What is a Portal?

starship enterprise portal image
In the world of science and space, a 'portal' is considered to be a two-way interdimensional door opening into several realities, including the astral world; the far reaches of physical, interstellar space; and alternate, parallel universes (source www.earthportals.com/portal.htm by Claire Watson) If you are a 'Star Trek' or 'Stargate' fan of course this is something that you will have known for years.

To a certain degree, the IT world has high jacked the definition of a true portal and translated it into its own interpretation - but the principle of what a portal is stays the same.

What is the IT definition of a Portal?

In the IT World - a portal is used to describe a browser experience that has an entry point (or gateway) that is intended to be the starting point for any journey or user experience. As such in IT - a portal can be described as an 'anchor' or starting point that makes all the types of information (destinations) available to a designated audience by passing through the one point.

Within IT, a number of attempts have been made to classify portals - as they are significantly different in the way they split, each will be explored separately.

Definition 1: Information Portals vs Content Management Portals

In many organisations, it is not a case of choosing between one type or the other - and often both types are combined and deployed together in order to meet business needs.

Information Portals

These types of portal (also called Vertical Enterprise Portals - or Enterprise Information Portals) can be essentially seen as consolidating many different types of information from a multitude of sources onto a single screen or user experience. People who use an Information Portal typically are not or do not publish to it - or put another way - they are the consumers of the information prepared and published by others.

A typical Information Portal being used within a corporation or company might contain some of the following;

  • Local Weather, News, Share Price information taken from content feeds such as RSS, XML.
  • Access to email client, calendars, meeting room bookings, centrally stored documents and assets - or any type of central business application where viewing of items is required.
  • Corporate information such as HR, events, programs, or any other cross company information.
  • Reports - or forms that allow information to be requested - to assist with business choices.
  • Access to smaller information portals that are not maintained centrally but have an access point via the primary information portal.

Portals can be a 'static' experience, in that the same interface can be provided as a starting point to all users - or they can be and are frequently personalised. For a more detailed explanation of how they can be personalised please view What is Personalisation? - but in essence personalisation allows a portal gateway or window to be modified so that the information presented to a user is tailored to their profile, chosen interests or clicking behaviour.

Content Management Portals

These types of portal are designed to improve the access to and sharing of information stored within an organisation. In a content management portal, self-service publishing features allow end users to post and share any kind of document, digital asset, record or Web content with other users, even those geographically dispersed (portals of this kind tend to be browser based to allow for access to be from anywhere an internet connection exists).

For example, consider a global software company consisting of developers, product managers, marketing, sales all working at locations across the world. Each has information they need to share with members local to themselves (both in terms of geographic location and also in terms of job function) as well as with others outside of these groups. In a Content Management Portal, most users will have the ability to add information to the portal and some users will have rights or authorisations to modify, delete, expire information produced by others.

Whereas an Information Portal is essentially a 'read only' experience - with a Content Management Portal users are able to publish, read, retrieve, modify, archive and delete content or information within the portal 'window'.

A typical Content Management Portal being used within a corporation or company might contain some of the following;

  • the ability to check-in and check-out information which is 'in progress', so that users cannot overwrite each others changes - this capability is found in WCMS, DMS, RMS, DAM solutions all of which can reside within the window of a Content Management Portal.
  • Version control and Audit trail, so that successive versions of a particular item can be retained or overwritten and a track of who did what can be reported on - all features that are found within WCMS, DMS, DAM and RMS products as above.
  • A security mechanism, so that content can be protected from unauthorized view or manipulation - common to DMS, RMS, WCMS, DAM and Personalisation environments - all of which can be implemented within a portal gateway.
  • Workflow, which establishes a process through which a document or request flows among users

Definition 2: Application Centric Portals vs Content Centric Portals

Another way of viewing Portals dispenses with the idea of Information and Content as a distinction and looks at it as Application Centric or Content Centric;

Application Centric Portals

This type of portal definition sees the function as one of tying together back-end systems to support users' application driven business processes. Users could be viewing the information as read only or able to create, modify, delete, expire information based on rights and permissions - but they are essentially using the portal to 'glue' together a number of applications into one view - so that rather than having to open a number of different applications to drive their business processes they are able to access them all from one point.

Content Centric Portals

This type of portal definition sees the function as one of obtaining information from a wide variety of sources and displaying that content to users in a way that is based upon users' roles and segmented information needs. In order to achieve this type of portal delivery, a personalisation engine is often needed which is either intrinsic to the portal software - or an additional layer of software to compliment the portal tool. As with any type of 'personalised' experience - it can be extremely powerful if properly conducted, but have a worse impact than doing nothing if the business logic and profiles that are used to make the portal content centric are incorrect and/or delivering inappropriate information.

A content centric portal that is pulling in information from business applications such as WCMS, DMS, DAM, RMS and standard Desktop applications - and on the fly determining the most appropriate information to make available based on implicit and explicit personalisation rules is arguably the utopia of what can be done with portal technology. This usually requires that all aspects that are being pulled into the gateway are based on open standards to allow the content to be delivered as a service without requiring extensive bespoke programming. A customer is more likely to find a default capability of this nature with ECMS vendors, given that they are in a position to want their products to work in this manner - and for other vendors to want to integrate with their products in the same way.

Definition 3: Vertical Enterprise Portals vs Horizontal Enterprise Portals

A lot of what is contained within a VEP or HEP has already been covered in the previous two definitions - but depending on your gateway you are intending to portalise it could be that this is a more appropriate way of seeing the user experience. Unlike the other definitions, the Vertical or Horizontal Enterprise Portal does not seek to determine what or how the content is being managed that is making up the user experience - but sees the portals as meeting a niche experience - or meeting a very wide audience.

Vertical Enterprise Portals

Examples of this type of user experience would be MP3.com, pets.com or any other similar site where the portal or gateway is specific to an industry vertical or sector.

Horizontal Enterprise Portals

Examples of this type of user experience would be the Yahoo, AOL.com. They are also sometimes referred to as Mega Portals.


All the above definitions have 'merits' when it comes to explaining what a portal is. If you are reading this article from a point of view of educating yourself as to what a portal can be, then it would be prudent to digest each definition and then look at your own requirements and ascertain whether one or more is more appropriate - or in fact a mixture of the definitions. For example, you may be aiming to create a vertical portal in that you are serving a niche sector of a market - but you may determine that you wish to make it content centric and include profiles to enhance the user experience - and you may or may not decide that users will be able to read information only (making it an Information type of portal) or you may elect to allow them to collaborate on content depending on the nature of the portal.

Whatever you decide your portal is to be make sure your vendor understands your definition and does not answer assuming their own interpretation.