Should you use built-in application services from your enterprise portal platform?

Enterprise portal vendors routinely market their toolsets by pointing to pre-built functionality.  In a previous post, I looked at the issue of out-of-the-box portlets available from vendors' portlet catalogs.

Now let's look at a related issue of bundled application services, nominally full-blown subsystems for which you would otherwise license a separate platform.

Bundled Application Services Bring Advantages

These application services can include things like built-in Document Management, Identity Management, Reporting, Web Publishing, Search, Workflow & Business Process Management, Mobile delivery, and so forth. In fact, many would argue these services are what differentiate a portal platform from an application server.

A key decision point here is whether to use these built-in services or license specialized tools instead. As with most other decisions of this nature, there is no universal answer.

To be sure, built-in services have obvious advantages. Integration (usually) becomes simpler.  And you don't need to worry about licensing other distinct packages, which in turn have their own hardware, software, and customization requirements.

What About the Trade-offs?

With specialized tools you almost always obtain a more sophisticated feature-set than what comes with built-in services.

Let's take the example of search, a common feature in most enterprise portal tools. A portal's built-in search service works out-of-the-box and is usually sufficient to search content stored within the portal platform itself. However, if you want to index information stored beyond your portal system (e.g., from your CRM or Digital Marketing platforms), the search functionality built into your portal may not be able to index those external systems.  In that case, you will have to consider external or specialized search engines.

In short...

You will almost always have to decide between using built-in but lightweight portal services versus licensing more sophisticated, external tools for key applications.  Microsoft SharePoint has seen substantial success specifically because it offers relatively simpler tools for departments or organizations who cannot deal with the complexity implementing heavier-weight document management and collaboration tools from another vendor.

However, portal tools have their limitations and so the decision to work with an out-of-the-box solution or choose a third-party tool becomes a balance between function, requirements, and cost.

We evaluate these application services in greater detail on a vendor-by-vendor basis in our Portals and Content Integration evaluations.

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