These are the wilds of the Internet, and it is into this rambunctious, seemingly contextless environment that the term "portal" has entered to make sense of the madness. In recent years, though, the word has become passé in some techno-elite circles. Many are rightly asking the question, what is a portal and what does it do? The conventional mode of thinking is that a portal is a single point of entry to a larger body of information. The hole in that logic, as many in private industry and the federal government have discovered, is that every Web site is such a point of entry. Software manufacturers helped to create the word portal to put voice to the question forming on the tip of every Internet browser's tongue-how do I get just the information I want? Some federal agencies are venturing into the hostile territory of ill-defined portals with the hope of creating Web sites that their employees can use to find appropriate information, collaborate with peers and generally get a handle on the terabytes of data on the Internet. Leading the Charge
The one goal that many agency Web portals share is capturing and organizing a particular universe of information in one, easy-to-access space. This stands in stark contrast to the aims of consumer portals like Yahoo! or Ask.com, which have attempted to house all of the World Wide Web under one site's umbrella. The success of that effort has been questionable, evidenced by the fact that companies like Yahoo! have focused more on providing other sites with search engine technology and Web page personalization tools. This gives users the ability to make their own portals rather than having to "Ask Jeeves" in order to surf the Internet.
Federal agencies have succeeded in gathering together pockets of people, often in a variety of locations, who share some common interest. The results can be quite simple. The Defense Department's TransPortal (www.dodtransportal.org) was designed as a "resource tool" for departing military personnel as they make their way into civilian life, says Ollie Smith, the director of transition for the Defense Department's Educational Opportunities Directorate. All service members are required to undergo transition counseling before leaving their particular branch of service. But for service members stationed in remote locations, often overseas, where access to transition counselors and offices is nonexistent, the Web site offers the chance to collect the kind of vital information they need before visiting a transition office at a larger base. Smith boldly declares that the site really isn't a portal at all. "[It] is an ancillary associate tool that helps [personnel] and gives them reference information and tips and links to different job databanks."
Here's the rub. Usage and visitor retention drive Web success. Attracting and keeping eyeballs has been a major focus for agency portals. The experience on the site has to be worth the visitor's time.
To that end, the Army has created a one-stop super site for employees called Army Knowledge Online (www.us.army. mil), or AKO, that endeavors to get visitors to stay awhile. AKO is a portal, says Col. Bob Coxe, the director of the Army's Strategic and Advanced Computer Center, because it's "personalizable," a word, of sorts, that demonstrates how a portal is the closest thing to a self-made Web site someone can get without actually designing one. AKO was built to be the only site Army personnel would ever need in order to obtain information on a range of topics specific to life in the service-personnel records, housing information, professional contacts and support and post-retirement planning. A Web-based e-mail account for life is handed out to every new enlistee. Since its launch at the end of 2000, AKO has counted about 140,000 registered users, says Coxe. He predicts that, by August, that number will skyrocket to 1.2 million.
The services offered by AKO point to another key characteristic that separates Web sites from portals-a portal actually has to do something. Doling out instructions to consult some other source makes a portal the equivalent of the Yellow Pages. Besides e-mail accounts, the most seductive component of AKO is a powerful search agent designed by Autonomy. Users can create search strings based on their areas of interest or professional involvement and can find out who else has been looking for information on the same topic. Ideally, this allows experts all over the world to collaborate on their work to their mutual benefit. Users can direct the search agent to push new information to their desktops, cell phones, or handheld computers the moment it becomes available. AKO also offers its users single sign-on access to other military Web sites, eliminating the need to log in multiple times at multiple destinations.
Coxe believes he knows the secret to attracting visitors and keeping them at his site-don't try to guess what they want. "Trying to say, 'This is why you'll come here' is fraught with peril," he says. Rather, an agency needs to identify what the portal should do by knowing who it's meant to serve, and to what ends. This approach is markedly different from the model fancied by many of the early consumer portals that tried to predict everything that everyone would want on the Web and then put it all on one site.
