This blog is dedicated to the in-depth review, analysis and discussion of technologies related to the search and discovery of information. This blog represents my views only and does not reflect those of my employer, IBM.


Thursday, September 14, 2006

WebSphere Portal Technical Conference Review

Have you ever noticed how conferences seem to bunch up in the spring and fall? This fall is no different. My last post two weeks ago was on the Search Engine Strategies conference in San Jose. This week I just returned from speaking at two WebSphere Portal conferences - one held in Baltimore Maryland the other in Stuggart Germany. Both conferences had the same agendas so I'll give my perceptions of the conferences as if they were one. While my main reason for attending the conference was to present the integration of IBM's advanced search technologies into portal I was able to learn some of the other exciting new developments with WebSphere Portal 6.0 which is just coming out. I'll touch on some of those developments as well as the advances in portal search.

Search Within WebSphere Portal

A portal is a web site that offers a single point of entry to a broad array of resources and services. The IBM WebSphere Portal enables an enterprise to quickly build a web portal of their own and make it available to their customers externally through the internet or through an intranet to their employees. A portal is made up of one or more web pages. Each web page can have one or more portlets arranged on the page. A portlet is a specialized content area that occupies a small "window" in the portal page. For example, a portlet can contain travel itineraries, business news, local weather, or sports scores.

Consequently, a portal acts as a kind of aggregator of an enterprise's content on the glass. For most enterprises the amount of content can be immense and not navigatable without search. The IBM WebSphere Portal comes with its own search engine but is limited in scale to about 800 thousand documents and only HTTP accessible sources. At the conference I talked about how IBM's enterprise search engine, OmniFind, could be used to go beyond these limitations and provide much more advanced search features.

In particular, OmniFind can scale to millions of documents and supports a broad range of enterprise content sources. Supported sources include the web, news groups, file systems, Notes databases, Quickplaces, document and content management systems, relational databases, and much more. So you can see that nearly all of your enterprise content is now searchable through your portal. Advanced search portlets are available that provide a robust set of search features to enhance the overall search experience. And by leveraging state of the art ranking algorithms and text analytics OmniFind can assure that the results are relevant. And that's what is important. If your users can't find what they are looking for they become frustrated, abandoning search and using more expensive means such as phone or email. Or worse yet they may leave your site altogether.

Composite Applications

While composing applications out of components is more efficient than creating them from scratch, building complex business logic using a set of portlets can be pretty tedious. You need to:
  1. Deploy the individual components one after each other.
  2. Arrange the deployed pieces on the staging system, as desired.
  3. Define portlet interaction and access control according to the business logic to be implemented.

All these steps need active involvement of application developers, portal administrators, and the people with the necessary business domain skills. To simplify this process, WebSphere Portal V6 introduces composite applications. Business analysts and application designers can easily assemble composite applications which implements complex business logic from individual components, such as portlets, processes, or other code artifacts. Composite applications use two fundamental aspects: templates and applications. A template describes a composite application in an abstract way, including information which defines how complex business logic is assembled out of a given set of components. The template is an XML file which references all components, such as portlets or Java code artifacts, and specifies applicable meta information, such as specific configuration settings for each individual component. The template describes the composed application behavior by defining the desired interaction between the components, such as wires between portlets, and access control logic to be enforced, such as application specific user roles. Because templates are stored in a template library, a user can pick a template and create a new instance of the composite application that is described by the selected template definition. Users can manage their application instances based on their own needs.

WebSpere Portal and AJAX

Behind the scenes, WebSphere Portal V6 leverages Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) in several places to move UI logic from the server into the browser. For example, contextual menus are implemented based on Ajax. The appropriate choice of menu options is determined on the browser system without request/response roundtrips to the portal server. WebSphere Portlet Factory uses Ajax to implement a “type-ahead” capability and to refresh UI fragments within a page. The use of AJAX has a dramatic effect on the overall usability of the portal. Because the UI processing is performed in the client and does not require a refresh of the entire page from the server AJAX removes the annoying flash or flicker typically experienced as a user navigates within a page.

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