Information Overload

Information overload, a desire to increase automation and the need to make better informed business decisions means that many organisations in the Middle East are looking to implement enterprise information portal solutions.

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By  Matthew Southwell Published  March 18, 2002

I|~||~||~|The enterprise information portal (EIP) market is big business. Meta Group expects more than 85% of the world’s top 2000 organisations to deploy one by 2004, while Butler Group predicts that the market will be worth $4 billion by 2005. It also says that that the decision to deploy an EIP is, potentially, the most strategic IT decision that a company will ever make.

Butler’s senior research analyst, Mike Davis, explains that there are a number factors contributing to the emergence of EIPs, such as the greater accessibility of Internet and intranet applications and the realisation that technology can truly deliver information any place, anytime.

“On top of that there are the changes that have happened in businesses since the 1980’s where people have taken on multiple roles. For example, clerks will now do sales ledgers and purchase orders… EIPs can deliver the things that IT has long promised but never delivered,” says Davis.

Connie Grobler, a technical consultant with Computer Associates (CA), states that information overload is also a key driver. “There is just too much information out there — people get overwhelmed with all the information, applications and tools that are available to them and making sense of them is difficult. Portals bring it all together,” she says.

Such business issues come under what Oracle Middle East’s product manager for application server and development technologies, Tarek El Shahawy, calls ‘business pain.’

Gianni Zorzino, principal consultant for Microsoft Services, believes that at the local level government initiatives are driving interest, despite the fact that they typically run little more than customer serving web sites rather than true EIPs.

“I think the Middle East is driven mostly by government portals. For example, the initiatives of Sheikh Mohammed in Dubai and those going on in Abu Dhabi,” he says.
Khalid Al Kassim, director, information technology department, Dubai Chamber of Commerce & Industry agrees. “The government is leading in this direction. Businesses usually drive IT strategies, but here it is a unique situation where the government is taking the lead,” he says.

The growing importance of EIPs is further demonstrated by the growth in vendor interest and subsequent offerings. Globally, the industry behemoths are taking on the niche vendors as Computer Associates, Oracle, SAP and IBM do battle with the likes of Plumtree, Hummingbird and Epicentric. Content management solution providers such as Vignette and BroadVision are also trying to sell themselves as EIP solution providers.
Which company currently tops the pile is open to debate. Meta Group predicts that, within the next 12-18 months, IBM and SAP will come to the fore. Bloor Research suggests that SAP, Plumtree, Hummingbird, IBM and Computer Associates are the critical vendors.
||**||II|~||~||~|“These five EIP heavyweights each bring something unique to the table, yet all are defined by strong technologies, impressive roadmaps and a quality user base. In this rapidly moving market, these are essential components for organisations teetering on the brink of the EIP buying decision,” says a Bloor Research report.

At the local level the picture is different. Oracle dominates in terms of reference sites and marketing noise while CA is still training its local team. At the time of going to press SAP Arabia did not sell the company’s portal technology, but was in negotiations with SAP AG to do so. Microsoft continues to push its own solution but, thus far, the niche players are poorly represented in the region. Plumtree in the US states that Middle East opportunities are run out of Paris, but its European HQ proved unresponsive. Hummingbird, at least, has an Abu Dhabi-based distributor that is making headway into the local market.

All of the above have similar sales pitches: their solutions will automate processes, manage information overload/distribution, cut costs and improve efficiency throughout the enterprise.

The pitch is a good one. Today, every large organisation has a plethora of information sources and tools with which to gather it, ranging from the old fashioned facsimile to e-mail. Such information overload is unmanageable for both the individual and the enterprise and, as a result, important data can be lost, overlooked or not used to its full potential.

EIP’s allow the individual user to select what information hits the desktop, filtering out everything else. The enterprise is able to consolidate communication channels and focus data capture. Such consolidation also applies to a company’s underlying applications. “The value proposition of the portal is that you have a single interface to all of your underlying applications,” says Davis.

“By giving access to numerous applications in one environment on one screen and automating the processes between them by using some sort of workflow then organisations are streamlining processes. A single employee to do what perhaps three or four employees did before,” he adds.

