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The appeal of Web portal applications relies on how conveniently they provide a coherent and unified gateway to dynamic content and applications that are tailored to users' needs and interests. The goal of portal applications for the enterprise is to attract users with specialized content and services, and then retain these users by personalizing their experiences. To accomplish this, expertise in a variety of areas is required from different groups that support the application.

Java programmers can create components using a variety of technologies to implement the content and services users will be provided with, while business analysts decide how these components should be used and accessed by users. The issue for developers is to find a framework that allows them to work with implementers as seamlessly as possible. Developers should be searching for the best technologies to build the components that support the Web site's architecture, while the business analysts figure out how these technologies can be used to support the business objectives of the enterprise.

Happily for both developers and implementers, WebLogic Portal 4.0 provides the framework that allows both groups to coexist harmoniously. Based on the award-winning WebLogic Server, and positioned as the cornerstone of the WebLogic Enterprise Platform, the WebLogic Portal 4.0 is a framework that provides the full functional feature set developers expect from a maturing third-generation portal product.

Beginning with the product's Portal Foundation Services, HTML and JSP developers can quickly create portal applications that contain portal pages made up of portlets. Portlets can be perceived as individual windows arranged inside portal pages that can be used to obtain access to specialized services or content. The concept of portlets allows for the easy integration of applications specific to the enterprise, whether it's B2B, B2C, or B2E. For example, legacy portals can be integrated with portlets as well as with any existing Web services.

A developer with JSP and Java experience can easily create the underlying JSPs that provide the templates for each portlet's definition. After that, layouts and skins determine the position of the portlets on each page and their look and feel. The intelligent design of the development framework abstracts the components away from their implementation layer. Individuals concerned with the implementation of the business plan can use the JSPs built by the Java developers and the skins and layouts provided by the HTML developers to easily organize and construct the portals on their own.

Installation and Configuration
Before installing WebLogic Portal 4.0, WebLogic Server 6.1 should first be installed along with Service Pack 1. Make sure the samples for WebLogic Server 6.1 are also installed; if they're not, WebLogic Portal 4.0 won't start. A Cloudscape database is provided along with the samples and it's this database that WebLogic Portal 4.0 relies on. The installation set for WebLogic Portal 4.0 was obtained from http://commerce.bea.com/downloads/commerce_servers.jsp. Be sure to consult the installation guide before proceeding. It will inform you of the necessary file sets needed to run the product and the order in which they are to be installed.

If the product is being downloaded from the Web site, be sure to download wlportal 400_with_sp1_win.exe, ebcc400_with_sp1_win.exe, and license_wlportal400.bea. The ebcc400_with_sp1_win.exe contains the installation files for the E-Business Control Center. Even though it's in a separate installation set, it's an integral part of the WebLogic Portal 4.0 platform. Once all the necessary files are obtained, the installation guide is very thorough in explaining all the steps to complete the installation. The examples and documentation are excellent.

Working with WebLogic Portal 4.0
The E-Business Control Center is the application used by business analysts and developers to organize and implement the components used to create the features and services that make up a portal application. The sample portal applications are a good starting point for this investigation and easily demonstrate all the key features the framework provides.

Starting with the "Using the E-Business Control Center Portal Tool" documentation, I quickly created, deployed, and tested my first portal. Following the steps provided in the documentation and using the predefined components supplied with the samples, this process was very straightforward. Portals are created from inside the context of a Web portal application, which supplies easy access to all the necessary resources to support and create them. Before proceeding any further it's important to understand which supporting resources are provided (see Figure 1).

Figure 1
Figure 1

When creating the portal, a business analyst need only select the preconfigured components provided by Web designers and Java developers. JSPs are required to render the header, footer, navigation, and content areas of the primary portal page. Next, which skins, layouts, portlets, and user profiles to implement must be determined. Skins are cascading style sheets that contain the look-and-feel parameters for the portal, while the layout determines how the portlets will be laid out on each page. Layouts are simple HTML table layouts: each cell contains a tag that's used to determine the appropriate portlet to place in it when the page is displayed. User profiles contain a list of the attributes describing the potential users of the portal. Profile attributes are associated with users in portal groups who are using a separate application known as the Administration Tools application.

These attributes can be used to determine which content and entitlements will be provided, for instance, whether the user qualifies for a discount on the particular products he or she has added to the shopping cart. Entitlements dictate if the user can take an active role in personalizing the content, layout, and look and feel of the portal. Personalization is more passive and determines what content the user will be exposed to during the course of the session. Using a campaign component I was able to expose a particular banner ad to a segment of users who defined themselves as readers of a technical journal. Most of the effort required to achieve this result was accomplished from inside the E-Business Conrol Center. I only had to update a tag reference in a JSP file to point to my new image file (see Figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2

Once all the components have been added, it must be determined how the user will be exposed to them as he or she navigates through the pages. A Webflow is associated with a portal and acts as the navigation framework for the session. Using Webflow, a business analyst can determine which actions a user can choose from on a page or portlet and what data processing will take place as a consequence of that action. This is my favorite feature. Analysts can graphically represent what the users will experience when moving about the portal, from the presentation page they'll visit to the servlets and EJB used to validate and process user data. No need to bother another developer any time a change has to be made to the navigation framework; this would happen only if a feature was added. Webflow is represented graphically as a series of nodes that the control flows in and out of. These nodes can represent the page the control will pass to or a Pipeline object that represents an action to be taken. Pipeline could be an EJB that places or removes a product from a shopping cart.

Summary
WebLogic Portal 4.0 provides an environment that not only allows for the integration of different skillsets, but enables them to work more efficiently. Ready-to-use examples are provided to guide and educate developers and serve as templates for the quick implementation of new features. The E-Business Control Center is not only an environment that allows for the easy creation of these products, but also for their intelligent management and implementation as well.

Product Snapshot Target Audience: Business engineers, business analysts, Java programmers, and application architects
Level: Beginner to advanced
Pros:

  • Feature-rich product
  • Plenty component templates and examples
  • Easy-to-use graphical Webflow interface

    Cons:

  • None significant

    SIDEBAR
    BEA Systems, Inc.
    2315 North First Street
    San Jose, CA 95131
    Web: www.bea.com
    Phone: 800 817-4BEA
    Fax: 408 570-8901

    Test Environment
    Computer: Dell Precision 340 Workstation
    Processor: 1.80GHz Intel Pentium IV processor
    Hard Drive: 40GB Disk
    Memory: 512MB RAM
    Platform: Windows 2000 w/Service Pack 2

    Specifications
    Platforms: Any platform with JDK 1.1, 1.2 support
    Pricing: $57,000 per CPU, price includes the clustered version of WebLogic 6.1 Application Server.

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