The Portal Push

By Elizabeth Bennett Print this article Print

Companies retaining UNICCO to clean offices, maintain heavy machinery and landscape grounds can schedule and track jobs and monitor work quality—all without picking up the phone.

The Portal Push

In 2002, when Peterson and Jenkins envisioned the portal tool, they had three priorities. "We needed the solution to be seamless when moving between different applications," Jenkins recalls. It had to allow UNICCO to consolidate data from different back-end systems, such as an enterprise resource planning system, a work-order management program and an e-mail software package. "We also wanted everyone to collaborate and share documents," he says.

"Seamless" meant that site operations managers at, say, Bank of America and Gulfstream, had to be able to sign on to the myUNICCO portal just once each session and gain access to the information they needed, regardless of how many places the information came from. For instance, a company that hired UNICCO to maintain and inspect heating and cooling equipment can log on to the portal once and view the following reports: The average time it takes to complete a work order, such as preventative equipment maintenance; how much UNICCO charged for labor during the last quarter of 2006; and the number of accidents on the factory floor last year.

The client can run each of those reports by setting date and other parameters from drop-down menus and submitting the request by clicking on a link. He can review the requested information from within the portal via Crystal Enterprise, a Web-based reporting tool from Business Objects, a San Jose software company. The client can also choose to import the data into a Microsoft Excel worksheet.

But these data sets live in separate databases or software applications. And each one—along with about two dozen other software applications, databases and servers—had to be integrated into the portal infrastructure over the last four years. It was the application integration within the constraints of the existing network infrastructure, according to Peterson, that created the toughest technology challenge when building the portal.

First, UNICCO had to select a portal software application that would allow it to securely connect and integrate into the firm's existing hardware and software, Jenkins says. Some of those technologies included an enterprise resource planning software package from JD Edwards (now part of Oracle), IBM Lotus QuickPlace messaging and collaboration software, a work-order management application from IBM's MRO Software and several IBM DB2 databases.

UNICCO eventually selected IBM's WebSphere Portal for its portal application server platform because of its interoperability with UNICCO's IBM-centric hardware and software platforms. To help develop applications and application interfaces within the portal, such as an invoice processing application, Peterson and Jenkins selected portal software called WebSphere Portlet Factory from Bowstreet, now part of IBM. The tool includes reusable code that developers use to automate the process of adding components to the portal. When UNICCO takes on a new client, for example, Jenkins and his staff can build a customized Web interface that pulls data from separate sources and reflects the client's brand.

The myUNICCO.com site creates the impression, however, that the information resides in a single source. There is a single sign-on for employees and clients that grants them varying degrees of access to billing and financial information, enterprise resource planning and work-order management data, and quality inspection results. The site also contains an e-commerce component for ordering supplies and areas for employee collaboration and training.

Linking disparate applications and data repositories required some creative technical work. In addition to JD Edwards, Lotus Notes and DB2, for example, UNICCO uses Maximo, MRO's work-order management software, to schedule and manage routine tasks and unplanned work requests, such as when an air conditioning unit fails or the executive kitchen runs out of paper towels. But the software could not easily produce status reports for clients, according to Jenkins.

To fix the problem, two UNICCO software developers spent 285 workdays building a Web-based work-request application called UNICCO Work Request. The application pulls data from Maximo, which runs on a Microsoft SQL sever at UNICCO's data center, and allows clients to initiate and check up-to-the-minute reports through the portal at any time.

If customers want to view data on the portal that resides in their own data center, UNICCO can accommodate the request, Jenkins says. For example, a customer may want to use its own invoice processing system instead of UNICCO's, but it may not want UNICCO to go within its firewall. In those cases, Jenkins says, his staff can develop a Web interface for the customer to view the data and upload the information from a storage tape each week (that the customer sends in by mail) to a server that links to the portal. Problems sometimes arise, according to Jenkins, when clients make a change in the data model, for instance, and forget to tell UNICCO. A new model could mean that the portal user interface (called a portlet) that is translating the data cannot understand the new code, and therefore cannot post coherent information to the portal.

This article was originally published on 2007-02-28
Senior Writer
Elizabeth has been writing and reporting at Baselinesince its inaugural issue. Most recently, Liz helped Fortune 500 companies with their online strategies as a customer experience analyst at Creative Good. Prior to that, she worked in the organization practice at McKinsey & Co. She holds a B.A. from Vassar College.
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