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Solving the Data Sharing Problem: Implement an External-Facing Portal for Suppliers and Customers

by Mayur Khera

July 1, 2009

For many enterprises, collaborating and sharing data with external business partners remains a key challenge. Learn how SAP NetWeaver offers a powerful portal technology that can help get key business information to your external users in a single site that is clean, flat, easy, and fast.

With all the attention on building processes and streamlining connections across enterprise systems, companies are often still ignoring a related, final challenge: how to get key business information to your external users across your business network, including customers, suppliers, investors, and other external stakeholders.

This challenge often involves a cultural shift in the business, overcoming a “firewall mentality” that puts up barriers to sharing information in the first place.

Once companies see the benefits of collaboration and information sharing, better customer interactions result. Something as basic and business-critical as processing invoices has always had attention from the business, but now enterprises are also looking to share news and upcoming event information, collaborate in real time, and share key reports.

Despite all the dependencies companies have on their suppliers, these interactions are still based on poor and unstructured communication by phone, fax, or email. These multiple channels of interaction lead to issues such as information redundancy and low transparency of data.

Your business partners need to be able to get in contact with you just as easily as you would like to get in touch with them.

Most of your partners need ubiquitous access to Web-based services that provide:

  • Access to various systems including financials, supply chain, analytics, and document management

  • An intuitive and self-explanatory site that doesn’t require multiple passwords and user credentials (which also keeps training to a minimum)

  • A platform where they can collaborate more effectively with your organization to share information, documents, and transactional data

In short, what suppliers need is a single site that is clean, flat, easy, and fast.

Portals as a Solution to External Data Sharing?

Traditionally, the portal model was limited to consolidating information from multiple sites and creating an interface that acts as a single point of access to all those sites. The new portal model is more about embedding technologies within an infrastructure that helps individuals (both within and outside the network) get quick and secure access to the right information in a role-based manner. This new portal approach intelligently and automatically provides the right information, regardless of when and from where the access takes place.

This flexibility can help solve many of these woes by providing external access to processes across a high-performance workplace. You can reduce your IT infrastructure by utilizing a single enterprise-wide portal system to open channels for partners, customers, and suppliers.

A portal, if used wisely, can be a mission-critical application in your enterprise landscape and can create a company-wide transformation in terms of an efficient channel for users.

With a single portal that can serve all your external partners, you’ll significantly help reduce cost of ownership. A single portal can replace multiple sites and applications serving different external users, which substantially lowers infrastructure and ongoing support costs. Other advantages of using a portal include streamlining resources (people and technology) and processes.

And because the portal is common for all users, your organization doesn’t require separate teams to manage the system’s execution and development; a central team can handle:

  • Managing and adding content

  • Carrying out a centralized security strategy, including authentication and authorizations

  • Executing a collaboration strategy

SAP NetWeaver Portal supports this kind of external-facing portal initiative, with access to content-rich data from multiple sources such as SAP, non-SAP, and legacy systems as well as document stores. It helps funnel users to the right information they need based on their roles and profiles. An iView, which is a small application that displays portal content, could include details such as open purchase requests, vendor-managed inventory information, and select financial data. SAP NetWeaver Portal is also completely Web-based so users can access all their information on the Web, wherever they’re located. And there’s good news for SAP customers who have heavily invested in other third-party products: SAP NetWeaver Portal is an open solution that easily integrates with other non-SAP applications and vendor portals.

Case in Point: Collaborating with Suppliers

Before seeing an example of how SAP NetWeaver Portal can improve supplier collaboration, for a comparison, look at an example of how a supplier interacts with your business systems without a portal. It’s important to note that the enterprise system doesn’t have to be limited to suppliers. Similar scenarios exist for internal and external users — employees, customers, distributors, and vendors.

The “before” graphic shows a supplier who requires data from SAP Supplier Relationship Management, SAP NetWeaver Business Intelligence, some in-house legacy systems, and of course, documents that pertain to his business records.

To access each of these applications, suppliers must connect individually to each of these sources. They monitor their email to share and receive documents, special events, and promotions. If your business needs to provide suppliers with new types of information or data from other systems, it could require them to access yet another site or application, thereby adding another system to the list.

BEFORE: Suppliers must access applications and information from multiple points of access.

Collaborating in this manner, suppliers are faced with the following key issues:

  • Managing multiple modes of information sharing is a security risk.

  • Accessing multiple data points is cumbersome for users.

  • Connecting individually to these sources with separate user IDs and passwords means more information to remember.

  • Interacting via multiple channels creates the opportunity for data issues such as redundancy.

SAP NetWeaver Portal simplifies and improves the existing architecture for the example supplier portal. The “after” graphic shows an SAP NetWeaver Portal application that connects to both your suppliers and your internal applications/systems and provides the right information in a highly secure and personalized manner. Instead of logging on to multiple sites/applications, your suppliers are now logging into the portal for a single Web-enabled view to access all relevant content. End users notice when they only have to remember a single ID and password (instead of multiple ones as in the past) — a big advantage of using a portal. And accessing the portal is as secure and safe as it is to access banking records online.

AFTER: With a portal, your suppliers have a secure single access point to multiple applications

Take a look at the table below to see how SAP NetWeaver Portal addresses the key issues of sharing data with external partners.

