The Difference Between Mashups And Messes…How Integrated Are Your Portal Applications?

Sean R. Nicholson

Sean R. Nicholson

One of the strengths of a good Intranet portal is the ability to integrate the disparate applications that exist within an enterprise. Just because links to the applications are presented in the portal or, in some cases, even natively surfaced in the portal doesn’t make them effectively integrated.  Take a look at the following tips and see if they indicate that your portal has mashups or messes.

1) Integrated “simpler” sign-on – Do your users have to login over and over to the various applications in your portal? Nothing irritates users more than having to login repeatedly. Whether it’s hourly logins to your portal or repeated logins to poorly integrated applications, your user adoption will take a nosedive if you make your users re-authenticate. Look to “simpler sign-on” applications like CA/Netegrity SiteMinder or BMC’s Identity Management suite to carry your users’ identity across your Intranet portal and into your business applications.

User adoption will be low if your end-users have to login over and over again!

User adoption will be low if your end-users have to login over and over again!

Some portal vendors are already integrating Identity Management functionality into their portal applications, but don’t be tricked into thinking these solutions are a magic bullet. Legacy applications often use hidden authentication fields or tricky redirects to ensure that they aren’t being “spoofed”. In one recent situation, my Development team spent a couple of weeks attempting to use BEAs Aqualogic User Interaction portal to federate authentication to applications like Peoplesoft and Concur Expense Management. Each of these applications use a specific redirect functionality to ensure the security integrity of their application. As with this situation some application IdM may not be able to be addressed by a portal or IdM suite. The goal, however, is to minimize the number of times your users have to login by federating wherever possible.

2) Federated Search Functionality – I have been known to repeat the phrase “It’s a Google kinda world” to more than one client when discussing federated search. The concept is simple…with the simple Google interface, we expect to type our term or phrase into a search field, click a Submit button, and receive the information we’re seeking. No additional dropdown lists or checkboxes, just one search field and one search button. The reality, however, is that every company doesn’t have the money or resources to devote to search that Google has. In addition, they often face a variety of disparate applications developed on different platforms, all using different search functionality.  As a result, each organization must do the best they can to identify the most simple search interface that returns the most valuable information to their users. Through the use of APIs, passing parameters, and third party applications or appliances, it’s amazing how close to a “Google experience” some organizations are able to come.

3) Application Interoperability – When your users click on a link in one portlet (also known as a “widget”), are they taken to an entirely different browser or page or is the information on the screen automatically updated? Allowing one section of a page to update the information displayed is often referred to as interoperability, which allows end-users to find information faster. The sign of a good mashup occurs when the user is able to interact with several different applications without knowing it.

As an example, imagine a customer calling into a customer care center and asking to review their most recent bill. The care agent enters the customers phone number into a single search form. This mashup then changes to display the customer account data (information stored in the CRM application), their most recent billing activity (which is stored in the billing application), and the list of outages in their area (information stored in the network service status application). The information presented on a single screen is considered to be a “mashup” of information from disparate systems.

A Customer Service Mashup

A Customer Service Mashup

The benefit of this type of mashup is that the care agent has all of the information they may need within a single click. This speeds the resolution time, making the customer happy and positively impacting employee satisfaction since they were able to easily access information without having to hunt for it.

4) Appropriate Application Security – As has been previously mentioned, Identity Management is a key component to a good mashup. But security isn’t limited to the number of logins a user has to complete. The most important aspect of application integration is ensuring that user only sees information that they would be authorized to see if they were accessing the information directly within the business application where the data is housed. Usually, a business application has its own integrated security for a good reason. Maybe it’s to restrict access to content, govern functionality, or ensure auditing, but whatever the reason the native security of the application must be followed. More and more, application vendors are providing toolkits for application developers to use Application Programming Interfaces (API)s that allow other applications to extract or insert data in a way that respects the application security. These toolkits can be invaluable to Developers in the creation of proper mashups.

5) Usability – Nothing screams “MESS!” more than a hodgepodge or information hastily slapped together on a page. Care should be taken to understand how your users expect to use the mashup before placing the content onto the page. Your end-users can often describe the flow of information they use, which will guide you in arranging the mashup appropriately. For instance, in the case of our customer service agent, do they often ask how the weather is in the customers location? If so, having the weather information prominently displayed may assist establishing a relationship with the customer. During a heaving outage period, however, it might be better to relocate the outage information to the top of the page and allow the weather to be secondary.

Creating a good mashup isn’t just about bringing together commonly-linked information. To avoid a mashup mess, take the above tips into account and you’re sure to produce something worthwhile to your end-users.

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