The Dead Portal Society

I’ve just met an ISV who made an interesting observation about where the notion of cloud computing has an almost perfect fit.

They called it The Dead Portal Society: the idea that most portals are used for a short time and then die, or hibernate until some compelling event for their use arises. This ISV sells a lot in to the government sector and especially to education. Portals in education have big peaks and troughs. When the students at a University arrive, fresh-faced, first-time away from home with the manner of a 3 day-old puppy, they are typically introduced to a portal. They do their final course registration, probably a few disorganised ones suddenly start looking for somewhere to live, they get hold of their timetables, reading lists, maps of the campus buildings. They probably join a few societies – the usual Geogsoc, Mathsoc and, who knows, maybe even the deadpoetsoc?

Once that initial start-of-year freneticism is over, the portal lies mainly dormant, until the same time the following year. I don’t know what the student population is of the average UK university, but the student turnover is between 50% and 66% per year. Between 25% and 33% of them are new arrivals and between 25% and 33% of them are leaving. Each term (semester for those who speak in the en-us lingo) there is another smaller turnover and those events are sprinkled with their own portals too.

University administration staff probably use the portal frequently through the year. The fact it’s largely unused by the student body for the majority of the year tends to get it overlooked – unfortunately it has to be scaled to cater for that peak load. What a perfect candidate for the cloud. The app just runs on a couple of instances for the vast majority of the year but within less than 30 minutes of the students arriving for their first day and being given their login details and so on, the entire system can be scaled to easily meet the needs of that massive load. Aside from the network itself, we need never hear a student getting frustrated with “how slow this system is”.

Add to that technologies like federated access and the ability to architect the application to accept authentication from the credentials just about every student already has – the Live ID they use for Hotmail and IM, or the Facebook account they use (and will use in turbo mode as they all get to know each other in the first few weeks of term) every day. The idea of having to worry about password resets or remind students of their credentials disappears from the University IT department. The students use the system once per year but the experience is great because the performance is good and they can remember their username and password.

What would Walt Whitman have made of it…

O Captain my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The portal is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting


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