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The Many Faces of Portal – Liferay Portal, WebSphere Portal

In one of our last FYI issues you could have read an article on a specific portal solution. The article comprised a detailed introduction into a historical development of the portal as a concept, and gave an overview of the most important representatives of portal solutions as well as an explanation of their main purposes.

Not to have our dear readers overwhelmed with déjà vu all over again, here we will concentrate specifically on one branch of the portal solution family, and these are enterprise portal solutions, i.e. portals. These solutions are a foundation for designing enterprise portals which provide an easier, more consistent way for meeting requirements of big organizations and companies with complex business and specific technical needs. The core of every enterprise portal is a program framework for the integration of information, business processes and people. Integration abilities of portals are provided through a unique and secure, information, document, application and other resources option-rich access point, through logical organizational units –portlets. Typical tasks performed through portal interfaces include collecting, publishing and maintaining information and documents as well as development and publishing of specific business applications that help in daily lives of an organization or a company. Tasks and usage cases listed in this way are covered by all or nearly all portal solutions, however, as the focus and the portfolio of CROZ, in majority of company’s implementation experiences, come down to two solutions, we will concentrate on displaying the possibilities of and comparing these solutions. It is about an open source solution called Liferay Portal and IBM solution called WebSphere Portal. Both solutions will be presented through the most important tasks they are challenged with in everyday work, highlighting similarities and differences between them. Also, advantages and disadvantages of both of them will be presented with the aim of making it easier for potential users to decide which solution better addresses their needs. Typical tasks that will serve to reflect the possibilities of both platforms are content managing and publishing and development and publishing of specific business applications. Therewith, we will not forget the key points which make enterprise portals what they are:

  • Single Sign-On(SSO)
  • Personalization and Customization
  • Access Rights Management

These key elements are brought to perfection by each portal solution and there are no major differences in different solutions’ approaches. Thus, it is relevant to point out the areas already mentioned, that make the solutions at least slightly different, if nothing, in their final performance and impression.

System Room Perspective

Before we get to talk about document management or specific business functionality development, let’s take a short look at basic system requirements that are necessary to set Liferay and WebSphere Portal up for production operation. Even in other environments, starting from developmental one, the need for resources is substantial, but production environment will serve well to illustrate the needs. As both solutions are actually JEE applications whose running depends on the presence of JEE applicative server, it is obvious that they can be run on almost any available platform, starting from Microsoft Windows platform, any UNIX based platform, and even z/OS platform. Having this in mind, it is necessary to underline that both solutions are considerable resource consumers. The WebSphere Portal solution installation itself will make an impact on the disk subsystem, knowing the fact that minimum 4 GB disk space is required for the installation. Regarding this, Liferay Portal is much “softer” – up to 500 MB disk space is enough for the installation. As the amount of data that are maintained or stored using one solution or the other grows, so does the consumption of disk space used by data bases and document repositories to which data and documents are stored. As for RAM, both solutions in production environment will be satisfied if you ensure 4 GB per processor and single their data base servers out on a separate hardware.

Liferay and WebSphere in the World of Document Management

Key life (daily or long-term) processes of every serious organization and company include working with large amounts of various documents, or better said large amounts of various information. It is clear that portal solutions did not “invent” document management processes program support, however, as the central integration point of the whole of organization, the portal solution is ideal for ensuring consistent management of important (or all types of) documents. What are typical requirements for document management? Document management, weather it includes Portal or not, is based on a document repository, creating document management processes (document workflow) and document and process management interface. In order to compare the two portal solutions, we will take a look at the three document management bases just mentioned. Here, I have to point out that, perhaps, some of the observations related to the document management interface are my personal observations, but this is almost always the case when we deal with application interfaces.

Document Repository
Any document management solution that is fairly serious is developed around a quality repository. Also, if the solution is based upon a JEE platform, the repository will be developed on the bases of JSR-170 specification, i.e. it will have the characteristics of Java Content Repository specification. In this, the two solutions do not differ much – Liferay Portal uses Apache Jackrabbit JCR implementation, while WebSphere Portal uses its own implementation of the same standard. Take note that the implementation used by Liferay Portal is better documented, thus ensuring easier adding of specific functionalities if needed.

Document Management Processes
Both solutions dispose of the possibility of document management process customization (document workflow) that will satisfy the majority of business requirements. Although Liferay Portal has slightly more flexible process model, the differences are hardly visible. Both solutions have standard roles defined, which participate in document management process, and the customization gets down to accurate definition of the steps of the process through which documents are pushed from the time when they are developed until their publishing and maintenance.

