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uPortal: A Common Portal Reference Framework

The institutional information portal brings together a university's two most valuable assets: its identity or brand, and its constituents—alumni, students, parents, staff, and prospective students. With Web access to all university services, institutions are forced to rethink everything from institutional image, to systems architecture, to new business and instructional models, to portal strategy.

Approximately 20 institutions, including Princeton, Yale, Cornell, Brown, Delaware, University of British Columbia, Cal Poly, Columbia, Holy Cross, Georgetown, and Boston College, share a vision of an open portal architecture that supports customer-centric services. These institutions, recognizing the need to protect the institutional image, to exploit the potential of the portal, and to promote the use of Java technology, joined under the sponsorship of Sun Microsystems to form the Java in Administration Special Interest Group (JA-SIG). For the past year, volunteers from Interactive Business Solutions and the participating institutions have been working actively and collaboratively to create a common portal reference framework called uPortal.

What Is an Institutional Information Portal?

Institutional information portals are applications that provide a single, intuitive, and personalized gateway to access and to integrate campus-specific information and applications with unstructured data from on and off campus. Whereas the campus Web site may be a collection of thousands of pages or department Web sites, a portal is a collection of many applications. One of the strengths of the portal architecture is that fully functional, server-side applications can run within a single, common user interface.

Initial implementations of campus portals were restricted to specific groups, such as students, and to generally available information services such as news and weather, communications, and online communities. Over the past few years, however, colleges and universities have taken portals a step further by providing forms processing capabilities and secure access to enterprise systems and other personal information resources. Institutions are now facing the challenge of the requirement to supply access to expansive and integrated applications, and the ability to retrieve all appropriate information resources in an integrated manner anytime, anywhere, with anything, including handheld devices.

Selecting the right portal approach is a hot issue. Some institutions have affiliated with a portal service provider, or have adopted a major application software vendor's portal as the institutional portal. Others are attempting to build a custom portal utilizing commercial portal software. Other open source portal solutions, such as Jetspeed from the Java Apache organization, have also been considered. Some universities have decided that there will not be a single institutional portal, but rather lots of portals on campus.

Institutions that have already developed and implemented some portal-type services—such as secure access to student records—have considered building off that base and developing their own portal. The motivation to build in-house has been driven by expediency, the unique nature of existing file systems, and the desire to retain institutional ownership of the portal. Several of the JA-SIG institutions fall into this category, and the opinion of the group is that it is not wise for a single institution to absorb the expense and developer resources to create a homegrown, proprietary solution.

Where there are multiple independent portal projects in process, often there is poor coordination, an absence of a standard technology architecture, and very little management insight and control. JA-SIG institutions recognized the opportunity for a common solution, a common portal reference framework that is designed by higher education, for higher education.

Common Portal Reference Framework

JA-SIG institutions have defined the following requirements for a common portal reference framework:

  • Provide access to all information and services through a single graphical interface
  • Support a single log-on to obtain authentication and authorization to all information resources and applications
  • Provide a framework where all elements of the university (academic, administrative, and community) and all business applications can be integrated
  • Provide a convenient set of Web-based communications services
  • Provide a one-stop place to perform all business transactions
  • Provide the ability to present information and access to services on an individual basis in a personalized manner
  • Provide each member of the community with the ability to customize the appearance, layout, and information
  • Grant to the university full control and management of appearance and content
  • Be vendor independent (not locked into proprietary hardware and/or software)
  • Be free of commercialism
  • Be available to all constituents 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
  • Be flexible and able to absorb new technology advances and new applications.

uPortal is not an application; it is a framework, a set of technical specifications, and software. The framework provides a J2EE portal server (container) and well-defined interfaces that will permit individual institutions to customize the institutional portal by plugging in components in a well-defined and usable manner. The portal specification provides single, sign-on plug-and-play, providing both ease of use—removing the need to sign-on each time an application is accessed—and the ability to implement single sign-on in a way appropriate to the situation. The portal specification defines interfaces for the content suppliers (publishers), allowing for smooth integration of channels and applications.

The underlying model is based on a management structure of publish and subscribe, in which all members of the campus community both provide and consume content of interest to the community and to themselves. This structure includes enterprise applications, channels, publications, and links. All publications (content) go through a construct, assuring proper approval. A working group of JA-SIG members is defining and publishing the detailed specifications of the framework.

As uPortal becomes more feature-rich and is adopted by colleges and universities as an institutional information portal solution, there will be a need for a permanent support structure and the inclusion of stronger administrative functionality in future releases of the product.

Support for uPortal

There is a high level of support for uPortal within the higher education information technology community. uPortal adheres to open standards and is consistent and complementary with other major open initiatives, such as the Internet2 Middleware Architecture Committee for Education and MIT's OpenCourseWare announcement. uPortal is now being supported by a major grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

For institutions, the use of the open source model, the sharing of resources and components, and the potential to drastically reduce costs are very appealing. For vendors, uPortal provides a set of channel standards to which application developers and commercial application vendors can write a standard, one-time-only interface, thus further eliminating both institutional integration and vendor development costs.

The first version of uPortal was released in July 2000. uPortal 2.0 Alpha was released on May 11, 2001. The corresponding distribution is Sonora. uPortal 2.0 Beta is scheduled to be released on July 22, 2001 at the JA-SIG semi-annual conference.

More information about uPortal and JA-SIG membership, conferences, cooperative initiatives, uPortal training, and instructions on how to download a copy of uPortal can be found at the JA-SIG Web site:

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