The need to cater to a clearly defined but far-flung audience with specific needs drove the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command Software Engineering Center at Fort Belvoir, Va., to create a joint-force portal. The Transportation Coordinators-Automated Information for Movement System, known less imposingly as TC-AIMS, automates the deployment and transportation of military personnel and equipment across all forces to any location in the world. When the call to battle comes, TC-AIMS helps troops, airplanes, aircraft carriers and even food supplies get to the front lines by managing the movement of the entire armed forces. That mission is handled separately by divisions like the airlift and sealift commands, but the series of databases that those forces use join together to form TC-AIMS. The system is Web-enabled and runs through a portal, says Chip Raymond, director of strategic operations for the Fort Belvoir center.
Raymond describes the TC-AIMS project as a "third-generation heavy lift portal," but while he's quick to anoint the project with fanciful jargon, he's highly critical of how widely and inappropriately the term "portal" has been used. "It's another fad word," he says. "[Portals have] been around . . . as long as you've had libraries." Raymond says three distinct domains of portals help to shed light on what tasks these technologies are meant to accomplish. ‰ Business intelligence portals are decision support systems like data warehouses and data mining in which huge amounts of information are used to make long-range forecasts or crunch heavy numbers. These, says Raymond, are like the dashboard of a car, providing real time information on a variety of systems.
‰ Knowledge portals are the collaborative content managers that allow huge amounts of unstructured data-documents, e-mail messages, electronic libraries-to be brought together and published. This, he says, is like a car radio, organizing data and disseminating it as information.
‰ Enterprise portals are where those two realms intersect, allowing huge amounts of raw data and content to be handled simultaneously and shipped out to users anywhere in real time. The portal is the string that ties all the existing databases together. TC-AIMS uses Sybase technology for that component-straight out of a box, says Raymond. But the front-end-the side the user sees-is the World Wide Web. Operating on a browser makes the system portable since it can be used on any computer.
Different by Definition
Portals do things that other Web sites don't. Beyond providing links, sites like AKO and TC-AIMS perform functions unique to the needs of their users. Chris Hoenig, CEO of Exolve.com and an expert in the field of public sector technology, says portals started out with the idea of creating an "integrated place to get information" and bringing that together with a large consumer market. Now the sizes of the markets have shrunk and a portal has become a layer of Web infrastructure that allows highly integrated information access in one place.
What's key to identifying a portal, Hoenig says, is that it uses the Web to deliver highly sophisticated information access and specialized features to a target audience. Generally, he adds, the more sophisticated the integration of a site and the more functional it is, the more it's a portal. The more crude the integration, the more it's like an intranet.
So does a portal bring power to the people? Is that the best way to distinguish it from a Web site, or at least a really super Web site from a really boring one? Whatever the answer, federal agencies have determined that target audiences are key to the success of their portal building ventures. Lt. Cmdr. Tom Negus, head of surface warfare plans and policy for the Navy's Director of Surface Warfare, heads SWONET (www.swonet.com), a site catering to the Navy's approximately 8,600 surface warfare officers. Negus calls SWONET an "online community," not a portal. Much like Army Knowledge Online, SWONET offers users e-mail capability and the chance to search for and share professional information.
Audience plays a critical factor here because the site's users are frequently out at sea. The site strives to be their connection to home, providing e-mail and page personalization capabilities as well as contact with fellow officers, both on a professional and personal level. The sense of identity that comes from being a surface warfare officer had to be built into the site, says Negus. It's "just like sitting in the ward room, talking with other folks on the ships, except the ward room encompasses the entire surface warfare community."
Federal agencies will have to move toward portals as technology infrastructure models, says Hoenig, as the Web becomes the way to deliver information to the desktop. The question, he says, is how much value does it add? Return on investment is the chief concern as the Web evolves into a tool "that aids decisions and solves problems," Hoenig says. And if, as Hoenig believes, portals become the chief means of communication between agencies and their constituents (contractors, employees and citizens), the real test of this technology is yet to come.