Document Management Portal Interface
The interface also shows similarities between Liferay and WebSphere Portals, but only due to the fact that both solutions offer the same functionality – document management. The interface (as a whole, not only the document management part) is a Liferay characteristic that makes it brilliant. It is distinguished by intuitiveness, serviceability, clear underlining and pointing out of important information and available actions. In a nutshell, usability is on an extremely high level. The Liferay Portal solution development team produced a dynamic and rich, yet simple interface. WebSphere Portal lags somewhat behind, although, compared to previous versions, the interface is much better. As I have mentioned, the observations set forward are probably personal, thus it should be pointed out that WebSphere Portal has very functional document management interface, matched with the rest of the portal’s interface, and will enable the user to perform desired sequence of actions, but the final impression is not that good or positive. Perhaps it would leave a better impression if the other solution did not make a fantastic one.

Possibility of Extension
Comparing the two, one must surely have in mind the extension of IBM solution that can easily “lean” on the best document management system currently on the market, IBM Filenet. In case of such a symbiosis, WebSphere Portal actually becomes just an interface that opens the view towards Filenet, which offers numerous possibilities and functionalities in document management process adjustment. Liferay Portal can also be extended, if desired, by a single document management solution, such as an excellent open source Alfresco solution, nevertheless, IBM Filenet is currently top ranked, and the combination of WebSphere Portal with Filenet solution offers a maximum set of opportunities in the world of content and document management and publishing.

General Impression
Document management, to tell the truth, is monotonous and slightly boring task information systems, i.e. their components have to deal with. Like task, like solutions. There are no big surprises when it comes to WebSphere and Liferay Portal. Set up document repository, customize document management process, grant people rights to participate in the process and use built in document development and publishing interface. You can do all of that in a more simple and faster way with the Liferay Portal solution, which is more functional for typical usage, however, if the amount of documents or process complexity increases significantly, the WebSphere Portal extended with the IBM Filenet solution makes a better choice.

One More Portlet, Please

If you need to additionally empower an already powerful platform (which Liferay and WebSphere are) with particular business functionality, the easiest way to do so is to develop portlets according to functional (and nonfunctional) specification the implementation team is challenged with. Both portal platforms offer a wide variety of possibilities that will make your job easier and support almost authentic selection of developmental technologies. With a great difference, though. Systematically, WebSphere is rather demanding and challenges the development team with the task of setting up a developmental environment that will make portlet development quick and easy. This may include development in a different environment (Apache Pluto or JetSpeed, Oracle OpenPortal, even Liferay Portal) or lifting WebSphere Portala up as a developmental environment, which implicates purchasing fairly strong developmental computers. Liferay, on the other hand, does not set system requirements that high, so it can be used as a developmental environment without having it customized a great deal. Let’ s take a look now at the most important personal portlets’ developmental technologies (details of which can be seen in the framework appended to the text) and see weather WebSphere Portal and Liferay provide support for them.

Both portals support the newest portlet specification, which is of extreme importance for the development of modern portlets of new generation.

Of course, previous portlet specification is still available for simple portlets, which is also recommended for smaller “interventions” and portlets which do not need AJAX functionalities.

JSF technology becomes ever more popular, and for a reason. JSF implementation performance problems have been eliminated, and a new, JSF2, specification has been released. It promises advantages, among other, a faster, simpler and more standard interface development, performance improvements, better developmental tool support. This is where WebSphere Portal shows no brilliance – it lacks JSF2 “out–of-the-box” support, however, with some adjustments, one can also develop JSF2 portlets. On the other hand, Liferay already provides support to JSF2 portlets.

And the Best Portal Award Goes To…

There is no award winner in this contest, and there cannot be one. Why is that so? The statement from the beginning of this short story is still true; the two solutions are quite alike from every point of view. Liferay Portal solution user interface is slightly better, nicer and more intuitive to work with. WebSphere Portal is a more extendable platform, with a wider usage range, especially if combined with some of more specialized IBM document management solutions (Filenet) or processes (Process Server). If your requirements do not ask for enterprise environment, Liferay Portal is free and has no support outside the Liferay forum and wider Internet area. Using Liferay solution in this way makes sense for educational, research or personal purposes. If there is a need for any serious usage case, you will definitely go for the implementation of Liferay Portal solution along with paid and highly accessible expert support which is immediately available with WebSphere Portal solution. In their current versions (Liferay Portal 5.2, WebSphere Portal both solutions have reached an enviable degree of maturity and problems appear rarely, but are always possible, thus working without professional support seems almost impossible. CROZ teams’ experience with the implementation of the solutions based on both platforms are generally very good and there has been no need for pulling that little hair we have. Our reference in choosing certain platform is always based on the intense cooperation with users in order to be able to define their needs and help them in that the final solution based on one of the Portals is exactly what they want and need, and in the end, to use it with pleasure and as longer and easier as possible.


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