A Cleaner Window to Dynamic Data

By David F. Carr  |  Posted 2006-02-07 Print this article Print

Web portal developers will see clear benefits from the consolidation of two top vendors.

When a good software company is acquired, there's always a concern that the value of the system it offered will be lost in the shuffle. But sometimes there's also the potential that a stronger system will emerge. And that may be the case in BEA's acquisition of Plumtree, a maker of Web portal software.

There's something deceptively simple about the idea of a Web portal. A Web site becomes a portal when you can rely on it as a window to related content and functions—well organized, searchable and navigable. A corporate portal, for instance, is an intranet Web site employees can use to find relevant information—benefits forms, plus content keyed to their job function.

Plumtree Software, one of the pioneering creators of applications for building corporate portals, was acquired by BEA Systems for $200 million in a deal that closed late last year.

Part of the attraction for BEA was that Plumtree's technology (now re-branded as part of the BEA AquaLogic product line) supported the Microsoft .NET application development platform. Best known for its Java-based WebLogic application development and deployment technology, BEA needed a way of appealing to corporations that use Microsoft Windows-based technologies in the front end of their Web application architecture. Instead of forcing customers to choose between Java and .NET, now BEA can sell them a .NET-based portal combined with a WebLogic transactional system.

But as important as those Java versus .NET choices are, all of that stuff should be kept behind the scenes, invisible to users. BEA already had a WebLogic Portal product, but it was more of a developer's tool for combining data from disparate sources and presenting it on the Web. The other major concern in portal development is making sure the Web presentation itself is organized and useful, and helping customers achieve that goal was another of Plumtree's strengths.

At a Plumtree users' conference I attended in October, one of the more interesting customer stories came from Babcock & Wilcox, a manufacturer of industrial boilers. Jim Malone, vice president of sales and marketing, described working with Plumtree consultants on an "extreme makeover" of B&W's highly consultative sales process, where 26 people move $1.4 billion in product a year. In that environment, it's important to make sure salespeople don't waste time on tasks like hunting down the latest version of a proposal.

I followed up a few weeks later with Penny Sherrod, B&W's director of enterprise systems. At first, she said, B&W wanted a portal to support its product life-cycle management process. B&W chose Plumtree because it saw the potential to apply the same technology platform to other parts of its business.

But by volunteering to be a beta customer for new Plumtree technologies, including a business process modeling framework, B&W got Plumtree consultants to help it with a makeover that involved walking through the sales process and figuring out better ways to automate it. The resulting application will be one of the anchors of the redesigned portal, which will also offer new functionality to product management, engineering and construction communities within the company. The sales portal will replace a Lotus Notes application when it goes live this spring.

John Collins, the intranet Webmaster at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, achieved similar results without the benefit of consultants. Plumtree's development tools and templates allowed him to get a lot done with a small team—until recently, he was the portal's only developer.

For Collins, the tipping point came when he created a portal application for reserving conference rooms. "The people who book conference rooms tend to be relatively important," Collins says. And by helping them automate one of their routine daily tasks, he got past the stage of having to sell the organization's leaders on the value of the portal. "I'm no longer knocking on doors—they see the value," he says.

Yes, the back-end technology behind a portal is important, providing integration with other corporate systems, and here the BEA deal ought to improve the portal platform Plumtree customers will enjoy in the future. But what makes or breaks a portal is what gets put in front of the users, and that's where Plumtree stands to make BEA's offerings stronger.

David F. Carr David F. Carr is the Technology Editor for Baseline Magazine, a Ziff Davis publication focused on information technology and its management, with an emphasis on measurable, bottom-line results. He wrote two of Baseline's cover stories focused on the role of technology in disaster recovery, one focused on the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and another on the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.David has been the author or co-author of many Baseline Case Dissections on corporate technology successes and failures (such as the role of Kmart's inept supply chain implementation in its decline versus Wal-Mart or the successful use of technology to create new market opportunities for office furniture maker Herman Miller). He has also written about the FAA's halting attempts to modernize air traffic control, and in 2003 he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to report on the role of technology in United Nations peacekeeping.David joined Baseline prior to the launch of the magazine in 2001 and helped define popular elements of the magazine such as Gotcha!, which offers cautionary tales about technology pitfalls and how to avoid them.

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