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Intelligent Business Portals

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Chapter 3

Intelligent Business Portals


Xue Li
University of Queensland

ABSTRACT
Portals can be regarded as an information gateway for exchanging business information
over the Internet. They are for delivering the right information to the right user, at the right
time, to the right place, to make the right decisions. A Portal is a packaged piece of information
with the properties of self-servicing, personalization, and real-time delivery. From a business
point of view, a Portal is a mobile, self-explanatory, and just-in-time delivered piece of
information. In e-Commerce, business information is the set of timed transactions that can
be triggered by events in business activities. This chapter is to illustrate and explain the
architecture of intelligent business Portals for web-enabled business applications.

INTRODUCTION
The portal concept was introduced by Merrill Lynch (Shilakes and Tylman 1998). It was
estimated that by the year 2002, the Portal market value in Business Intelligence (Bergert 2000)
will reach 7 billion (US$), in Content Management will reach 4.5 billion (US$), and in Data
Warehousing & Mart will reach 2.5 billion (US$). The main reason for this fast growth is
because of the World Wide Web on the Internet and the high-speed network infrastructure.
Portals can be regarded as an information gateway (Li 2000a & 2000b, Finkelstein 2000,
Firestone 1999, Nielsen 1999, Sullivan 2001, Walker et al 1999). Portals originated from the
question of how we could deliver the right information to users. In traditional pull technology
(Arnold 1999, Buchwitz 1999, Kpyl 1999), individual web users have to initiate the search
operation to find information from the web, while when we consider push technology (Arnold
1999, Buchwitz 1999, Kpyl 1999), information is sent to the individual users with or without
solicitation. On the other hand, a user may need to interact with a system to provide
information (such as filling a survey form). Thus, there is a need to provide an application
independent mechanism for switching information between information providers and
requestors. This requirement has generalized the traditional many-to-one client-server
relation into a many-to-many client-server relation. Inevitably, an information explosion is
Copyright 2003, Idea Group Publishing.

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introduced on the web. Many web users are frustrated in dealing with the overwhelming
information bombardment. To solve the problem, the Portal as a packaged piece of information
is used for delivering the right information to the right person, at the right time, to the right
place, to make the right decisions (Li 2000a & 2000b). A Portal has the properties of selfservicing, personalization, and real-time delivery. For self-servicing, a user would be able
to use pre-defined templates to re-design personalized web pages. An example is given in
Figure 1 (Wei 2000). In this case every university student is given a website. The individual
student can modify the website according to personal interests.
For personalization, a user would be able to deliver and receive information that is
dedicated to the person. Figure 2 and Figure 3 show two implemented Portals that are used
for the students to select subjects and view personalized enrolment information. For realtime delivery, a Portal is used as a messaging tool to deliver instant messages to an individual.
For example, Oracle9iAS (http://www.oracle.com) Wireless Edition can provide information
to any wireless device, such as mobile phones, hand held computers, and pagers.
From a business point of view, a Portal provides mobile, self-explanatory, and just-intime delivered information. The information could be supplied as a set of timed transactions
Figure 1. A Sample Self-Servicing Personalised Website.

Figure 2. A Sample Personalised Website with User Input.

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triggered by events in business activities. In business intelligence, knowledge is used to make


business decisions, to search for useful information, or to control the routine business
processes.
When Portals are used as an approach to the fundamental information infrastructure
of e-businesses, we need to know how to maximize their usefulness in order to improve our
business performance, competitiveness, and viability. Intelligent Portals would be Portals
with knowledge in order to be driven around on an intranet or the World Wide Web. In other
words, by capturing the domain-specific business knowledge, we can deploy Portals on the
web and let their behaviour be controlled by a knowledge base. In this case, a knowledge
management system (Choo 1998, Liebowitz and Wilcox 1997) would play an important role
in an e-business environment.
This chapter will discuss the theoretical issues on the integration of knowledge
management systems with Portal deployment mechanisms. Then, we will illustrate and explain
the technological issues in designing and implementing intelligent business Portals for webenabled business applications.
The next section introduces the concept of Intelligent Portals. This concept is differentiated from the concept of Intelligent Agents. We then address the architecture issues.
Finally we discuss the tools and technology used in building Intelligent Portals. Some
applicable cases will be given before the conclusions of the chapter.

INTELLIGENT PORTALS
Intelligence is the execution of knowledge. When a reasoning mechanism is invoked
by a question or a problem, the relevant knowledge is retrieved and a possible answer or
solution is then concluded. Intelligence also implies the capability to find the best solution
for a problem. In a business environment, knowledge can be in different forms. It could be
a set of if-then production rules for decision-making problems, a set of facts for corporate
infrastructure descriptions, or a set of procedural descriptions for the business transactions.
Business activities are event driven, so the timely execution of certain business processes
is crucial to the success of business. This research area is mainly covered by workflow
management (WFMC 1996, Marin 2001). A Portal in this context is an information feeder that
will satisfy the information needs of different users at different times for different business
Figure 3. A Sample Personalised Website with Personal Information.

