Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Business Portals vs. Line of Business Applications

A primary focus of our business is building custom SharePoint-based applications for our clients.  Naturally, being SharePoint gearheads, we believe that everything under the sun can somehow be made to work in SharePoint (and we're not often wrong) but we run into a great deal of confusion when presenting clients with various customization options.  One of the most difficult ideas to grasp is the separation between a business portal (BP) and a line of business application (LOB).  Which is which and where/how do you use each one?

To begin with, a business portal is defined as any application or set of applications (and the default SharePoint experience is really a set of integrated applications) that share a common brand or visual presentation and is usually delivered as a packaged installation (as opposed to a fixed location extranet or intranet) to customers, partners, or other constituents.  An LOB, on the other hand, is a distinct application that is deployed within an existing inter/intra/extranet implementation. 

On a more technical level, a customized set of WSS site definitions, web parts, and templates that together combine to form a branded collaboration application for, say, the real estate market, would be a business portal.  On the other hand, a set of web parts, lists, roll-ups, controls, or other programmatic elements, delivered individually or packaged together, and installed within an existing company intranet for tracking sales and orders, would be an line of business application. 

Just to muddy up the waters a bit, it should be pointed out that the two are not mutually exclusive - an LOB can be deployed within a business portal and a business portal can be created to serve internal as opposed to external customers (an IT help desk solution for a company with multiple, independent locations comes to mind).  Many organizations start creating LOB's soon after they deploy a new portal solution without realizing that's what they are doing, as they roll out custom web parts that roll-up, consolidate, or provide access to various sources of company data.

Business portals can be a very powerful tool for organizations that need to deliver rich web-enabled applications on a limited budget.  WSS provides a comprehensive, flexible, and customizable (and let's not forget FREE!) platform for creating dynamic web applications.  The best thing about BP's is that the framework is already in place - navigation, data storage (via lists), security, browser-based site management - so developers can focus on customizing and extending the framework without reinventing the wheel at every turn.  With the introduction of SharePoint 2007 and the improved customization options, along with built-in workflow and item-level security, forms-based authentication, and the business data catalog, expect a dramatic upsurge in the number of business portals being created, many of which will be offered as stand-alone applications (hint: expect to see several from us before the end of the year).