Recent discussions on CapTech's internal social media platform addressed a favorite challenge for technology professionals: how to describe what you do for a living to those without a lot of technical expertise. To achieve that goal without boring your audience to tears, oversimplification is nearly inevitable. Personally, I've found the threat of oversimplification even more daunting when I attempt to be a little bit specific about what I do by using not just an industry term, but a highly flexible industry term: portal.

Like many examples from the technology dictionary – think "content" or "social" or even "middleware" – the term "portal" means different things to different people within the same organization, let alone across organizations. In my consulting travels, I've heard portal used in at least five distinct ways. Below, I've provided explanations and examples for each of these usages in an effort to help at least a few people avoid portal confusion.

Usages of "Portal"

Usage 1) A web-based system or single web page which serves as a content aggregator and/or a launch point to access a variety of independently managed content and functions

Public internet examples: Yahoo!, iGoogle(The heyday of this usage for a public site was approximately 1998, but it's not entirely incorrect even today.)
Corporate example: company intranet

In a sentence: "After I go to my (Yahoo!) portal to see how my stocks are doing and if my team signed any free agents, I'm going to log into the Acme portal and search for the 2012 holiday calendar."

Usage 2) A development platform on which one or more systems reside, irrespective of whether or not their purposes or the functionality they provide are related to each other in any way or align to the "classic" layout/conception of a portal (as described in #1).

In a sentence: "It would be a lot easier to implement the personalization that the business wants if we were building on the portal." (OR) "It would be a lot easier to implement the look and feel that the business wants if we didn't have to build on the portal."

NOTE: Usages 1 & 2 (the two most common in my experience) introduce unique confusion of their own in that multiple related but distinct sites (often individually referred to as "portals") can reside on a single "portal" foundation. Further contributing to communication challenges is the existence of portlets (and web parts), which are… on second thought, if you're interested in this level of detail, I recommend Oracle's summary of portal concepts, which somewhat relies on its product-specific terminology, but is still helpful in a generic sense.

Usage 3) A web-based collaboration hub for an organization, group, or project team, which offers a securable workspace for document management and sharing, user-friendly publishing and editing of narrowly targeted web content, and other collaboration features such as message boards or wikis.

Corporate example: SharePoint Team Sites, sites, OpenText Livelink/ECM Suite team space.

In a sentence: "Please stop flooding my Inbox with document attachments; all you have to do is upload to the project portal and I can pull down from there."

Usage 4) A generic term for proprietary software products used to build #s 1, 2, or 3 above; these products include but are not limited to: Oracle WebLogic Portal or WebCenter Portal, IBM WebSphere Portal, SharePoint 2010, and JBoss Portal.

In a sentence: "These may prove to be famous last words, but on paper, we won't have to do any work to provide that feature, because it ships with portal out of the box."

Usage 5) A sci-fi video game for Xbox 360 or PlayStation which is of interest to at least some IT types. Per Wikipedia, "the game primarily comprises a series of puzzles that must be solved by teleporting the player's character and simple objects using ‘the handheld portal device', a device that can create inter-spatial portals between two flat planes."

In a sentence: "That guy is really good at Portal, so he's probably a superb conversationalist."

For those of you who have never felt like you had a great grasp of where (a) "portal" fits in the technology landscape, I hope this blog helps to illustrate why and arms you to use the term in new and exciting ways.