The portal that went up, up and away

 

When it was first developed we thought that with Softwareireland.com we had happened upon a new kind of portal site. However, like so many things to do with the Internet, we quickly discovered there were at least a million sites relating to our new discovery.

A vortal or, vertical portal, unlike its big sister, the portal site, is dedicated to a single subject. Portal sites developed as entry points to the Internet and the most commonly understood are search engine sites like Yahoo and ISP sites like America On Line (AOL) or our own IOL. In fact, AOL claims that many of its users think it actually is the Internet because they are so used to it as the starting point for all information.

The rot really set in as the number of sites exploded. We all have had that uneasy feeling of searching a major search engine site for a really obvious global company and not being able to find it. There are simply so many sites and so little control over how they are indexed that unless you are an experienced power searcher what you find when you type in your key words can be as random as shouting your question down O'Connell Street. Hence the need to develop sites with more focus.

There were always directory sites, lists of lists that offered links to almost everything. But vortals go one better. By maintaining a focus vortal sites can offer additional services to visitors and begin to exploit the ecommerce opportunities naturally created as a result.

Softwareireland.com is aimed firmly, as the name suggests, at the software and technology sector in Ireland. It has four key components - a software store, news, recruitment and the company database. Its forerunner was a site called SoftwareAtoZ which was one of those directory sites that tried to disguise its list of lists with other more cleverly constructed lists.

Softwareireland.com was built from the ground up and launched on October 1st. It took four months to build and is a complete self-contained vortal. It runs on an e-business publishing product developed by Parallel called pTools and has been a remarkable development exercise for everyone involved. pTools allows non-IT users to maintain key elements of the site and this was essential to its success as an e-business venture. News, recruitment, event calendar, email manager, forum, and many other sections run on pTools. This means that the site is not dependent on vast numbers of web developers who should be developing new products rather than maintaining an existing business. All this investment in publishing systems is because Softwareireland.com is set to become Softwareeurope.com and Softwareglobe.com in the coming year.

Notwithstanding this bigger challenge, we were faced with a number of more basic problems in development. Although we examined various e-shopping solutions we wanted to build our own. This was because there was no licensing or percentage charge involved in developing our own system and the overall scope of the site meant that the shopping solution needed to fit with all aspects and database components. After considering the criteria for local online transaction validation we decided to use a US company, VeriSign. This suited our model for immediate development.

However, the scale of Softwareglobe.com means that we will be using dedicated eshopping software from a major software company specialising in this sector.

The news section is based on trawling the web for items of interest to the industry in Ireland. Although there is no shortage of content, sorting it into something useful and digestible is a significant task.

The company database is designed to be automatically updateable by the companies themselves, again thanks to the pTools product.

Unusually, larger companies have taken a keen interest in expanding their entry on the site and the aim is to grow services as the community of companies grows on the site.

The real revelation of Softwareireland, however, has been the recruitment section. Naively the recruitment section was set up to capture job offers and send them automatically to people who had signed up to Softwareireland.com and expressed an interest in receiving job offers. As the system ramped up one morning we discovered that over 70 e-mails containing job offers had been sent to unsuspecting recipients. I apologise to all those whose e-mail boxes were flooded as a result. Job offers now go out daily.

Partly as a result of the demand for this service a decision has been made to move the site from its current virtually hosted location to a dedicated server in Ireland. Although traffic on Softwareireland.com is still relatively small by global standards the fact that the whole system is driven by the database means that surges have caused some demand problems. It is clear also that a shared hosting environment means that someone else's site can cause difficulties beyond our control.

While Parallel Internet provides the agility to continually evolve the Internet connectivity, Bootstrap, who are a partner on Softwareireland.com, provide a level of business logistics that is essential for a project. Already plans to offer software and other consumables on account to businesses are underway and this, along with the sizeable logistical issues associated with acquiring and shipping goods, would not have been possible without collaboration with Bootstrap.

The model for the vortal is designed as a template that can be transferred to other geographic locations and other business to business portal projects. Already interest in the concept may see two significant e-business sites developed before the end of this year. In Internet business no deadline is tight enough and no acronym too unusual. After the vortal perhaps we will have the mini-portal. Whatever, this mere Mortal Portal will no doubt have a limited lifespan.

Tom Skinner is managing director of Parallel Internet. E-mail: tom@parallel.ie.