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Three Contexts for the Term "Portal"June 27, 2005 03:37 PM | Posted in: Building Blocks , Executive Dashboards , Information Architecture
I'm working on a portal project at the moment for a healthcare client, so I've heard a great deal about how the concept of 'portal' is so diluted as to be effectively meaningless. Following a series of surprisingly muddled conversations with technologists, business types, and end users representatives around the concept for this new portal, I realized that much of the hand-wringing and confusion comes from simple lack of perspective - on the different perspectives represented by each viewpoint. Ambiguity or disagreement about which perspective is the frame of reference in any given discussion is the biggest source of the confusion and friction that makes these projects needlessly difficult.
There are (at least) three different perspectives on the meaning of the term portal.
To technologists and system developers, a portal is a type of solution delivery platform with standard components like authentication, an application server, integration services, and business logic and presentation layers that is generally purchased from a vendor and then customized to meet specific needs. Examples are Plumtree, BEA, IBM, etc.
To users, a portal is a single destination where it's possible to obtain a convenient and - likely, though not always - personalized combination of information and tools from many different sources. Some examples of this sense of the term include Yahoo, MSN, and a well-developed intranet.
To a business, a portal is a bounded vehicle for aggregating information and tools to address diverse constituent needs in a coordinated and coherent way, with lowered management and administration costs realized via framework features like personalization, customization, and role-based configuration.
One case where all three of these frames of reference intersect is with Executive Dashboard projects. A dashboard is a portal in all three of these senses (unless it happens to rest on a different architecture / technology stack, in which case I maintain that it's something else, so as an IA it's prudent to keep in mind the differing implications and assumptions associated with each perspective while dealing with their representatives.