Whip, Beat, and Stomp Your Data Into Submission

We all know that the information is out there, but who knows how to find it? Consider, for example, Ames Department Stores, headquartered in Rocky Hill, Conn., a discount retail chain with 452 outlets: Until recently sales managers there had to spend as much as a day combing through numerous databases, file servers, and Web documents just to pull together a basic sales report. Sadly, Ames is not alone in its info-maze dilemma. According to a recent KPMG survey of 423 large companies, 67 percent of respondents claimed they had too much information to manage and 56 percent complained of having to “reinvent the wheel” every time they started a new project.

So how do you deliver the information your employees need in a way that’s, well, easy? Increasingly, big companies are investing in souped-up intranets that consultants call enterprise portals. Think of a portal not in the sense of Yahoo’s consumer service but rather as a single, well-organized gateway to all the information services and resources within a company. At their most basic, enterprise portals provide access to human-resources staples like 401(k) forms and employee directories; more advanced versions add critical applications like sales force tools, collaborative features such as whiteboards, and company and industry news. It all gets delivered through a single webpage that each employee can personalize to match his or her job and information needs.

San Francisco-based Plumtree Software built a $1 million portal for Ames that provides easy access to all of the company’s databases on one page, letting sales associates monitor data as it comes in, spotting trends and responding instantaneously to match supply and demand. The result: a nimbler and more efficient effort to stock the shelves in a timely manner. Ames CFO Rolando de Aguiar expects a return on investment — in inventory reduction and other cost savings — of at least 20 percent this year.

Stories like Aguiar’s have made portals a hot subject for corporations. The Delphi Group, a Boston-based market research company, estimates that 60 percent of the world’s 2,000 largest companies either currently have a portal or will be building one in the next six months. According to Delphi, sales of portal applications are expected to reach $730 million in 2001, five times more than in 1999. “Providing a portal is becoming part of the way you do business,” says Hadley Reynolds, Delphi’s director of research.

The enterprise portal market got its start in 1998, when Plumtree launched the first software product aimed at enabling companies to build their own Yahoo-like directories of categorized information. During the past three years, dozens of portal software providers, including Viador and Epicentric, have entered the market and added increasingly sophisticated features, including personalization, collaboration tools, and the ability to integrate more and more legacy systems. At last count, there were more than 100 vendors in the market (see “Portal Builders“).

The spur for this growth has been twofold. First, enterprise portal software is finally capable of supporting hundreds of thousands of users, something the earliest versions couldn’t do. Second, Web technology provides a shortcut for tying together legacy applications and information systems. Instead of trying to get old applications to exchange data with one another (an extremely costly and difficult undertaking known to IT folks as application integration), a portal takes the data you want from each existing application and displays it on a webpage.

IBM’s homegrown portal — nicknamed W3 for its private Web address, w3.ibm.com — may be one of the most sophisticated in existence. From W3’s homepage, IBM’s roughly 325,000 employees worldwide can view a host of IBM-related information, all tailored to their individual interests and responsibilities. The portal provides company and industry news, transcripts and videos of recent presentations, and a library of online training courses. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg: W3 is the front door to dozens of business applications, from procurement to contract requisition, as well as discussion boards and collaborative workspaces. It also links to a searchable database, called BluePages, which helps employees find subject-matter experts within IBM. Currently, W3 gets 450,000 to 500,000 pageviews a day, and more than 120,000 employees have created personal profiles for the directory, according to IBM’s intranet director, Mike Wing.

The payoff? IBM estimates that W3 helps the company save more than $500 million a year across many departments. For example, by simply delivering health-care benefits information online instead of on paper, IBM saved $1 million last year. Even more impressive, by buying 94 percent of its goods and services through W3, IBM trimmed $377 million from its budgets.

IBM has also registered productivity gains. For example, a W3 tool for hiring technical contractors lets IBM employees submit requisitions, state job requirements, and review resumes online, shaving days or weeks off the recruiting cycle. Last year more than 8,900 requisitions went through the system.

Do you need a portal? If you’re a big corporation with thousands of employees, it’s almost certainly an investment that your IT department will be pitching you, if it hasn’t already. And it’s clearly a worthwhile investment. “Portals will become part of the cost of doing business for most corporations over the next four to five years,” says Andy Warzecha, a VP at Meta Group.

For smaller businesses, whose employees number in the hundreds rather than thousands, the investment is probably too steep. However, less expensive outsourced options are available from such companies as SAP and Intranets.com.

