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Enterprise search a key component of Oracle portal project

Personalizing the corporate portal and intuitive search capabilities were key considerations for one property management firm.

Evans & Avant, a developer and owner of malls and shopping centers across the eastern seaboard, is changing the language within its organization, thanks to its portal project.

The portal, dubbed "Ellie" to market it throughout the organization, has become a verb. "Just Ellie it" is now a common response to employees looking for corporate information.

"We put a lot of effort into ensuring this project was successful with the marketing group and other business people, thinking of the culture of business and how the tool would best match that," said Dale Johnston, CIO. "We branded and personified it. When you need to know a piece of information, it would be like going to a co-worker. [Ellie] is our all-knowing co-worker."

In March of last year, Evans & Avant knew it wanted a portal with iGoogle-like components and usability, but it also needed to support a Web 2.0 collaboration environment in the future. So when the Columbia, S.C.-based company went shopping for technology, enterprise search and integration were key considerations, Johnston said.

"We were looking to build a new information platform to disseminate information and really be the starting point for employees to get answers to questions they have in their day-to-day job," he said.

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Evans & Avant, already an Oracle customer by virtue of the JD Edwards software it uses to run its ERP system, turned first to Oracle but also considered IBM, BEA (since acquired by Oracle) and Microsoft SharePoint. Between the software and consulting fees for the project, Oracle and BIAS -- the Atlanta-based Oracle partner that Evans & Avant enlisted for help -- put forth the best package and fell within the company's $500,000 budget, another key consideration.

Evans & Avant develops and manages shopping centers throughout the eastern United States and has roughly 250 employees. It's rolling out the Oracle portal in phases. The latest project is the "Our Centers" initiative. The Our Centers portal provides demographic information -- such as age, tenants and leasing agents -- on each of the shopping centers. It serves up reports from the JD Edwards Enterprise Report Writer, pulling data like lease expiration dates, and it provides reports as .pdf or Excel files.

"Before, it was very manual, very difficult to know who to ask to run a rent rule," Johnston said. "Someone would have to have the knowledge to log into accounting to get it. Now, whether you know the account or system or not, you go to a user-friendly portal and you click and get those reports."

The portal also includes more conventional information, such as industry news from RSS feeds and information compiled by the marketing department.

Secure search satisfies

"The great thing we found on Oracle -- and this is in contrast to WebSphere -- secure search is an umbrella above all this," Johnston said. "It's a component-based portal project. The portal is pulling information from seven primary sources in accounting to aggregated databases. Secure search is available and fits in automatically. That is key in the platform and the product."

Oracle secure search provides access to people based on their role. For example, only human resources can see certain personnel data.

Performance has been strong as well, Johnston said. Evans & Avant is also using several components of Oracle Fusion Middleware.

"We found that the search results come back quickly -- even long lists like a list of tenants or suppliers would return within seconds," Johnston said. "Given that we're on a modest infrastructure platform, it does perform. Part of the thing that we're struggling with is the search results. It's too much like Google. I would like to totally control and style the search results."

For example, when running a query on the IT staff, Ellie reads the Microsoft active directory but it returns a long list of text results (similar to Google) that the searcher needs to parse.

"I would rather have the ability for some component to come up in a chart with name, position, fax and phone number," Johnston said.

Evans & Avant is now looking for ways to run workflow processes on the portal. Johnston would like to see the company not just track the construction development schedule on Ellie, but manage it there as well.

Advice for implementing portals with secure search

When implementing a corporate portal, take the time to carefully plan out the specifications and be sure to create something that users want to access, Johnston advised. Evans & Avant spent nearly five weeks developing the functional specifications.

"Spend the time upfront in planning what you're going to consume," he said. "A lot of the software companies make it sound easy in order to sell the software. It was tempting at times to look at it on the technical side and say, 'This is what the software does; now why don't we use that?' But when we sat down and thought, 'This is how people need to use it,' [the way] it works out-of-the-box doesn't work."

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