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Figure 4. Three Dimensional Space for the Workflow Control.


Users

Business
Transactions

P (u1, t1, b1)

b1
u1
t1

Time

processes. In Figure 4, it can be seen that a point P in the 3-D space is the information about
who is doing what at what time. Since the business activities can be the pre-defined workflows
(like an application for an insurance policy will go through a step-by-step process to get an
approval), a workflow control system should be able to check the information requirements
for a particular business process and a particular person. For example, in Figure 4, point P may
be interpreted as a person John at Monday, 2 Nov, 2001, 9am is placing an Order to buy
a product.
In an e-business, if a website is designed for on-line ordering, while a user is on-line,
the system should be able to deliver context sensitive information to the order form (e.g., user
Account Number, Best Sales, etc). Furthermore, a reasoning mechanism may be triggered for
context sensitive reasoning and decision-making.
In this case, an intelligent portal is a context sensitive information/service supplier that
will accompany the user through the lifetime of the transaction. The 3-D space of the
Workflow Control illustrated in Figure 4 shows the demands of the Intelligent Portals.

Intelligent Portals vs Intelligent Agents


Here we need to differentiate Intelligent Portals from Intelligent Agents. Intelligent
Agents are mobile software programs and are task-oriented, while Intelligent Portals are
information carriers and are content-based. By using agents we get things done, by using
Portals we know what happened and what information should be supplied. One of the
advantages of Intelligent Portals over Intelligent Agents concerns the acceptance from
general users: agents are the programs to be executed on the clients machines, while
Intelligent Portals are the pieces of information driven by knowledge to deliver web services.
Consequently, there is no fear from users about potential virus attacks.

Integrating Knowledge Management with Portals


In a business environment, knowledge management has many aspects, from low-level
day-to-day business process control to high-level executive decision-making. A knowledge
management system should be able to: collect relevant knowledge, store knowledge in a
sharable enterprise memory, communicate the knowledge with parties, and maintain consistencies. In all these activities, a portal can play an important role within an enterprise, that
is, as an information carrier to shift information around the organization.
One important task relating to portals in knowledge management is Workflow Management (WFMC 1996, Allen 2001). Workflow management involves:

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Specification of process control for business transactions, which concerns data


coordination, exception handling, recovery, etc. The workflow specifications provide
execution plans.

Verification of the feasibility and correctness of a design, while allowing for re-design
and implementations for coping with changes.

Execution control for carrying out business transactions. A Workflow Engine is


responsible for execution of the processes. During any given execution, a workflow
plan may be applied to many individual users. As a result, many concurrent workflow
instances will be generated. The Workflow Engine is responsible for concurrency
control (process dependencies), exception handling, and recovery.
In Workflow Management, portals can be used as basic constructs to build workflow
tasks (Marin 2001). For example, in processing a procurement request (e.g., purchasing a
laptop computer), one may need some information about competing offers from different
suppliers. In this context, a portal should play a role not unlike a real life broker that can assess
the buyers requests and evaluate the sellers offers in order to make a deal.

Intelligent Portal Deployment and Development


Knowledge about Portals is presented from three aspects: ontological services,
location services, and directory services. These three services answer the questions of what
portals are, where they are found and what they are used for. Ontological services are facilities
that categorize business information into a searchable, indexed structure with the meaning
of the data (i.e., Classification dimension). Location services provide maps of portals over the
Internet for their availability (i.e., Location dimension), while directory services are a view
of the information tailored for personalized service (i.e., Customization dimension). These
three aspects are orthogonal in the sense that they make up the key information required for
providing business data over the Internet. Figure 5 shows the idea of the deployment of the

Figure 5. Deployment of the Intelligent Business Portals.


CUSTOMZATION

Real Time
Multimedia
Call Centre
Mobile Net
XML
Dynamic
HTML
Static
HTML

A point in this 3-D


space indicates the
portal deployment.
LOCATION

Virtual Enterprise
Internet
Extranet
Intranet

Portal
CLASSIFICATION

Product
Marketing Ordering Payment
Information

Broker

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Figure 6. The Paradigm of Intelligent Business Portals.

APPLICATIONS

BPR
CRM
HRM
ERP
MRP
EUQ
JIT

A point in this 3-D


space indicates the
Portal application.

