Portal Web Application Integrator for real

I’m generally pretty sceptical about any product pitch that begins “all you have to do is…”. Usually, it skates over a whole bunch of set-up that the demonstrator has done beforehand. So, knowing that it’s hard to integrate existing applications into a portal, I’ve been left pretty cold by the hype around Portal Web Application Integrator.

One of the projects I’m working on right now has a couple of external applications to integrate. There’s Moodle – a php-based virtual learning environment (they didn’t have those when I was a student but these days every University has one) – and there’s good old Lotus Connections. At this point someone’s thinking “what about the Lotus Connections portlet”, that’s the subject for a whole other post. So, anyway, I was left with iFrames and Web Application Integrator to choose between. So, with the hype of “just add a few lines of javascript to your webpage and your application is integrated with portal” in mind, we attacked the problem.

Neither of these options excites me much, but we started off down the line of Web Application Integrator for a couple of reasons. Firstly, links generated to the application will work much better than they would with iFrames (see below). Secondly, load times will be better – browsers often have to finish loading a page before they start to load the contents of the iFrame. Finally, because we’re using Tivoli Access Manager, we wouldn’t have any problems with portal session time-out or presenting internal URLs to the user.

Here’s a screen shot of the integration we’re trying to achieve (in the pic it’s using iFrames, with the app customised to remove headers – from the user’s perspective it looks pretty seamless. Connections works the same way). As you can see the portal (v6) already has a custom theme, built in an earlier version of the project.

Moodle integrated into WebSphere Portal

Moodle integrated into WebSphere Portal

The first thing we found was that the changes needed to the theme weren’t just a couple of tweaks. We essentially had to rewrite the whole theme in javascript, a process which we figured would take about twice as long as it had taken to create the theme in the first place. As an aside, whenever we start talking about javascript I get jittery about accessibility – it’s an important consideration, and very easy to overlook.

The next thing we found was that the javascript we had to introduce disrupted javascript we already had in place. So, for example, the WCM search box wouldn’t work because the little drop-down twistie was rendered with Javascript. We also used some scripts around the logout feature, which were also broken.

None of these problems looked insurmountable, but by this time we’d already invested about a week’s work and we figured that another week would be needed to get theme that would work with Web Application Integrator. At this point I decided to cut our losses and use an iFrame.

We’ll probably come back to Web Application Integrator in a future version. Our lives would certainly have been made easier had we designed the custom theme with it in mind from the start. Also, there’s a particular problem with the generation of links in iFrames that will bring me back to Web Application Integrator. Suppose I integrate Moodle with Connections Profiles, so that names in Moodle have a link to the user’s Profile. That’d be neat but with iFrames, Connections will appear in the Moodle iFrame. This will, clearly, confuse the poor user who will wonder why Moodle has just turned into Connections without the portal tabs updating themselves. With Web Application Integrator, we would avoid that.

Bottom line, an interesting tool, but be careful…


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