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An Introduction to Java Enterprise Portals and Portlet Development

  • By Vlad Kofman
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This article covers the rudiments of developing Java Portlets (per the Java Portlet Specification), and portal run time containers for the Java Portlets including both enterprise portal servers and open source portals. Since the release of the original JSR 168: Portlet Specification, in 2003, portlet development popularity has risen steadily in both the enterprise world and in the open source communities.

The release of JSR 286: Portlet Specification 2.0, in June 2008, solidified Portlet technology as one of the most popular web development technologies currently available. Over 20 popular open source Portlet containers and portals are currently available, including the Sun Liferay portal, the eXo Platform, Jakarta Pluto, and so forth. In addition, there are numerous offerings from major software vendors, such as Vignette Portal, IBM WebSphere Portal, Sun OpenPortal, Oracle Portal (formerly BEA WebLogic Portal), etc.

Foundation of Web Portals

Figure 1. Yahoo Portal:
Portal customization causes sites to remember a user's preferences and display the content each user prefers.

So what is a portal? Since the early days of the world-wide web, most web destinations fall into one of three categories: web sites, search engines, and portals. A web site is a personal or corporate page; a search engine is a web crawler that indexes personal or corporate pages for easy searching; and a portal is a site that presents a smorgasbord of unrelated information in one place. (Currently, many search engines such as Yahoo.com or MSN also act as portals). As portals evolved, they offered new features, such as the ability to save user preferences and other customizations. Users could configure portals to "remember" their settings, the type of information a user wanted to see next time, or the background color a user liked. For content, customization meant that if Joe's preferences were news and stocks, but Sam's were entertainment and astronomy, then Joe and Sam might see entirely different pages of information (see Figure 1).

To customize a portal, various pieces of unrelated information had to be presented and placed in some organized fashion on the page. The most intuitive way to do that, which most modern portal seem to conform with, are to create rectangular shaped Portlets, arranged on one page. Wikipedia defines a web portal as a web application that "presents information from diverse sources in a unified way," and Portlets as "pluggable user interface software components."

The first portals had an underlying goal to appeal to users by providing information the user was interested in, wrapped in a customized interface. Improving user appeal served to increase the "stickiness" of portals, which increased their value because advertising was (and still is) the main business model of most of the web portals. Therefore, getting users to return to the site is highly desirable.

Author's Note: The term "stickiness" is used by online advertisers to define the popularity and return traffic to the site.

Figure 2. Yodlee MoneyCenter:
Here's an example of a financial information aggregator that uses portlets to display customized information.

These early "general purpose" portals later spawned specific purpose portals. Mostly in the enterprise space, these specific purpose portals included enterprise intranet sites, B2B sites, and sites that wanted to present a specific type of information, but from different sources. For example, financial information aggregators such as HSBC EasyView and others (see Figure 2), paint an entire financial picture for users. These sites present Portlets containing financial information sources such as investment portfolios, 401k plans, credit cards, and bank accounts.

Corporate intranet sites, which were originally built to show helpful links for employees, evolved to present RSS feeds, web services, and data from legacy systems, all in one place. According to Wikipedia, many modern enterprise portals allow "a way for enterprises to provide a consistent look and feel with access control and procedures for multiple applications and databases, which otherwise would have been different entities altogether."

Enterprise Portals and Portlet Containers

So how does a portal differ from a portlet container? The portal is the user-facing site or the interface for the portlet container. The portlet container is the platform that manages portlets through their complete lifecycle. A portlet container provides a runtime environment for portlets implemented according to the standard Portlet API. Using this platform, portlets can be instantiated, used and finally destroyed. The Java portlet container is not a stand-alone container like the servlet container; instead, it is implemented as a thin layer on top of the Java Servlet container and reuses its functionality. Architecturally, it provides an interface between the portal and portlets.

Early web portals were built on custom technology developed "in-house," which meant that portlets written for one platform or container were not compatible with another platform or container. Often developers had to duplicate or rewrite the supporting code for features such as adding new portlets, minimizing portlet windows, or dragging a portlet to a new location on the page. This situation changed in 2003, when Sun Microsystems released JSR 168. The original specification, although not perfect, provided a standardized portlet API that defined portlet lifecycle and a number of other features.

Today, most portlets and portlet containers adhere to either JSR 168 or the later JSR 286 specification, so portlets written for one Java container are compatible with other containers.

Author's Note: One exception was IBM's WebSphere portal, which developed its own IBM Portlet API, similar to the Sun Portlet API. However, the latest IBM WebSphere portal has dropped support for the IBM Portlet API and is now using and supporting the standard JSR 168/286 Java API.)

Modern portlet containers can be used for building intranet sites, commercial sites, or personal sites. Many provide out-of-the-box features such as internalization support, tools for content management, role-based authorization, Secure Single Sign On (SSO) support, search or tagging support, etc. Figure 3 and Figure 4 show examples of portlets in action.

Figure 3. Apache Jetspeed Portal:
Here, the calendar portlet appears in the second row of portlets.

Figure 4. Calendar Portlet Being Moved:
In this figure, a user is moving the calendar portlet to another position.

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This article was originally published on November 2, 2009

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