Can Free Portals Make the Grade?

Can Free Portals Make the Grade?

Before you pay for commercial software, consider the open-source alternatives.

When I was a cub technology reporter in 1992--about 20 pounds ago--one of my first editors made a profound observation, telling me that "software wants to be free."

He noted that expensive mainframe software was giving way to less expensive UNIX applications. Next, he surmised that Microsoft's high-volume/low-cost Windows NT software--slated to debut in 1993--would dramatically undercut UNIX prices. A few years later, Netscape Communications allowed customers to freely test the Navigator web browser, before Microsoft countered with a free browser of its own.

But could the price of high-end software--the type you use to run your university--ever really go to zero? In a few cases, the answer is a resounding "almost." Thanks to the Internet, rapid file sharing and the decade-old open-source movement, developers around the world cooperate to enhance freely available software like Linux and the Apache web server. And more and more universities are using uPortal, an open-source portal platform developed by the Java in Administration Special Interest Group (JA-SIG).

More than a web page, portals are one-stop websites that personalize information.

So, is uPortal right for your university? I generally don't make blanket recommendations, but I can safely recommend that you explore uPortal because the open-source movement has gained critical mass--and is accelerating. In addition to Linux and Apache, universities and businesses alike are using open-source databases (such as MySQL) and open-source development tools (like PHP) to design and run their next-generation applications. Keep a particularly close eye on the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) movement. I first wrote about LAMP-oriented applications about three years ago. A few CIOs told me I was crazy to cover such a niche technology at that time. Fast-forward to the present, and dozens of my corporate sources now tell me that low-cost, scalable LAMP-based servers have found homes in their data centers.

Admittedly, open-source applications have their drawbacks. MySQL, for instance, lacks a bunch of enterprise features found in commercial databases from Oracle, IBM, and Microsoft. But it's good enough for the vast majority of web-oriented applications, and its initial price tag is a nice fit for many portal strategies.

Before you test open-source software such as LAMP or uPortal, be sure to understand that "free" software comes with plenty of hidden costs. Generally speaking, you'll have to spend lots of long hours designing and configuring the software to work with all of your back-end systems (registration, e-mail, HR, etc.). Plus, commercial alternatives from Oracle and IBM typically enjoy broader support from integrators, server makers, and middleware specialists.

Whether you opt for open-source or commercial software, it's critical to understand why your university needs a portal and how it will benefit your key constituencies (students, staff members, parents, alumni, donors, etc.). For a few pointers, it's wise to seek out Kevin Lowey, the person who wrote the book (actually, a website) about campus portals. A member of the IT services division of the University of Saskatchewan, Lowey has long maintained an online tip sheet that shows universities the ins and outs of portal deployments.

More than a web page filled with lots of static links, Lowey says portals are best described as "one-stop" web sites that personalize information. Dynamic by design, portals display information culled from university databases and third-party application servers. Yet the information displayed varies from user to user. For instance, a computer science major's view of the portal may include the latest information from your school of engineering, while a graduate student's view of the portal may display information about accelerated graduate courses. Instead of hunting the web for information, a person identifies himself to the portal (through a user name and password), and the portal brings all relevant information to the user.

Rather than guessing what services to offer on your portal, ask your students. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, students on the Shared Governance Information Technology Committee have helped to shape the university's portal. Student suggestions, such as linking complete course descriptions to the portal, reinforce user interest in the site. Indeed, the campus portal receives roughly 70,000 hits per day, according to a university spokesperson.

Many universities try to dictate what information is displayed on students' portals. That's a mistake. A portal is a tool for the individual, not the university, notes Lowery. Even if you don't agree with that statement, if you satisfy each individual you'll wind up building stronger bonds with every member of your university community. That means giving students menu options to change how, where, and what type of information is displayed on their portals. Some students may prefer three-column layouts and local news reports, weather feeds, and sports scores from their hometowns. Other students may lean toward two-column layouts that display job leads from your career development department.

At a minimum the base portal should include web-based e-mail, and a personalized calendar. Optional tools could include chat rooms for groups like students in a class, online file storage, and tools to build and maintain personal web pages, according to Lowey. Also, keep in mind that you'll need to find ways to display portal information across traditional PC screens, wireless notebooks and handhelds, and even smart phones.

Yes, smart phones. Companies like PalmOne, Microsoft, Sprint, T-Mobile Wireless, and others are shifting their priorities from traditional PDAs (personal digital assistants) market and increasingly focused on smart phones that merge personal organizer, cell phone, and digital camera capabilities into single devices. Most of your current freshman class likely uses notebook computers in tandem with cell phones. But it's a safe bet those freshman will use some type of hybrid smart phone by the time they're seniors--or perhaps much sooner. That means you'll need to explore flexible ways to display portal information on small screens.

Some universities errantly believe that portals can replace their traditional websites (i.e., your university's home page). By all means avoid that temptation. Your home page should remain intact, displaying basic information about the university and links to generalized topics such as university contact information. From the home page, students and other members of the university community should be able to log into the portal--from any internet-enabled device--via a user name and password.

Portal projects provide the perfect opportunity to pursue a single sign on (SSO) strategy. With SSO your students can maintain a single user name and password to access multiple applications. Most successful SSO projects depend on applications that support LDAP (lightweight directory access protocol). But a word of caution: In my experience, the vast majority of SSO projects turn out well but don't quite hit the bull's-eye. For instance, your e-mail and financial applications may support single sign-on, but legacy applications from the mainframe and minicomputer days often don't support LDAP, and therefore require another set of user names and passwords.

If you're exploring SSO, be sure to investigate federated identity management (FIM). Simply put, FIM is like a digital passport that allows "trusted" customers to move from one web system to another without entering a new name and password each step of the way. Looking out a few years, FIM could be critical to your portal strategy. Students, for instance, may eventually demand a single name and password to enter your portal and, through FIM connections, seamlessly access federal aid-related web sites maintained by the government. Several companies, including RSA Security, promote FIM software products, but I can't vouch for their quality as of this writing.

I also can't vouch for the quality of uPortal, but I do know that demand for such software is on the rise. Federal budget cuts, rising health insurance costs, and inflated energy prices have forced universities to reevaluate every line in their annual budget. Many universities are wondering why there are six- and seven-figure annual maintenance fees to software companies that often promote bug fixes as product enhancements.

Still, commercial software maintains several advantages over the open-source world. For starters, many open-source companies and organizations are tiny, money-losing ventures. In stark contrast, big portal players, such as Oracle, have deep pockets, broad partner support, and long-term market viability. In some cases, organizations such as Oracle are offering a hybrid approach, promoting commercial applications working hand in hand with open source. CampusEIA (www.campuseia.org), for instance, this past summer sponsored an Oracle portal training conference held at Kansas State University. Database, system and web administrators tested OracleAS 10g, Oracle Internet Directory, Oracle Single Sign-On Server software, and various open-source options. I've heard that attendees from Virginia Commonwealth University, University of Oklahoma, and other universities were captivated by the demo.

Of course, there's a big difference between demos and production rollouts. Do your homework, explore LAMP and uPortal, and work closely with students to identify your portal needs in the decade ahead. And if your vendor won't budge on price, I dare you to tell them that "software wants to be free."

Joseph C. Panettieri (joe_pan5@yahoo.com) moderates CIO conferences across the country for Ziff Davis Media's Custom Conference Group. He has covered Silicon Valley and the business of technology since 1992.


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