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What's a portal anyway?

Building content management solutions now feels like an overwhelming process. We're no longer creating "just a site" or a "page". We're actually building "application" mixing bowls that pull in and manage various types of content (a.k.a data) from lots of different places. And most of the time we need to "truly engage" people by leveraging big buckets of geo, historical, interaction, and predictive based customer information.

If you've been in the game long enough you'll know there's nothing really new in all of this, except for one key difference, we're now doing it on a massive scale with modern best-of-breed systems. Where everything has to be "automated" and done yesterday, and there are really (really) big expectations around reusing existing systems, making things more efficient, and creating "seamless experiences" to improve customer satisfaction and ROI.

Essentially websites and web pages are now large software products that evolve and iterate with ever-changing customer and market needs. With dedicated people working between purpose-built tools that all need to reuse and pass around (a.k.a integrate) data from underlying, adjacent, and external systems.

So it's no surprise we're seeing old school enterprise software and architecture terms resurfacing in an attempt to try and explain (and solve) some of the current web madness. In fact, you've probably noticed a bit of a trend too, because it seems to be all the rage right now for vendor and related analyst materials to be peppered with throwbacks to an IT yesteryear like "Portal", "Widget", "Enterprise Service Bus (ESB)", "Extract, Transform, Load (ETL)", and "Middleware". All of which come with a fair bit of baggage and confusion, which I hope to clarify with a series of articles addressing each in turn, starting with the ever ambiguous "Portal".

Why am I now seeing the word "Portal" everywhere, and what does it actually mean?

Two veterans of web recently asked me this, followed by: "sounds like something from 10 to 15 years ago". Which is proof enough that the word is confusing and probably reserved for people with more of a corporate and enterprise-level IT background.

The answer to the first bit can be found at the start of this article i.e. the web is transitioning through a bunch of things the IT and software crowd have been dealing with for a while and already have some old words for.

Answering the second part of the question is a bit trickier because it requires a common language, something that can be communicated to everyone no matter their level of understanding. Mainly because the word "Portal" doesn't cut it, either do the various analyst definitions, especially considering those things change over time.

What do people think "Portal" means?

Talking through the concept with a few different people of various backgrounds and roles tends to see the conversation end up as something like:

  • Integration.
  • integration.
  • A mix of data from many different places, all in one place, presented like they are all the same thing. Kind of like a "mashup".
  • Composite views.
  • Custom dashboards.
  • A really old word that only IT people can remember.
  • Something like contextualized content built from querying various different content repositories

"Portal" examples

Good examples most people recognize are found as browser-based views to a set of goal-specific reporting and functionality e.g. banking portals, student portals, staff portals, and health insurance portals. And those things come in many different shapes and sizes now. For example, it could just be one web page accessed for a very specific purpose, a whole site that feels more like an application, or something you use on your mobile device to get a simplified set of tasks completed.

Also, most people don't realize they're using a "Portal" every day. Ask yourself, what's one of the most frequently used websites you use at work? It's usually there to help you get your day-to-day done really quickly and it's probably the result of some seriously custom stuff that integrates a whole bunch of things... That's right, it's your "intranet", and in many cases it's also your "extranet".

Redefining "Portal"

From my perspective, it's about having a central "view" of something that's made up from various blocks of content built from various disparate systems, all presented and managed in the one place. And in almost every case it's "personalized" in some way, which means it's something that feels like it's been built and presented "just for me". All put together to help me get stuff done faster for a specific set of things.

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