Q&A with Thomas Schaeck, Architect of IBM WebSphere Portal
Q: How does portal technology fit into the broader application development cycle?
A. Portal technology can save a large amount of development effort when creating web sites. Today's leading portal products already provide many common functions of web sites like page navigation, aggregation of content, end user customization of content they want to see when logging in to the site as well as personalization, manageable access control, management for the documents being served, site search capability and many useful portlets out of the box. To adapt to the specific customer web site needs, portal products can be customized to a high degree to conform to the look and feel and corporate identity desired and can be extended by developing custom portlets for any applications a customer may need. In early 2003 the programming model for portlets was standardized through the Java Portlet API (JSR 168) That technology was already supported by IBM WebSphere Portal and various other major portal vendors in their respective portal products as well as in tools.
Q. What is the role of the enterprise portal?
A. Enterprise portals bring together people, information and processes. They make available the right information and applications to the right users at the right time, to help people do their work and collaborate more efficiently.
Q. What are the latest developments in the enterprise portal space?
A. The early portal products were relatively focused on providing aggregated information and applications to users, we can now see a shift towards more advanced workplace technology and business process integration. Through workplace technology based on portals, as delivered in Lotus Workplace, users can collaborate more efficiently through additional functions such as team collaboration, instant messaging and web conferencing all integrated in one workplace offering. Business Process Integration in Portals provides additional value, since it allows end users to participate in business processes without really having to know the processes they participate in: The portal automatically finds out which tasks are pending for each user and lists those tasks in a personal task list from which the end user can launch the tasks. The portal then will automatically display the right page with the right applications to work on the launched task to the user.
Q. How does personalization and click-to-action play a role?
A. Personalization is key to bringing the right information to the right users to avoid the problem of users getting too much irrelevant information to actually be able to consume the information that really interests them. Through personalization rules, administrators can exactly control which information should be delivered to which users. Click-to-Action, available through WebSphere Portal, provides automatic front-end integration of portlets and enables the transfer of information from one portlet to one or more other portlets, for example a user might select a customer record in one portlet and trigger via click-to-action that the customer details are displayed in a related portlet.
Q. How has portals evolved to fit the needs of the growing Web services market?
A. The Java Portlet Programming model supported by most portal products allows access to web services just like they can be accessed from servlets, this is well supported by tooling to help implementing portlets using web services. In addition, portals start to support that entire portlets can be published as user-facing web services to be consumed by other portals, according to the Web Services for Remote Portlets (WSRP) standard. For example, WebSphere Portal allows both publishing portlets as WSRP services as well as integrating WSRP services for use like local portlets.
Q. How is portals growing and evolving to serve the needs of the developer community?
A. The Java Portlet Programming model is the primary, standard way for developers to provide components to be used in portals. Portal products differentiate each other in the extent to which they provide useful services and components for implementing portlets and the tooling to support that. WebSphere Portal provides a rich set of services for use by portlets, such as caching, proxied access to remote content, credential vault for secure SSO to back end apps, click-to-action support, etc. as well as support for use of Struts and JSF technology within portlets and back end connectors. Capabilities like this are key to enable developers to write meaningful business portlets that integrate well with their business applications.
Q. How do enterprise portals enable composite applications and service-oriented architectures (SOAs) for the extended enterprise?
A. Through aggregation functions and wiring of portlets accessing different kinds of back end applications, enterprise portals will enable composite applications. In this context, it will become important that composite applications can not only influence what is being displayed in portlets on a page, but are also able to launch new pages when required, e.g. to display detail views for something a customer selects in a portlet. Future versions of WebSphere Portal will go so far to allow applications to contribute dynamic pages and even entire trees of dynamic pages to the portal's overall page hierarchy.
Q. What does 2004 hold for portal development? What improvements are necessary to maintain its momentum?
A. In 2004 we will see big steps towards workplace functionality and business process integration. IBM is committed to making these improvements standard, as they will add a lot of value and boost user productivity.
Q. What industry standards come into play with portal development today? What standards are in the pipeline for the future?
A. Obviously, the Java Portlet API (JSR 168) and Web Services for Remote Portlets (WSRP) are key to portal development and directly relevant. For these standards, IBM WebSphere Portal has extensions to allow for interaction of portlets and WSRP services in the pipeline. More specifically, with support for JSR 168 and WSRP standards, WebSphere Portal is also delivering low cost composite applications to a single, contextual interface through the Web. This is enabling developers and IT managers to reuse application portlets in a variety of delivery platforms; a key element of SOA in which software components can be exposed as services on the network, and reused for different purposes.
Another standard that is currently being defined is JSR 170 for access to document repositories; this JSR will allow portlets to access content in a standardized fashion. In terms of business process integration in portals, I think BPEL4WS is a very important standard for the definition of business processes to be exposed through portals as the user interface.