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Electronic Commerce Architecture Series

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What Do You Mean by a Portal?Author

That word "portal" doesn't have a standard meaning. The word doesn't always refer to a technology, and even when it does, the word "portal" doesn't refer to any standard technology.

Back in 1995, folks called CNN, Yahoo and America Online "portals". That was long before IBM, BEA or any other company had a commercial "portal" product.

What I have seen of "portals" covers quite a bit of ground. Let's look at two extremely different examples.

  • PHPNuke is simple content aggregation. PHPNuke is a "portal".
  • IBM's WebSphere Portal Server wants to be the storefront window into a very complex enterprise. To IBM, that means customize the web site experience for each category of web site visitor. That means that you and I might not see the same thing when we visit the same URI. IBM's doesn't just want to present information, it wants to tightly integrate content presentation with content management and with user management. If you speak Hungarian, WebSphere Portal Server wants the web page to display in Hungarian. If you access the web page via your cell phone instead of a NetScape browser, WebSphere Portal Server wants to send you WML instead of HTML. What's more, WebSphere Portal Server wants to tightly integrate with business processes the same way SAP does. That's a lot of want from one portal, but IBM's portal was meant to be part of something big. So big, that it has to be distributed across many different computers. That is neither good nor bad. That's not PHPNuke. That's not CNN. It is just one of the many faces of "portal". Each "portal" technology has its own face.

When CNN, Yahoo and AOL say "portal", they mean a web page that serves as the start of a user's visit to the entire Internet. They want to sell advertising on that page just like newspapers and TV stations sell advertising.

When JSR168 says "portal", it wants to allow developers to emit HTML fragments that somebody will integrate into a web page.

When IBM says "portal", it means enterprise -- large, complex enterprise -- integration.

When BEA says "portal", it about yet another definition of "portal". One page on the BEA site focuses on using a portal to build communities.

Arthur Kevin McGrath


April 12, 2006


The author is an engineer with the consulting firm, Contract Engineers. He has consulted and lectured extensively since 1987 about the infrastructure that makes electronic commerce possible

Photograph of the author


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