If you’ve decided on a big enterprise portal, the planning and technical launch work can take four to six months. On top of that, you’ll need to dedicate IT employees to ongoing maintenance, and you’ll need a staff to oversee the site’s content and make sure new applications are smoothly integrated into the portal. IBM’s W3, for instance, has undergone six distinct revisions since it first launched in 1996. A staff of 30 full-time employees (12 techies, 18 content managers) oversees the portal. IBM’s portal is far more extensive than most, but be prepared to have employees dedicated to ensuring that it all works smoothly (see “Recipe for Portal Success.”).

Building and supporting an enterprise portal is a big — and expensive — undertaking. But in most cases, the payoff for that hard work comes quickly. According to Meta Group senior VP David Yockelson, the average portal project pays for itself in about eight months. “We’re seeing enterprise portals have a huge impact on productivity and cost savings,” says Delphi’s Reynolds. “If your competitors are doing it, in our view, it’s risky not to deploy something.” Yes, that’s a hard sell you’ve heard before, but portals are a simple, proven technology that really does make sense.

Recipe for Portal Success
The work necessary to get an
enterprise portal off the ground isn’t just technical — it’s cultural too. It’s important to plan carefully to make sure your portal accommodates your employees’ habits and your company’s processes, and that it helps people get their jobs done better. Here are tips from experts.

Start small. Don’t try to solve every information problem at once — you can’t do it. Instead, roll out new features one by one, and assess each one carefully before adding the next.

Information begets participation. To get your employees to use the portal, deliver the information or applications they want, whether it’s a sales-lead generator or a 401(k) calculator.

Openness counts. Rather than attempting to control everything on the portal, give employees the tools to collaborate and create on their own — then get out of the way. “If a portal is seen as a publishing channel owned by management, it will fail,” says knowledge management consultant David Weinberger.

Portal Builders
So far, the software providers below lead the enterprise portal market. But keep your eye on IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle, which recently entered the field with less expensive offerings.

VENDOR PRICE OFFERING CUSTOMERS
Epicentric $300,000 for up to 15,000 users Java-based portal platform. Partnerships with 100 Web service firms for tools and content. More than 150, including BankOne, Lockheed Martin, and Motorola
Plumtree Software $400 per user; 250-user minimum Market leader, with 3.3 million users worldwide. Software is highly scalable and can support groups of 200,000 or more users. About 175, including Ames Department Stores, Comcast, Ford, and Procter & Gamble
TopTier Software $200-$500 per user “Drag-and-drop” software feature lets users connect related content items. More than 200, including Baan, Herman Miller, and Rolls Royce
Viador $300,000 for up to 15,000 users Enterprise portal software with especially strong business intelligence tools for analyzing information in databases and data warehouses. More than 360, including Charles Schwab, IRS, Toshiba, UBS Bank, and Verizon Wireless

Get e-mail delivery of Dylan Tweney’s weekly online column at www.ecompany.com/thedefogger.

Want to learn more about building a portal? Check out our Enterprise Portals Web File.

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Q&A: Amory B. Lovins

Q&A: Amory B. Lovins
Energy Expert Talks About California’s Crisis

D.F. Tweney, Special to SF GateThursday, April 26, 2001

Noted energy expert and former experimental physicist Amory B. Lovins founded theRocky Mountain Institute, an influential energy think tank based in Snowmass,Colo., in 1982. While still in his 20s, Lovins rose to prominenceduring the oil crisis of the 1970s as an articulate advocate for energyconservation. Since then, his work has focused on market-friendly approaches tousing resources more efficiently and solving environmental problems. A recipientof a MacArthur Fellowship, Lovins’ most recent book is “Natural Capitalism:Creating The Next Industrial Revolution” (1999). During a recent visit toCalifornia, Lovins met with Gov. Gray Davis and made numerous public speakingappearances in the span of two days. We caught up with him on Earth Day to askabout technology’s role in causing — and perhaps solving — the Californiaenergy crisis.

Lots of people blame the Internet and California’s many Web server farms for thecurrent energy crisis. Yet California ranks 48th in the United States forper-capita energy consumption. What’s going on here?

The Western Fuels Association has very effectively spread the new urban myth thatthe Internet is using 8 to 13 percent of U.S. electricity. The actual number ismore like 2 percent.

In fact, California’s per capita power consumption has been essentially flat for30 years. Of course you have had a good deal of population growth, so your demandhas grown, but it grew in the ’90s at an average rate of 1.3 percent a year –which was two-fifths less than the national average. A quarter of all thereduction in electric intensity in the United States has been coming fromCalifornia.

It is a myth that server farms or information technology are causing, or thatCalifornia is experiencing, soaring demand. Demand didn’t soar, demand crawled.

What technology or what industry actually is the biggest consumer of power?

The biggest user of electricity in California is pumping water over themountains. And therefore, water efficiency is a very good way to saveelectricity.

