Users who haven’t looked at enterprise portals since they first began attracting attention four or five years ago may be surprised at how quickly they have evolved into comprehensive and compelling technology solutions. SAP Enterprise Portal (SAP EP) 6.0, the current release, goes far beyond the original portal concept of personalized one stop information shopping through a web browser. The solution presents integration with enterprise applications, a search and classification engine, content management, virtual workspaces, instant messaging, web based application sharing, and ad hoc workflow in combination with a catalog of over 3000 predefined portal components and 80 business packages. Robust business packages include standard User and Administrator packages, industry-specific pre-built queries, Assets, Product, and Projects packages for users of the mySAP Product Lifecycle Management solution, Customer Service Manager business package for mySAP Customer Relationship Management (mySAP CRM), Employee and Manager Self-Service packages for mySAP Human Resources (mySAP HR), Strategic Enterprise Management package for mySAP Financials, Sales Analysis, Customer Credit Management, Inventory Analysis, and Production Analysis for SAP R/3 and business packages for accessing content from partners like WebEx, NewsEdge, Yellowbrix, and Dun & Bradstreet.
Perhaps most significantly SAP EP is now part of SAP NetWeaver, the open application and integration technology platform that enables business change and that is the foundation of the next generation of SAP business solutions.
So how much have portals changed in the last few years? Let’s begin by looking at how portals started and then examine how SAP EP 6 has built upon those foundations to create a compelling technology solution. And even for companies, that are not using or planning a standalone portal deployment today, a portal may be in future a very visible part of their next SAP upgrade.
The portal origins
So where did enterprise portals start? In many ways the origins of enterprise portals can be found in the consumer portals like Yahoo, Lycos, and Excite that offered searchable, personalized collections of information displayed within a web browser. Consumer portals allowed users to select, rearrange, and filter small windows of information on their own personalized pages viewable from any web browser. These consumer portals featured powerful search engines that greatly simplified the process of finding web pages related to any specified term. Within a few years millions of users adopted consumer portals including many business people who realized that they could now access millions of web pages across the World Wide Web more easily and efficiently than they could navigate their own organization’s internal IT resources. Finding and organizing relevant information had become a huge challenge for many businesses that had developed, inherited or acquired hundreds and sometimes thousands of different sources of information. In addition business users were looking to integrate interactive applications and productivity tools as well as the static data sources that typified consumer portals.
To meet the unique requirements of business, technology leaders, including SAP, created portal products that offered organizations the ability to integrate not only web pages drawn from company and external web sites but also documents, reports, and files. Furthermore, enterprise portals went beyond their consumer portal cousins by featuring user-friendly web based interfaces to key applications like Customer Relationship Management, Enterprise Resource Planning, and Human Resources as well as productivity tools like email and shared calendars. As early adopters of these first enterprise portals began working with their suppliers these initial solutions rapidly developed what became known as portal infrastructures, what remains the core of today’s enterprise portal solutions.
Control over unstructured content
Portal infrastructure is the backbone of SAP EP that provides the ability to visually aggregate content from enterprise applications, transactional systems, databases, and legacy information systems through an interactive web browser interface. The portal infrastructure provides essential user services like personalization, navigation and branding along with administrative services like user management, language localization and security.
Portal content is organized using small but powerful windows known as iViews that are displayed on portal pages. Each portal page is composed of iViews that can present information from internal or external Web sites, integrate functions from business software, or provide content search and navigation. An iView can be used to connect to virtually any content application or service, and SAP provides pre-defined iViews that access either SAP, legacy or third-party systems. Specialized iViews use technology called eventing to coordinate content across portal pages by sending and responding to user triggered messages. Users can easily modify the standard user-interface design of the portal infrastructure to match personal preferences or corporate “look and feel” standards.
A distinctive feature of SAP EP is its patented unification technology that allows users to seamlessly navigate across independent data sources. A portal using unification technology can allow a user to drag a piece of information from one application and use it to search for and retrieve information in another application. Because unification maps the relationships between data formats transparently, there is no need for users to understand how different systems represent customers or orders.
Administrators can assign role-based user interfaces to distinct user communities, such as partners or customers, so that a single portal instance can simultaneously support many independent business functions. The portal infrastructure of SAP EP uses an object-oriented portal catalog that resides in a relational database to provide a consistent, powerful, and flexible approach to the administration of portal properties and permissions. It supports both centralized control of all portal rights by a single team of portal administrators and delegated administration that distributes control of subsets of portal objects to local sub-administrators. Delegated administration permits local staff members to govern the specific tools, tasks, and data that they need to support a specific user group and frees central administrators from many routine, repetitive tasks.