STORAGE

Knowledge
Information
Structured Data
Unstructured Data
Portal
DATA MANAGEMENT

Data

Database Data
Intelligent
Warehouse Applications

Content
Management

Intelligent Portals.
In the following discussion (see Figure 6) we show the Intelligent Portal in a three
dimensional paradigm for representation purposes. In the Storage dimension, the business
data is packaged as structured data, unstructured data, or knowledge in a ready-to-use format.
In the Data Management dimension, the business data are the objects managed within
databases, data warehouses, intelligent applications, and content management systems. In
the Applications dimension, the business data are the objects in BPR (Business Process
Restructuring), CRM (Customer Resource Management), ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning), MRP (Material Resource Planning), or JID (Just In time Delivery), etc. applications.
By identifying these three dimensions of business portals, we will be able to design and
manage portals in a way that they are intelligent i.e. that the Portals as packaged business
data will be living in a business transaction management environment and will be clever
enough to deliver the business data on the Internet at the right time, to the right places.
In contrast with Figure 5, which illustrates the application deployment of portals, Figure
6 represents the development of portals.
In order to use intelligent portals, we need to design the business workflow so that an
event-driven workflow engine can be integrated with a portal delivery system.

SYSTEM ARCHITECTURE
OF INTELLIGENT PORTALS
In this section, we continue the discussions in section 2 with the architecture issues.
We first introduce the layers of Intelligent Portals. Then we introduce the overall system
architecture that uses Intelligent Portals.

Layers of Intelligent Portals


We identify that Intelligent Portals are organized in three layers (see Figure 7). From the
top, the Portal Control Layer is used to describe the Portals application logic, which concerns
how and when Portals are used in e-Business applications. Figure 4 shows this aspect in a
3-D space. The Portal Control Layer provides information to applications. The middle layer

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Figure 7. Three Layers of Intelligent Portals


Portal
Control

See
Figure 4.

Portal
Deployment

See
Figure 5.

Portal
Development

See
Figure 6.

is the Portal Deployment Layer. The Portal Development Layer concerns how and where
Portals are deployed. Figure 5 details a 3-D space for portal deployment. At the bottom layer,
we discuss portal development. The portal is conceptualized in a 3-D space in order to package
data into highly structured and managed pieces of information.

Key Component: the Information Broker


The intelligence of portals relies on the performance of a kernel system component
called the Information Broker (see Figure 8). It is responsible for pushing portals to users at
the right time. The Information Broker is also capable of searching information for user needs.
It is an executor of business workflows that is context sensitive to user requests for
information. Its input consists of the User Profile (UP) and the stored information of the
Business Workflow (BW). By using UP, the system knows the requirements of individual
users. By using the BW, the system knows how and when to deliver what information. For
example, an instance in UP indicates a user John Smith is a lecturer in Computer Science. A
schedule for Teaching Preparation in the BW will then be executed by the system (i.e., the
Information Broker) to deliver the information relevant to John Smith. The information is
personalized by checking which subject John Smith is teaching. Information about student
enrolment, the student tutorial group preferences, classroom details, deadlines, etc. will then
be automatically delivered to John Smith. Moreover, the state of John Smiths profile will be
updated to a new state that assumes John Smith is going to uploading the teaching materials
(e.g., lecture notes in PDF format, etc) to the database, in order to deliver them to students
who have enrolled for the subject. Figure 8 shows the architecture of a website that uses the
Information Broker as a key component of portals.
We will discuss some cases to use Portals in business environment in Section 5. The
following section introduces the tools to build Intelligent Portals.

TOOL FOR BUILDING INTELLIGENT PORTALS


In order to build intelligent portals, we need to select the right tools to put them together.
However, there is currently no consensus on a standard for Portals or Intelligent Portals. In
the following discussion, we provide some suggestions from currently available tools.
Figure 9 shows the architecture of the Information Broker the key component that
needs to be built. It is an integrated system that carries out information brokering. The

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Workflow Engine is a sub-system with knowledge on how portals are used. The Search
Engine is a sub-system that knows where to find and collect information, while Portal
Management is a sub-system that knows what information is available.
Lotus provides tools such as Portals Builder and K-station (http://mirror.iian.ibeam.com/
lotus/shst/kstation/index.html) for portal development. K-station is a knowledge Portal with
out-of-the-box collaborative capabilities. It uses a web browser user interface to access
virtually any information source: from web applications to Microsoft Office documents to
back-end data. With integrated instant collaboration features, and a highly customizable
environment, K-station offers a complete Knowledge Management solution.
Portals can be implemented in XML. Many tools provided by major companies (e.g.,
Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, etc) are now supporting XML (Finkelstein, 2000). When using XML

Figure 8. Architecture of a Website that Uses Intelligent Portals.