Don’t the big Web-hosting facilities such as Exodus consume a lot of power?

You will often read in the press that they use 100, 200, even 300 watts a squarefoot, which would mean that they look like an office but act kind of like a smallsmelter. They don’t actually use that much — the measured intensity is typicallyaround 30 to 60 watts per square foot. However, even that could be very muchlower.

In our own office last year, we replaced four Windows NT servers with a littleLinux box the size of a book, called a Rebel NetWinder. It peaks at about 15watts, and normally pokes along at a few watts. It’s faster, cheaper and morecapable than the four NT boxes put together. It doesn’t take up much space, andit uses 98 or 99 percent less electricity than the four boxes it replaces.

Are there other technologies that could help solve the energy crisis?

Practically everything we do that uses electricity can be done severalfold moreefficiently, at lower cost, with the same or better service quality. My4,000-square-foot household uses $5 a month worth of electricity, a 10th ofnormal. Although it’s up near Aspen, where it can go to minus 47 (degrees) onoccasion, I’ve harvested 27 banana crops inside with no furnace. Thesuper-windows and super-insulation cost less than the furnace would have cost toinstall. The super-windows use a technology called Heat Mirror, from SouthwallTechnologies in Palo Alto.

One of Rocky Mountain Institute’s tenets is that “small is profitable,” andyou’ve argued that a decentralized power grid is more reliable than a centralizedone. So, how long will it be before we all have power plants in our back yards?

Back yards, basements, rooftops and driveways. I think that’s coming on veryfast. Hypercar Inc.’s Web site describes a car that we’ve been developing: a 100mile-per-gallon, midsize sport utility vehicle that runs on hydrogen fuel cells.It could be in volume production in five years.

When you have a hydrogen fuel cell car, you can drive it to work, plug it intothe spare hydrogen producing capacity that’s in the nearby building, and pluginto the electric grid. And then while you sit at your desk, your car is now alittle power plant on wheels, sending back 20 or 30 or 40 kilowatts to theutility. That can earn you back a third to a half the cost of owning the car.

The Hypercar vehicle fleet, fully built out, will have five or 10 times thegenerating capacity of the current national grid. It doesn’t take many peopleliking this value proposition to put the coal and nuclear plants out of business.

It seems like Americans are hell-bent on buying the biggest, heaviest, leastfuel-efficient SUVs that they can find, and electric cars haven’t sold well. Doyou think there will really be a market for fuel-efficient vehicles?

It’s true the battery cars didn’t sell all that well, for pretty good reasons.But the hybrid cars like the Honda Insight I drive and the Toyota Prius areselling like hotcakes.

Let me give you some basic specs of Hypercar’s Revolution concept car. It handlesfive adults, up to 69 cubic feet of cargo, half a ton of capacity and it can haulthat up a 44 percent grade. It looks a bit like a Lexus RX-300. It can go fromzero to 60 in about 8.2 seconds. It’s very sporty. It’s so light and slippery itcan actually cruise at 55 miles an hour on the same energy that the Lexus usesjust for its air conditioner. The body doesn’t dent, rust or fatigue. It’s radarstealthy. It could be bullet resistant — you know, these are useful attributesin a modern urban environment.

What technologies can I buy, borrow or steal right now that will help me use lessenergy?

On the RMI web site, you’ll find a book called “Homemade Money:Saving Energy And Dollars In Your Home,” which willtell you what to do, in what order, if you own or rent a house or apartment.Basically, whenever you get lights or appliances, you should get the mostefficient ones.

The American Council For An Energy Efficient Economy puts out anannual guide to the most efficient appliances on the market.

Do I have to give up my gadgets, like my Palm Pilot, my cell phone and my TiVo?

No. They use essentially no electricity. Indeed, there is good evidence, whichyou’ll find on the Web at www.cool-companies.org, that e-commerce and theinformation revolution probably save more energy and more electricity than theyuse.

If you’re in an office building, you can turn up the thermostat 4 degrees in thesummer on hot afternoons. Chances are nobody would even notice, but you couldsave 20 or 30 percent of that peak energy load.

Or, here’s a really simple one: If you’re in an office with venetian blinds, tiltthem up so that the light is bounced up on the ceiling as God intended. Then thewhole room will be suffused with diffuse, soft light, and you’ll find that youwill see better if you actually turn off the lights.

Are you optimistic that people will actually learn to conserve and use energymore efficiently?

Oh yeah, I think people are pretty smart, and they have plenty of incentive touse energy in a way that saves money. Some of what we need to do in the shortterm is curtailment, which needn’t be painful, it’s usually just turning offthings you’re not using anyway. The off switch is the best way to cut your billthis summer.


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