By David Stodder
Intelligent Enterprise, February 21, 2002
"CIOs and IT architects should not ignore innovators still arriving in the portal arena . . . And BackWeb, by looking squarely at what users really need from portals as they work both online and offline, has introduced an innocative active delivery solution."
As we set our course into 2002, we gain more evidence that the economic recovery has legs. We have rounded the corner; prosperity sizzles on the horizon, hopefully more than a mirage in the desert. Buoyed by a dash of wishful thinking, the stock market has been generally rising since September 2001. Soon, it might be okay to open up those 401(k) statements without sitting down first.
"It won't be like it was before" is the phrase we hear over and over again. The dot-com boom was that once-in-a-lifetime period of roaring insanity - and we've been paying for it ever since. The bursting bubble caused a techno glut the likes of which the IT industry has never seen. Even as bankruptcy auctions for barely used hardware, networking equipment, and storage systems die down, infrastructure players still tremble at the prospect of long-term deflation as commodity platforms become more accepted in the enterprise market. The telecommunications industry, a huge buyer of IT wares during the boom, is still choking on debt. Further mergers and consolidations could continue to lengthen IT sales cycles in many industries.
But if recovery is indeed upon us, how will IT support the creation of wealth? Can the current leaders of software industry drive the next growth spurt? Or are they destined to become the rust belt of the IT industry: that is, stuck in an older paradigm, and chasing the "c-level" buyer with promises that can't be fulfilled? Meanwhile, will true innovation come from other sources and perhaps other lands, through open source, peer-to-peer Web services? As economic momentum pulls us out of the doldrums, answers will materialize. It will be up to CIOs and IT architects to tune out the noise and focus hard on what will bring success in their primary objective: to bring users higher and higher value from strategic information resources that are now spread across and outside the boundaries of their organizations
In computing, one big change is perfectly clear: The Internet revolution has brought us to the threshold of true distributed computing, something that visionaries have been dreaming about for some 30 years. Now that it's finally happening, we are in the midst of a long period of adjustment that will reshape much of the IT industry. Software development is turning into Web services. Hardware is focused on networked clusters for scalability, reliability, and availability - and room for commodity parts. Users might be employees, business partners, customers - or some combination of the three.
Distributed computing is here largely because it is finally affordable: but perhaps an even bigger reason is that users are demanding it. The PC and client/server era dashed earlier dreams of distributed computing based on a centralized (that is, mainframe) hub. Users themselves - or at least their immediate departments and business divisions - wanted to be the hub of information and computing power. From that point on, in most cases the establishment of a physical, centralized hub was impossible. The hub would have to be a virtual one
Looking at the evolution of information systems, virtualization - the establishment of a logical view that is separate from physical reality - is always the critical turning point. Database management systems (DBMSs), thanks to the relational model, accelerated into a multibillion dollar industry once major players and their customers embraced virtualization. The concept is not at all new, having been introduced into mainframe computing at least 20 years ago. Historians of technology, industrialization, and intellectual ideas could probably identify the impact of virtualization back even further. Today, the storage industry is embracing virtualization, which will open up many new possibilities for distributed data management.
KNOWLEDGE WORKER UTOPIA
However, the virtualization that matters most to users has to do with information and the value they can derive from it. Users don't want to be locked into information that is merely on their PCs or within their local intranets: they want the freedom to reach all relevant resources, internal and external to their organizations. And they don't want just the facts: they want to be able to act upon information, alone or in collaboration with others. To make all of this possible, users and their IT partners have had to embrace the abstract concept that what they see on their screen is not on their computer, in their company, or sometimes at any known address. And just as the DBMS encapsulated the idea of virtualization with all the other stuff necessary for data access, manipulation, and management, the IT community has found a construct that seems to work at this higher abstraction level of information: the enterprise information portal (EIP).
The EIP is emerging as the universal, single point of entry for presentation and user interaction with all of the most critical areas of business/IT fusion: business intelligence, content management, knowledge management, and enterprise applications. Intranets, characterized by static broadcast of prepackaged content, won't do for "knowledge workers," to use the name coined by management guru Peter Drucker in 1959. Defining excellence by how well they can acquire, synthesize, and apply theoretical and analytical knowledge toward business objectives, knowledge workers are ready to experience the full glory of the information revolution. The "knowledge society" Drucker envisioned, populated by continuously educated specialists collaborating with others across multiple kinds of organizations, will use the EIP as its platform - and as a shield against the underlying complexity.
COMPLEXITY: IT AIN'T PRETTY
And it had better be a strong shield: the technical complexity will involve application, data, and content integration; role-based workflow processes; privacy and security authentication and controls; personalization, agents, and alerts; and potentially other issues involving networks and storage systems. Thanks to the success of consumer portals such as Yahoo!, users have come to expect that all portals have the same level of ease, scope, integration, and performance. However, the quality of an EIP used by employees and business partners is far more dependent on robust data and application integration than a consumer portal.
The portal market is thus not surprisingly evolving quickly, with the biggest software solution providers moving in as the requirements list itself gets longer. Gartner and Forrester Research are helping to steer the direction of EIPs toward solutions that embrace portal, integration, and application servers as an interconnected whole. In other words, they see the likes of IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle eventually dominating this space, with strong competition coming as well from BEA Systems Inc., Computer Associates, Sun Microsystems (iPlanet), Tibco Software Inc., and others determined to extend their strength in one or more of these three crucial areas to include EIPs.
While many of the original "pure-play" portal server players have disappeared into the portfolios of larger vendors, the strongest of the independents, such as Autonomy PLC, Epicentric Inc., and Plumtree Software Inc., are still standing and are focusing more and more on the ISV channel. Enterprise applications companies, such as Broadvision Inc., Peoplesoft Inc., and Siebel Systems Inc. are creating EIPs that may eventually have identities beyond just interfaces for their core systems. And SAP Portals, the subsidiary of SAP AG, is clearly an important player to watch.
However, CIOs and IT architects should not ignore innovators still arriving in the portal arena, such as Day Software Inc., Stratify Inc., Objexis Corp., and BackWeb Technologies Ltd. Day applies advanced enterprise content management to avoid data duplication and quality problems that dog EIP solutions; Stratify employs virtualization ideas to solve unstructured information management and access for portals. Objexis, focusing first on the marketing function, offers a slick way of creating virtual "workspaces" for analysis, collaboration, and integration. And BackWeb, by looking squarely at what users really need from portals as they work both online and offline, has introduced an innovative active delivery solution.
Knowledge workers will personalize the EIP, shaping it into a magic wand that brings intelligence to information. IT's job will be to manage virtualization so that the spell is never broken.