How SAP NetWeaver Portal Addresses Data Sharing Issues
Key Issues Solutions
Because an external-facing portal is available outside the firewall, it requires an additional technical set-up of Internet proxy (in the Demilitarized zone — or DMZ) connected to the portal servers. It is not recommended to place the server in the DMZ zone, as it complicates the server security. An SAP NetWeaver Portal site is a highly secure site (enabled via HTTPS connections). This is achieved by configuring security between the SAP NetWeaver Portal servers and the browser using certificates. The most widely used proxy tools are SAP WebDispatcher, Apache Proxy, and Microsoft IIS.
Multiple Access Sites
Having many different points of access to data and information spread across multiple applications and systems can be cumbersome to users. SAP NetWeaver Portal provides users with a single point of access to role-based information.
Multiple IDs/Passwords
The more passwords a user needs to memorize, the more likely it is for that user to violate your organization, security rules by documenting and storing this information in accessible places. SAP NetWeaver Portal provides users with single sign-on to all applications and systems (including SAP and non-SAP systems).
Multiple Communication Channels
Having many different avenues for accessing and sharing documents and collaborating (e.g., email, standard postage mail, fax, etc.) creates the potential for data redundancy or low transparency of data. SAP NetWeaver Portal provides components like content management and search (knowledge management), as well as integrated collaboration capabilities.

Implementation Considerations

Any organization that is looking to implement an external-facing portal should focus on the following when considering such a project:

  • Establish an enterprise portal governance model that’s based on user-focused areas that the portal needs to enable, such as branding, personalization, prof?iles, and role-based content. The key business stakeholders that coordinate this model should include politically neutral portal steering committee members who facilitate cooperation and compromise between various business groups in the organization.

  • Align the portal strategy and execution with business goals and needs. Take into account that mature portal deployments bring additional complexities such as content that goes unmanaged and without any updates. Also, many unneeded rogue projects can get initiated that businesses never use. The portal strategy needs to be in line with business goals so that several groups aren’t duplicating effort and resources by trying to solve the same business problem.

  • Employ SAP NetWeaver Portal solution experts who are capable of clearly understanding each requirement and mapping it to available or to-be-developed configurations on the system. They can either use standard available set-ups or develop something new to meet those requirements.

  • Assign security experts to handle various flavors of security including network security, Web security, and authorizations. These experts are in charge of deciding who gets to see what.

  • Multiple go-lives will require careful cutover planning so be sure to prepare for this. Because many business groups will use the portal as the common shared infrastructure, each group rolling out new functionality via projects or enhancements, proper coordination is required to avoid any downtime.

  • Make sure that testing is a core focus area of the project plan. Each portal project or application has its own functional requirements such as back-end integration and document display. Each requirement has varied security needs that must be tested before releasing to users.

  • Manage for change. Each portal release introduces new process changes that require careful consideration. SAP NetWeaver Portal by itself is a very user-friendly and intuitive system, but the content within the portal might require training. So, based on the scope of content and user maturity, businesses should plan for training and communication.

Knowledge Management Helps Collaboration

To share key documents with suppliers, the Knowledge Management features of SAP NetWeaver tightly integrate with a portal and help you organize data more efficiently. Knowledge management provides services for not just finding and organizing unstructured data (e.g., Word files, PowerPoint presentations, and information flyers or brochures) that resides within SAP Knowledge Management, but also integrates with other third-party document repositories that already exist within enterprise landscapes.

SAP NetWeaver Portal provides an excellent framework to increase the collaboration between your organization and your external partners, and the solution offers features such as:

  • Instant messaging

  • Desktop sharing

  • Assigning and managing tasks

  • Discussion boards

  • FAQs

  • Wikis

  • Collaboration rooms

Utilizing Knowledge Management and collaboration, SAP NetWeaver Portal has many integrated Web 2.0 capabilities such as Web content publishing, wikis, blogs, and communities that cover employee-to-employee and employee-to-supplier/customer relationships.

In addition, an integrated portal collaboration solution provides you an alternative to using third-party collaboration tools.

Bridge Your Communication Gap

SAP NetWeaver Portal offers many strong capabilities. One that I encourage every company to focus on is just this: it makes doing business with you easier. With this system, all users go to a one-stop shop for information and company updates, instead of going through multiple legacy Web sites and application interfaces. SAP NetWeaver Portal helps bridge the gap between focusing on your external partners and improving your business network.

6 Lessons Learned: Building an External-Facing Portal

Focus on usability: Usability is all about presentation, navigation, number of steps it takes to complete a process or find information, and portal performance. Poor performance means your end users will go somewhere else. It is a good idea to have a usability expert review the final design before it goes into the works.

Create a balanced branding: An enterprise portal is not just for one set of users; it reaches various departments and business users. Therefore, the branding that you design should reflect the overall organization. You have many options to “brand” the portal based on the users’ profiles. However, keep a clear perspective of time, budget, and complexity; it’s important to achieve a balance across all these factors.

Keep fail-over in mind while planning: Customers have high demands and urgency for minimal downtime of systems and require 24/7 availability of mission critical services. Knowing early about these requirements can help a lot during the landscape design and infrastructure planning phases.

Ensure a secure portal: Security starts right from users being authenticated into the portal all the way to providing them role-based content coming from different back-end systems.

Create a well-defined governance model: Various groups (sales, marketing, procurement, HR, and corporate) might end up working on the same portal. This requires a well-defined governance model in place for inter-group coordination.

Evaluate implementation phases: This evaluation will inform you of the functionality of SAP NetWeaver Portal along with available Knowledge Management and collaboration features, and open the way for mass use of portals both within and outside your company boundaries. Do not dive into an implementation without first conducting a thorough assessment. You never know what you might learn before it is completed.

Mayur Khera is the SAP NetWeaver Director at Sparta Consulting and has assisted numerous clients with their strategic SAP NetWeaver implementations. He has extensive experience Web-enabling and integrating SAP systems with SAP NetWeaver Portal. He has been involved in architecture and landscape planning of SAP projects and assisted clients integrate various SAP modules. He is a frequent key speaker at SAP events and ASUG chapter meetings.

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