Many business functions require users to access information
that resides in multiple disparate systems. For example, a
customer might call a service representative to place a new
order. However, before the service representative accepts a new
order, he or she has to verify the customer's payment history in
the accounting system to ensure that the customer is in good
standing. Switching between systems makes the service
representative's work tedious and error-prone.
How can users efficiently perform tasks that require access
to information that resides in multiple disparate systems?
To solve this problem, you need to consider the following
- It is still very common for an end user to have to
manually copy information from one system to another. This
type of integration is often referred to humorously as
"swivel chair integration" because the user has to access
multiple systems, often from multiple terminal screens. The
user views the information on one screen and then swivels to
another screen to enter data based on the information from
the first screen. Obviously, this type of manual integration
is very inefficient and error prone.
Process Integration can automate tasks that combine data
and functions from multiple systems, thereby alleviating the
need for users to access multiple systems directly. However,
Process Integration requires a good understanding of
the business process so that the business process can be
accurately represented in a process model. This is often not
the case because users make improvised decisions based on
the information they see.
Entity Aggregation allows multiple systems to
share data, which enables the user to access all required
information from a single point. However, Entity
Aggregation is often impossible or not economical due to
strong semantic dissonance between the individual systems
and lack of a common vocabulary between systems and people.
- Reading data from an application is generally simpler
and less risky than updating information. This is especially
true in cases such as
Data Integration, which directly accesses application
data and bypasses the business and validation logic.
Create a portal application that displays the information
retrieved from multiple applications in a unified user
interface. The user can then perform the required tasks based on
the information displayed in this portal.
Figure 1. Portal Integration
Portal Integration is a comparatively simple form of
integration. It is popular because it is typically much easier
to implement and less intrusive than more sophisticated types of
integration, such as Process Integration. With Portal
Integration, the business process that describes the
sequence of tasks does not have to be represented in a precise
process model, but instead resides in the user's head. This
enables the end user to compensate for mismatches in semantics
between the individual systems and to make a case-by-case
decision. This approach is naturally less efficient than
Process Integration, but it gives the user flexibility and
it is typically much faster to implement. In many cases,
Portal Integration can be used as an intermediate solution
until business processes are better understood and can be
incorporated into a process model, thus enabling the transition
to Process Integration.
The portal engine shown in Figure 1 interacts with the
individual applications using Data Integration,
Functional Integration, or
Presentation Integration. Because the primary purpose of the
portal is the display of information, Portal Integration
works particularly well with simpler forms of connectivity, such
as Data Integration or Presentation Integration.
Portal Integration comes in a variety of flavors from
very simple to fairly complex. The following list categorizes
the different variants:
- Display-only. The simplest form of Portal
Integration simply displays data in different areas of
the screen. Information from each application is mapped to a
rectangular area of the screen, also referred to as a
pane. This display allows the user to view information
retrieved from multiple applications on a single screen. No
other functionality is provided.
- Simple post-processing. Instead of presenting the
data received from each individual system, many portals add
simple rules that help the user make decisions. For example,
if the billing system reports that a customer payment is
overdue, the portal would list this as an exception in bold
red letters at the top of the screen instead of showing the
history of all payments received. This type of functionality
helps turn raw data into useful information for the user.
- Single application interaction. This variant
displays data in different areas of the screen, but it also
allows the user to issue commands to one system at a time.
This extra functionality enables the user to view
information from multiple systems and use the resulting data
to perform a business function that is limited to a single
- Cross-pane interactivity. In many cases, the
information to be displayed in one pane depends on a user
selection in another pane. For example, a list of customers
might be retrieved from the customer relationship management
(CRM) system. When the user selects a customer's name from
the list, the portal retrieves the selected customer's
payment history from the billing system and displays it in a
separate pane. To automate these steps, basic interaction
between different portal panes is required. This type of
portal speeds up the user's tasks without requiring full
integration between systems. However, this type of portal
does require the availability of common keys, such as a
customer identifier (ID), that function across multiple
systems. With this type of portal, the development of the
interaction is often difficult to test and reuse.
The Portal Integration solution relies on interplay
between the solution components that are described in Table 1.
Table 1: Portal Integration Solution
||- Extract information from
- Render information into a unified user interface
||Host relevant business data
Many customer service functions require access to a range of
customer data. For example, a customer may call to place a new
order, check whether a payment has been received, and change his
or her phone number. Often, this type of information is stored
in many different systems, such as the order management system,
the billing system, or the complaint system. Giving a customer
service representative a unified view of the various records for
a customer can be enormously helpful in providing efficient and
effective service to the customer. A similar or reduced version
of the portal could also be presented directly to the consumer
on the company's Web site.
Portal Integration results in the following benefits
- Non-intrusiveness. Because its primary function
is the retrieval and display of information, Portal
Integration can typically be added to existing systems
without disturbing the existing functionality. This is
particularly true if Portal Integration uses Data
Integration for the retrieval of data from the
- Speed of implementation. Adding a portal to
existing applications can often be accomplished in a matter
of days or weeks, whereas a full integration of the systems
could take many months. Many vendors offer Portal
Integration platforms in combination with a suite of
prefabricated panes that integrate with many popular
enterprise applications and data sources.
- Flexibility. Because the user makes the
decisions, Portal Integration can be used in
situations where business rules are not well understood or
not agreed upon.
- Inefficient. Portal integration is best
suited to the automation of simple tasks and processes
because it still requires manual interaction by the user.
For example, because most portals allow the user to interact
with only one application at a time, the user might have to
perform multiple manual actions in sequence to complete a
complex business function. This makes Portal Integration
unsuitable for high-volume applications. In these
situations, Process Integration is generally a better
solution because the sequence of steps can be encoded in a
process model and run automatically by the process manager.
- Error-prone. When using Portal Integration,
the user makes business decisions and determines the
sequence of tasks to be performed. While this provides
flexibility, it also introduces the risk of human error.
Therefore, Portal Integration is not well suited to
integrations that require strict repetition of a defined
business process. Process Integration is generally a
better choice in those scenarios.