Knowledge management leverages the portal infrastructure
Early adopters of enterprise portals liked that portals provided a common look and feel to diverse sources of data and wanted to extend this user friendly interface to include unstructured information like files, documents, and web content. In addition, one of the most popular features of consumer portals was an integrated search engine. In order to add these capabilities to business oriented, enterprise portals SAP EP 5 added a comprehensive set of knowledge management services. They include document authoring and publishing, intelligent classification and subscription, version management, and search and navigation. These capabilities allow all kinds of unstructured information to be organized and accessed through a consistent portal based interface. Sets of repository managers allow the knowledge management services to access different SAP and third-party content management systems and enable the services supported by each source. Users could provide direct feedback to authors and rate document. Content administrators can create familiar looking folder structures that are easy to organize and navigate thoroughly a highly customizable interface. Bundled with these services was a complete content management system with web based authoring, version control, archiving, approval workflow and a sophisticated publish and subscribe distribution mechanism.
In addition the knowledge management services bundled with SAP EP provided a powerful search and classification engine. Its search capabilities allowed simple text matching along with Boolean, fuzzy and vector space searches of diverse types of content accessible through the repository managers. The classification features allow unstructured documents to be automatically organized into a continuously evolving taxonomy. And when categorized content meets certain criteria, the portal can push it out to selected groups according to role-based user-management parameters. These knowledge management services leveraged the portal infrastructure and added a tremendous amount of additional value by giving users new access and control over unstructured information. However, more capabilities were still to come for SAP EP.
Promoting teamwork through collaboration
Now that portal users had access to their document and files as well as their enterprise applications, it became natural that they wanted new ways to quickly and securely share these capabilities with their colleagues, partners and customers. In the last few years a class of enabling technology known as collaboration has become increasing important. Last year SAP EP made a major step forward by offering collaboration that is tightly integrated with portal based business processes. SAP EP offered collaboration rooms that are virtual workspaces along with integrated real-time collaboration tools like chat and web based application sharing. Collaboration rooms are locally administered portal pages that can be easily created by end users via predefined templates. They allow ad hoc and permanent workgroups to create and control their own portal pages and share documents, calendars, task lists without central administrator intervention.
The bundled real-time collaboration features like application sharing and instant messaging allow teams and work groups to instantly communicate and share ideas, teams can quickly resolve problems without the need for time-consuming, face-to-face meetings. Unlike most third-party real-time tools these faculties featured authentication through the documented security of the SAP EP. A simple, floating application called a launch pad provides immediate, centralized access to contacts and collaborative services, and displays team members’ online availability in real time. In addition to adding its own collaboration features SAP EP provides third-party integration with groupware solutions such as Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Domino and third-party synchronous collaboration tools such as WebEx. Most recently SAP EP began including ad hoc workflow and a universal worklist to help users coordinate and track tasks that involve multiple steps and users. Collaboration is an area of continuing growth within SAP EP and customers are using it to create new and innovative business applications.
A new level of integration
We have seen how SAP EP has evolved from a portal infrastructure to provide new control over unstructured information through knowledge management and then to promote optimized teamwork through collaboration. But this progression is only part of the story of the evolution of SAP EP. SAP EP is now a fully integrated component of SAP NetWeaver, the open integration and application platform that enables change. SAP NetWeaver integrates SAP EP with the technology offerings from SAP including SAP Business Information Warehouse, SAP Web Application Server, SAP Mobile Infrastructure, and SAP Master Data Management. SAP NetWeaver is the foundation of the next generation of SAP business solutions and already SAP EP can be seen in the new people-centric interface of mySAP CRM. Users can now deploy their SAP CRM solutions using the SAP EP as the front end “out of the box”. This means they can immediately leverage the portal’s personalization and integration capabilities while deploying industry leading CRM without doing any custom development. While each capability within SAP EP will continue to improve and expand, its business value will now be multiplied by integration with the rest of SAP NetWeaver and its place within every SAP business solution. Rather than just providing a “pretty face” that offers a web based user interface, SAP EP has become a fully integrated component of the SAP NetWeaver platform that will help drive change and innovation for SAP customers in the coming years.