Other benefits of deploying an EIP include the streamlining of IT administration. For example, due to the single sign-on nature of most deployments access to all underlying systems is authenticated automatically, which reduces network administration.
It also allows an enterprise’s security team to focus its security efforts around one target, rather than on a number of applications. In an attempt to harness these benefits a number of companies in the Middle East are following the global trend and are either planning to or already have implemented an EIP.

||**||III|~||~||~|Gulf Insurance Company (GIC) is planning to implement an EIP solution in the third quarter of this year once it has moved its current insurance modules online. Spinneys has plans to deploy SAP portal technology within a similar time frame. “We need to stabilise our enterprise resource planning [implementation] before we take it on to a portal… [However] we will deploy one in the third or fourth quarter this year to share information across Spinneys,” says Spinneys’ manager of information systems, V. Chadrasekar.
The GIC implementation will be Oracle based and will link the enterprise, its brokers, re-insurers and regional offices to the company’s insurance specific and day-to-day business applications.

“We are not planning to just web-enable our applications. I wanted to go beyond this because we deal with vertical industries, whether it is medical or motor, and they have needs. I am building the portal with this in mind and, so long as we have the proper bandwidth, it will work on an intranet, mobile area network (MAN), wide area network (WAN) or local area network (LAN),” says Osama Tyoan, IT manager, Gulf Insurance Company.

Through the deployment of an EIP, Tyoan is hoping to provide a better, faster service to all of GIC’s users. “Insurance is still a service oriented industry, and by expediting underwriting and claim processing through the EIP our clients will benefit greatly,” he says.

Even some of Dubai’s government bodies are looking to make their ‘portals’ more inward facing as they attempt to reap the same benefits as the private sector. Phase two of Dubai Chamber of Commerce & Industry (DCCI) current Microsoft implementation will prepare the ground for the real EIP work in phase three. Started in January and scheduled for completion towards the end of this year, the single point of access will enable users to access all its applications and, more importantly, information.

“DCCI is an information orientated organisation. We receive and gather information about business, economics and trends. We want to publish this information [to employees] in a more timely fashion,” says Al Kassim.

This information availability drive will be engineered using Microsoft’s Commerce Server, Sharepoint Sever and SQL Server. Al Kassim says that the ultimate aim is to improve decision making for the benefit of those inside the organisation and its customers.

“It is about optimising and streamlining processes. We store data, e-mails and facsimiles, but unless you can present it in a meaningful way the information is useless. We are concentrating on optimising this to enhance decision-making,” he says.

Qatar Petrochemicals (QAPCO) is already benefiting from its EIP implementation. Deployed last year, the Oracle based EIP gives users access to all of the company’s applications, including human resources, its production information system and customised Oracle financial forms.

||**||IV|~||~||~|Abdulla Al Hammadi, head of information systems at QAPCO, explains that the portal provides a “window into our enterprise data.” “[The portal] provides quick and accurate information to enhance our strategic decisions as well as delivering the right information to the right people,” he says.

In order to achieve such benefits however, QAPCO and those planning EIP deployments, have had to address the key areas of knowledge management, content distribution, business intelligence, integration and security.

Access is typically provided through the integration of existing applications with the portal via portlets — the Java or HTML windows that appear on screen and allow information to pass between the legacy apps and EIP.

“The portlet renders the information from each application in the back end and delivers it as HTML or Java to the portal, which will then aggregate the information in one consolidated screen… It is the focal point of truth within the enterprise,” explains Oracle’s El Shahawy.

“A true enterprise portal is one that would link the underlying integration to the applications through the portlet connectors… This is where you are going to get your real benefits, your economies of scale and your savings out of automation,” adds Butler’s Davis.

QAPCO has deployed a whopping 120 plus Java Server Pages (JSP) and Oracle Portal Development Kit (PDK) based portlets as each of its legacy applications were brought online. Once such access is achieved the user has to be able to search the data quickly and effectively. “Companies need a strong search engine and good directory that will ensure that the portal’s users can find the information,” says Ayman Abouseif, marketing director at Oracle Middle East.

Jassem Al Maraghi, IT services manager at Kuwait Establishment for Education Services (KEES), suggests that a quality search engine is key to the success of an EIP. As such, the KEES team has implemented an Autonomy search engine that gives users three different search options. QAPCO has solved the problem using a Domino search engine.

