Most enterprise portal vendors -- including IBM, Liferay, and Oracle -- brag about the number of pre-built portlets and applications that come bundled with their platforms. Then a question arises for you the customer: How much of a differentiator are these portlet catalogs when evaluating portal technologies?
The Case for Portlet Catalogs
One of the putative advantages of using enterprise portal technology is faster time to market by reusing existing components -- usually portlets, but also full-blown applications -- out of the box. Most portal packages come with many pre-built portlets. The portlets range from simple functionality like an RSS feed reader, to functionality that is more complex — such as productized connectors to back-end systems.
There are multiple ways to adopt these portals. Some get packaged as part of the core portal bundle. For example, Liferay ships with portlets for blogs, calendars, navigation, breadcrumbs, a document library, an image gallery, email, message boards, polls, RSS feeds, wikis, and so-on.
Vendors also host online catalogs where you can download many utility applications, usually driven by their communities and partners. As an example, IBM's Portal Catalog has many such applications (both free and commercial), offered by third-party suppliers.
That all sounds great.
The Industry Secret About Portlets
But let me share a dirty little secret within the portal industry. The vast majority of these portlets will not match your business requirements.
Here's a short list why:
- Quality will vary from portlet to portlet
- Design patterns (data access, logical, experience) will vary
- They may not be performant
- They may not prove extensible
- They may have hazy provenance, which means support and security concerns
- You may have to customize them so heavily that you'd have been better off building from scratch (and many integrators do)
- The vendor likely won't support 3rd-party portlets
- Community portlets may not prove upgradeable
- You may face separate or additional licensing and fee considerations for each one
So make sure you test them well, especially if you download them from a community-contributed catalog.
To be sure, if your team builds portlets themselves, you may run into similar issues, but let's not pretend that an expansive portlet catalog is a great time-saver, especially if you are a larger enterprise with more sophisticated needs.
What You Should Do
So to answer the question I asked earlier, when evaluating portal tools for your requirements, don't give too much importance to the number of portlets available.
Instead carefully evaluate vendors' claims and test how many portlets and pre-packaged portal applications can get reused in your scenario.
In RSG's portal platform evaluations, we include a separate section for each vendor offering called "Utility Applications" to assess this specific aspect.
You can download a sample here and see for yourself.