to do, you can never get to it all. We really want to enable other folks to do the simple tasks and have developers focus on the ones that really require their skills.

It is our goal to sort of enable other people to participate in how portals get built, and to open up the possibility that more people do that. But there’s still a lot for developers to do.

Take user interface and design [of a portal], for example. We don’t want users doing these things. We really want professional Web designers to do those things, people who understand colors and fonts and visual hierarchy.

Q. When can users expect to see these features?

A. We did a tech preview of that in the last couple of months. It’s official in 5.0. That’s going to be our biggest release.

Q. When will WebSphere Portal 5.0 be available?

A. [Version] 5.0 is coming in the summer. The biggest thing that we’re working on are the standards.

Q. Portal standards? Are there open standards for portals, outside of J2EE or Web services?

A. There are a couple of standards here. [There is] JSR168, which deals with the lifecycle of a portlet, how does it get initialized, how does it go through different modes? It’s important because you’d like to have the possibility of portlets being interchangeable on other companies’ portal servers. If Oracle supports it or BEA supports it, then we would have the chance of interchanging with one another. One way conceptually to think about JSR168 is it’s analogous to the server API. It takes it all one step further.

Q. Is this going to be supported by these and other vendors?

A. It most likely will be. It just went into community draft, which means that the public can see it now and comment on it. Depending on what the comments are, as soon as that comment phase is done, then there will be some response to the comments. So, hopefully by summertime, it will be ready. Then it’s going to take a little time for each of the vendors to actually release an implementation. You’ll start to see products this year, certainly in the first half of next year.

Q. Any other emerging portal standards that you think are of value?

A. The other big standard is WSRP, Web Services for Remote Portlets. The purpose of that one is to propose the idea that Web services can be visual things, not just used for getting a [bank] balance or getting a stock quote. They can actually return mark-up that is intended for the display. So we’ve taken the portlet API and enabled it as a Web service.

WSRP would be really good in circumstances where companies with two portals want to cooperate but not too closely, maybe because they don’t completely trust one another. Like a B2B portal, where you have good relationships with your suppliers, but not so good that you want to install their software locally. [WSRP] lets the portlet run on their server, but you can include its display into your applications.

Q. Will these be standardized in time for WebSphere Portal 5.0?

A. I can’t really say. I think that what we’ll finally do is … an incremental dot release later on. Also for 5.0, we’re working on document management so that you can store documents in the portal, you can organize them by topics, this yahoo-style taxonomy of topics.

We’re also working on lightweight editors, where right in the browser, you can do some rich text editing and save those documents back into the portal. Let’s say that part of some application you need to interact with you need to write a short document, we don’t want you to go outside, find the editor, write it, and upload the document, we wanted to provide you with a basic editor.

We’re doing more work on our search-engine. It’s a good search engine, but we wanted to enable it to support all of the topics you might encounter in a business environment.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.