Web User
Database
WWW
Database
Server

HTTP
Requests

Information
Broker

Portals
Knowledge
Management

HTML
pages

Web Server

Business
Workflow

User Profile

Figure 9. Architecture of Information Broker.

WWW

Information Broker
Workflow
Engine

Database

Search
Engine

User
Profile

Portal
Managemen

Business
Workflow

Portal

Web
Server

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to represent knowledge, the domain structural knowledge must be specified in a standard


DTD (Document Type Definition) as a set of rules to validate the Portals. Microsofts version
of Portals is called Sharepoint Portal Server: http://www.microsoft.com/sharepoint/evaluation/overview/techhighlights.asp
Oracle (http://www.oracle.com) provides a tool called PDK (Portal Development Kit).
Using this tool, Portles (the raw material building blocks for portals) can be created and
managed from a variety of resources including databases and URL addressed components.
Oracle9iAS Portal is its latest product to support the deployment of portals.
Other companies also provide tools for building Intelligent Portals, such as Viador
(http://www.viador.com) and CORVID (http://www.exsys.com/products.htm). By using
CORVID, a web deliverable built-in Inference Engine can be used to execute the inference
rules for an enterprise knowledge management system.
There are also many Workflow Management tools that can be integrated with Intelligent
Portals, such as IBM FlowMark (now called MQ Series, http://www.ibm.com), Oracle
Workflow (http://www.oracle.com), Woflan and WF-net (van der Aalst et al, 1997, 1998),
among others.

INTELLIGENT PORTALS IN BUSINESS


In this section we introduce some e-business cases where Intelligent Portals are
applicable.

e-Marketing
e-marketing is one of the hottest fastest growing e-businesses on the World Wide Web.
By using Intelligent Portals, one-to-one marketing is possible keep abreast of a users
demands for specific products. In such a case, the intelligence is embodied as the application
of the knowledge about the on-line user profile and the knowledge about available products.
Consequently, users should not feel spammed when receiving advertisements, as the
incoming information is within the users interests.

e-Broker
Many websites are now providing an e-marketplace for web users to visit, for buying
and selling products. (e.g., http://www.vfm.net ) In a free market, where prices move toward
equilibrium, effective communication between buyers and sellers is critical.
In the marketplace, a brokers role is to understand the needs of an individual customer
and provide the customer with the best service available. Furthermore, a broker also serves
businesses, facilitating fair and productively conducted business competition. It is very
important that a broker is trusted by both customer and vendor so that in any business
transactions between the parties fair market values are achieved, no more and no less. Thus
the commission of the broker can be justified.
An e-broker (also called Web Broker) can be implemented as Intelligent Portals that
make profit by selling nothing but intelligence (Li 2001). To this end, Intelligent Portals may
be allowed to view the information of both requestors and suppliers. By using their individual
experiences and their knowledge of the marketplace, they smooth the relationship between
buyers and sellers and satisfy them both by providing the best matches in the marketplace.
The modern matchmakers are getting more and more popular by guaranteeing a win-win
situation for sellers and buyers. Ultimately the e-brokers win as well. The e-brokers business
is guaranteed because of the complex web-enabled transactions that handle the buy-sell-

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payment-shipping in one integrated system. The only problem is in establishing trust


between the involved parties. In many cases the third party offering e-broker services can
be a mutually trusted entity, such as a financial institution (e.g., a bank) a security control
system, or a well-know consultant company. There is no doubt that the e-broker is becoming
increasingly common in Internet commerce websites for a wide range of businesses.

e-Business Management
In the area of e-business management, Intelligent Portals should be applicable to both
B2B (business-to-business) and B2C (business-to-customer) types of electronic commerce.
Portals are in many categories as horizontal and vertical portals for inter/intra-organizational
information exchanges (Li 2000a & 2000b, Zirpins 2001).

CONCLUSIONS
Currently the contents on the World Wide Web are evolving from passive hypertext
documents to active distributed services (Zirpins 2001). By providing self-servicing, personalization, and real-time delivery, Portals can actively deliver information to web users. In this
chapter, we have discussed the following problems:

What are Intelligent Business Portals?

What potential do they provide?

What is the architecture of Intelligent Portals?

What are the technical issues in implementing them?

How can we use them in Internet Commerce?


In order to implement Intelligent Portals, we have introduced a three-layer architecture
that reflects the usage of the modern information technology infrastructure. At the development layer, Portals are packaged according to the needs. At the deployment layer, Portals are
allocated to their applications. At the top control layer, Portals become knowledgeable and
knows how, where, and when to deliver their services.
The key component in our architecture is the Information Broker that is responsible for
implementing the three-layer Intelligent Portal architecture.

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