Enterprise knowledge portals, or EKPs, provide a way for companies to realise the full potential of Web technology. As an EKP pulls together information from across the enterprise, it gives employees, customers, and business partners unprecedented access to the information they need to do their jobs, including buying services or products from the company.
EKP solutions such as iPlanet E-Commerce Solutions Portal Server 3.0 provide a framework to build the ultimate corporate information repository. Additionally, iPlanet Portal Server can be configured to provide different portal experiences for different classes of users, and then for individual users within these classes.
That isn't to say it happens effortlessly. The iPlanet Portal Server is a complex package to install, configure and maintain; so unless IT executives are willing to put the effort into doing it right, a company could build a completely worthless EKP.
Competing EKP solutions such as OpenText's LiveLink are arguably easier to set up, but they require the careful design of information architecture to maximise their value to the enterprise. A complicated setup isn't surprising given the complexity of EKPs, but the payoff of having access to centralised information in iPlanet's Portal Server should outweigh the effort spent setting up the portal.
The iPlanet Portal Server clearly can be used to build a valuable corporate information repository, but it is also made up of components that should have been more tightly integrated. The product is also between major releases and requires an involved service pack to be completely installed. It lacks browser-based access to some administrative tasks currently carried out by editing configuration files, which further complicates administration. All in all, it could only earn a score of Good.
It takes two to get it right
The iPlanet Portal Server architecture consists of two components: the gateway and the portal server. The gateway provides the front end for the portal, including encryption, reverse proxy and URL rewriting functionality. Typically located in a network "demilitarised zone", the gateway machine is a secure front end to the portal server. The gateway provides a valuable security function that would require significant implementation of other software packages if it weren't included in the portal server.
The portal server component resides on the internal network behind the firewall. It communicates with the gateway - via encrypted connections if necessary - to provide the portal content. Because it resides inside the firewall, access to corporate IT resources is easy for end users.
We tested the iPlanet Portal Server on a Sun Ultra 5 with a 333MHz CPU and 256MB of RAM. To simplify the configuration for our review, we configured both the gateway and portal server on the same box. For production deployment, iPlanet engineers recommend dual CPU servers for both the gateway and the portal server.
We could tell that the performance of our test system was somewhat limited, so putting enough iron behind the portal server would be an important consideration for high-traffic portals.
In addition to the basic Portal Server package, the solution we tested included the iPlanet Compass Server, which provides search functionality, and the iPlanet Portal Server Personalised Knowledge Services option, which provides users with the additional flexibility to customise the product.
Typically, when companies add offerings they've acquired to their original product, integration suffers, and true to form, the integration of the individual pieces that make up the Portal Server solution weren't integrated as tightly as we would have liked. Although the installation process went smoothly, it felt cobbled together and didn't leave us confident that we had just configured the ultimate integrated EKP powerhouse.
The installation of the required iPlanet Portal Server Service Pack 2, which includes numerous bug fixes and some additional functionality, apparently hadn't succeeded completely, even though it looked like it had. We discovered this fact later when we ran into problems. The professional-services support from iPlanet traced our difficulties back to the service pack. To be fair, most installations of Portal Server typically involve some level of professional-services support, which helps with the installation. But it ultimately doesn't solve internal bugs.
Smooth product once installed
We installed the iPlanet Portal Server on the Solaris 2.7 OS, after first installing many patches to the OS and to the Java virtual machine to bring the system up to snuff. The patches were included on the install CD and the process went smoothly.
We also configured the Compass Server and identified the sites for the crawler to walk through. The Compass Server configuration is intuitive for anyone who has configured a search engine. The Compass Server quickly indexed the typical corporate site that we pointed it to.
The browser-based portal administration tools were easy-to-use, but we were disappointed with the amount of manual editing required for administration. We also found that the included LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) server was temperamental. It required an inordinate amount of swap space on our system. Clearly, the iPlanet Portal Server solution requires some beefy hardware to run effectively.
It was fairly easy to determine what content should appear in a given page. Administration tools are included for changing the appearance of a page. Furthermore, the templates that drive the page designs are HTML-based with special tags, so they can be modified; however, it would probably take some time to learn the ins and outs.
Overall, the iPlanet Portal Server holds promise as a portal solution. Organisations that are already using iPlanet or other Java-based app servers will certainly feel comfortable with Portal Server 3.0 and its components. However, it needs more time to mature as a product before it is a great portal solution.