Current information technology inundates you with more data than you can possibly use. To reap the benefits of information, you need some way to personalize or customize the way that data are selected and presented. Rather than having to do a lot of searching and sorting, you need a mechanism that will give you only data relevant to your interests. This is where the Web portal comes into play, bringing together information and applications within a Web browser in a way that meets the specific needs of the end user.
"Web portals give you personalized access to information needed to make timely decisions," says Jack Wilkins, senior product manager of Proficy Software for GE Fanuc. "And that is the key. You want that personalized information. You don't care about the universe of data out there. You care about that smaller portion that affects your daily operational life."
To better understand what Web portals are, let's examine the history of this technology and its evolution. The first generation of portals was largely homegrown, based on early Web technology and the basic content-editing tools available at the time. Because integrating a broad collection of portal content was so challenging, a lot of organizations settled for posting a static or time-limited snapshot of whatever data they wanted to present. As a result, they found it hard to keep the portal content fresh.
Early portals were also unable to support a wide range of users. This was a problem because company employees have different functions and responsibilities and might work in different locations. Also, the organization might want a portal that supports both its customers and its business partners. Unfortunately, the homegrown Web portals didn't have the ability to support different audiences or to keep track of all the different pieces of information the organization needed to publish.
The technology for static Web portals is still available on the market and is used by some commercial sites. However, the industrial market—specifically the manufacturing community—requires portals that can provide dynamic, real-time information, so portal vendors have turned to emerging technologies, such as Web services and service-oriented architectures (SOAs) (http://tinyurl.com/ptb2n). Using these tools, vendors can provide internal and external users with personalized, integrated Web-based interfaces to data, applications, and collaborative services rather than relying on a static, single-page Web portal.
By using Web services and SOAs, providers can move away from viewing every individual piece of information as something that is separate and must be maintained manually. Instead, the provider can create different services that encapsulate and deliver information and applications in a variety of contexts to suit a broad range of user needs.
"The latest generation of portals tends to use SOA as its underlying approach to making the content easy to move across different forms of communication, as well as making it easy to address new user audiences and new business processes," says Greg Crider, senior director of technology product marketing, Oracle Corp. "The portal is sometimes referred to as one-stop information shopping. You bring together information from all the sources to one place so that users are attracted to go there because they can find everything they need."
In high-end portals, the Web page (portal screen) is broken into different visual boxes called portlets. These act as the interface to services, which Web designers can then place onto the page to provide information in an accessible context. Later, you can rearrange the portlets to customize the look of the page. "With a service-oriented architecture, you can define each one of these portlets as a service," says Crider.
Sensors, Portals, and Manufacturing
Let's consider the following scenario. In a manufacturing application, sensors on product lines feed data into a repository, which is linked to a portal. One of the portal's screens provides a high-level summary of the performance of Line A and Line B. Suppose a display for Line B indicates that there are problems; you click on one of the trouble spots and drill down into the next layer to view a list of sensors that are monitoring the flow rate and viscosity of a fluid. You find that the flow rate has slowed down, and when you look at the viscosity, you see that it has gone up. Something in the process is causing the fluid's viscosity to increase. Using another portlet, you check the operation of one of the heaters and find that it is not functioning at the right temperature, resulting in the viscosity change. The portal has allowed you to drill down and identify the problem remotely.
In Transition For the past couple of years, leading portal vendors have seen the portal as the presentation layer of the SOA platform. Their products support Web services standards and are leading the way in the adoption of SOA approaches.
Tom Kevan is a freelance writer/editor specializing in information technology and communications.