Portal proliferation

Dubai Government and a number of private sector organisations within the Middle East are rolling out enterprise information portals. However, while such solutions offer a number of business benefits, the market is still racked with confusion and cultural sensitivities throughout the region could delay further adoption.

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By  Maddy Reddy Published  November 23, 2003

I/III|~||~||~|Dubai Government and a number of private sector organisations within the Middle East are rolling out enterprise information portals. However, while such solutions offer a number of business benefits, the market is still racked with confusion and cultural sensitivities throughout the region could delay further adoption.

Dubai Government and its various incarnations are committed to rolling out a government wide portal that not only houses its own applications, but also the citizen centric services that give residents an online window into its operations and allow them to carry out day-to-day transaction in a stress free and more time effective manner.

The latest endeavours within this lofty initiative revolve around the implementation of Oracle's E-Business Suite at The Ruler's Court, Dubai Economic Department and Dubai Civil Aviation, and the upgrading of Dubai Police's e-services portal.

The portal aspect of the Government Resource Planning (GRP) project comes from the manner in which each government department will access the Oracle applications. Rather than hosting a single instance of the enterprise software within each office, the E-Business Suite will be used through a government-wide intranet, thereby easing management and boosting information access across the board.

"Through our portal we are not only enabling electronic services to our constituents and our external customers, but also by streamlining and automating the internal processes for our employees and internal customers," says Thani Alzaffin, director, government information resources department at H. H. Ruler's Court.

"Our government resource planning project and portals are focusing on efficiency, the availability of timely information and excellence in public services," he explains. The Dubai Police project, which has been running inline with the Dubai Government's vision for a digital society, has seen a number of its services revamped, including the reporting of stolen cars, the renewal of vehicle registration and driver's licenses, payment of fines and the registering of complaints.

"Dubai Police has a clear mandate to enhance public perception about how we work and the services we provide. Our new e-services portal was created to provide a single source of easily-accessible traffic, crime, and related information for Dubai's residents," says Colonel Ahmad Hamdan Bin Dalmouk, director of the general department of e-services.
In addition to easing access for residents of Dubai, the Police portal will improve information sharing among other government offices and ensure its data is integrated with the other departments the police force traditionally works with, such as immigration, customs, the courts and Dubai Municipality. "It is vital that the Dubai Police e-services initiative [is] as accessible and unbreakable as possible," says Colonel Bin Dalmouk.

Dubai Government's enthusiasm for enterprise information portals (EIPs) is shared by a number of other government run institutions around the Middle East. For instance, Kuwait University and Kuwait Establishment for Education Services (KEES) have been operating EIPs since early 2002.

Outside of the public sector, a number of local organisations are also investing in the technology, with companies such as Gulf Insurance Company, Qatar Petrochemicals and Spinneys all either completing or considering EIPs roll outs over the past 18 months.

Both the public and private sector companies that are either investigating or implementing EIPs are all attempting to reap similar benefits. These include the unification of disparate applications, the consolidation of various data sources and the simplification of accessing the multitude of current and legacy applications they run.

"EIPs are critical to access legacy, 3-tier and web-based information in one single interface from anywhere in the world," says Tarek Shahawi, technology consulting manager, Oracle Middle East. "Since last year, the EIP segment in the Middle East has heated up. We are seeing an increased interest, especially from the government sector, which is leading the way and deploying EIP's to unify information from all departments," he adds.

Further evidence of EIPs' growing popularity is the sheer number of vendors touting portal solutions. Within the region, BEA, Computer Associates Middle East (CA-ME), Open Text, IBM, Oracle, Plumtree, Sun and Sybase are all offering packaged and customised EIP solutions.
Even Microsoft is stepping up its portal marketing with the introduction of Office System, which comprises 11 front-end applications, four new servers, a SQL database and the Exchange 2003 messaging platform. "We did around 54 pilot projects for EIPs using our new Office System before the official launch," says Mazen Shehadeh, product marketing manager for South Gulf.

Concurrently, Microsoft Business Solutions (MBS) is touting its Business Portal solution for Great Plains and Solomon. Built on .Net, the solution integrates with Great Plains and Microsoft Solomon to deliver applications, information and processes to employees, customers and partners across the enterprise over the web.

"Business Portal is a great tool that allows our new and existing customers to have immediate, secure web-based access to information from a single web-based portal," says Soha Kamal, product management lead for MBS in the Middle East.

However, while this glut of vendors reflects local end user enthusiasm, it also reveals some of the confusion surrounding EIPs that has prevented some organisations jumping on board the portal bandwagon. For instance, some vendors claim to offer EIPs when their offerings are actually workflow management, document collaboration or content management systems. And, while each of these are key to an effective EIP, neither the standalone applications themselves nor a loose configuration of several of them can deliver the benefits true enterprise portals have to offer.

"Companies are confusing knowledge management solutions, content management solutions, document management and workflow management with an EIP," says Shahawi.

"Unless a product seamlessly integrates all the legacy systems and the entire backend in the most cost-effective way it can't be a true EIP product, as some vendors are trying to suggest," he explains.
Further evidence of this confusion comes from the fact that some companies are already operating EIPs and simply do not know it. The root of this problem is the all encompassing and fully integrated nature of many tier one ERP applications.

"EIP is often included in the bigger picture, so it ends up being an embedded solution that is hidden and not a standalone solution," says Raoul Hunter, information management and e-business advisor at CA-ME.

The maturity of both the EIP market and portal products will go someway to clearing this confusion. Another factor that will help is the development of standards, as this will give vendors clear guidelines over what a portal should offer and end users an indication of what they should be able to achieve with such solutions. Furthermore, it will enhance the integration aspect of EIPs, one of its most appealing capabilities to begin with.

To further the development of standards, Plumtree Software, Documentum, BEA Systems and Sun have recently formed the industry's first open-source site for organisations to share portlets developed according to the new JSR/Oasis 168 standards. The vendors say their open-source site, known as the Portlet Open-Source Trading site, or POST is open to all organisations, including customers and partners of competing portal software providers such as IBM, Vignette and SAP. Oracle is also working towards this standard.

"JSR 126 is a portlet standard we are developing that can be used as a standard for any EIP... Such general usage portlets are important for customers to protect their investment," says Shahawi.

However, even open standards and the ability to integrate disparate information sources will not solve the biggest local problem - a cultural reticence to share information both internally and externally. While the situation has certainly improved within the past few years, as both increased internet penetration an a growing demand for transparency has forced the issue, it is still a problem.

"Knowledge and information sharing culture is still not prevalent here in the Middle East... The demand from customers, suppliers, or partners is still in a paper format and manually. Getting everyone to use a standard electronic format is a big issue for EIPs," says Saji John, sales manager, Open Text.

Despite the issues still facing portal vendors and the confusion within the industry, the majority believe the problems will be solved and the example being set by users such as Dubai Government and early adopters within the private sector will see an increasing number of EIPs deployed. As Shahawi says, "in the long-run, more enterprises will adopt EIPs out of business needs and to stay competitive."

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