It is not just enough for the enterprise to allow users to search its data. They have to be able to choose the way in which it is delivered to their desktop. El Shahawy suggests that effective personalisation is one of the key elements in an EIP. The interface should be designed specifically to provide the information a user requires in order to complete their defined role within the enterprise, he says.

||**||V|~||~||~|Personalisation is achieved in two ways — end user choice and role definition. The former is done by giving the user options as to what information and applications they wish to view and in what format. The latter is based on predefined roles and is typically done as the portal launches. User needs will be categorised and the initial information pushed to them will have been deemed relevant for their particular role. For example, the human resources (HR) department will be given portlets to all HR applications from the start, as well as something like financials.
Al Kassim explains that DCCI will use Microsoft’s Sharepoint offering to allow users to create their own digital dashboard. “We are giving employees the power to drag and drop what components they want to their page,” he says.

QAPCO achieves the same result already by using predefined roles and privileges. “Users have roles and privileges granted according to the nature of their jobs,” explains Al Hammadi. “In future users will be able to customise it themselves,” he adds.
At KEES, Al Maraghi uses Active Directory to assign functions to different user groups. These can be modified at will by assigning a portal connector for an app to a specific group.

“The administrator can also assign connectors to various services and the user has the ability to turn these connectors on or off. They can also have their own personal connectors, for example they may want to check free web mail,” he adds.
While giving users the ability to search and customise information at will improves decision-making, it can only do so if they can access the portal 24x7.

Having a single point of access means that companies also have a single point of failure. “You need scalability because the portal will be the single point of access. It has to be live 24x7,” says El Shahawy.

While DCCI has few concerns in this area as its EIP will be connected to Dubai’s bandwidth heavy Government Information Network (GIN), those in the private sector have to make alternative plans.

GIC’s Tyoan intends to solve the potential problem by splitting bandwidth requirements. Business entities that require intense data transfer back and forth, like the branches or the brokers, will be given higher bandwidth because they will be running the company’s applications in full, while others will access XML portlets, which require less bandwidth.
A single point of access also means that a company’s security concerns are focused in one area. On the plus side this means that the Internet security team only has one area of concern but it also means that hackers have only one target.

Davis states that as an enterprise puts more and more of its documentation and information on to its portal it cannot afford to ignore back-up and security processes. “You have to have industrial strength,” he says.
Once again, DCCI will benefit from its GIN usage while the private sector is left to fend for itself. QAPCO uses a combination of digital certificates and separate IP address to complement its standard security measures.

“We are using load-balancing routers and we separate internal and external calls to the applications by having separate IP addresses for internal and external users,” he explains.
No matter how secure or technologically impressive an EIP implementation is it will only benefit the enterprise if employees use it. To ensure that this happens a shift in user mind set is required.
||**||VI|~||~||~|Davis explains that it can be helpful if the project has a board level champion as it shows that the solution is being used from the top down within the enterprise.
“What we have also seen is that portals tend to get stuck in one particular department, or they get ‘feature creep’ where a department keeps adding functionality, and it never gets rolled out to the rest of the organisation,” he adds.

CA’s Grobler believes that the main thing is understanding what users both require and want. “This is important because users in different environments will typically want different things,” she says.

Jacob K.C, product sales manager, at local Humming Bird reseller Clientsoft Technology agrees. He also adds that education is important, as those building the portal have to thoroughly explain just what the benefits are going to be.

Another, rather more draconian approach, was employed by Al Maraghi at KEES. In addition to persuading upper management of the EIPs benefits he ‘banned’ paper communication. “I stopped all paper. I issued a decree within the company saying no more paper was to be circulated in the company,” says Al Maraghi.

“I told them [upper management and employees] that if they wanted to make a decision they needed to have the right information and the portal was the solution.”
Those organisations that convert their employees to an EIP while addressing the associated technical issues can, if the vendors are to be believed, expect a serious return on their investment.

A research report by Nucleus predicts that an enterprise deploying Microsoft’s EIP solution can expect an ROI of 187% while Hummingbird suggests that an up front investment of $3,703,500 will deliver a net benefit of $5,371,250. Perhaps the best example of how an EIP can be made to pay is KEES. Al Maraghi says that to serve the organisations upper management costs approximately US$500 per user and the expected ROI is a massive 250%.||**||

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