The Portlets Alliance.

The idea of a "Portlets Alliance" has arisen in discussion with other UK members of the e-Science, VRE and Virtual Learning communities who are interested in developing and porting tools into a portlet framework. Such frameworks build on the JSR-168 and WSRP portlet standards and extensions such as the OKI OSIDs which could be used for a variety of purposes.

Participants in other JISC VRE funded projects who are interested in portal delivery will be invited to join the Alliance as a means of informing each other. The aim of the Portlets Alliance is to ultimately allow the UK developers to play a recognisable part in world wide development activities.

The Terms of Reference of the Portlets Alliance are being formulated in discussion with early participants and subjected for agreement at an open meeting.

Background

The Web browser is one of today's most familiar research tools. HTML pages are by far the most widely used way of presenting information and services. A enormous number of Java language tools have been developed to support the Web hosting industry funded by all major vendors and the private sector.

Every discipline already has a large range of Web-based research tools, usually with a form-based interface comprising keyword searches or pull-down menus and delivering results in the form of text which the user can cut and paste into another such interface. These are however not integrated. Only a few Web interfaces are backed up by database-enabled content management systems. They are usually referred to as ``portals'' and often include personalisation and customisation capabilities, e.g. for accessibility.

There are now several agreed standards, such as Java JSR-168 and WSRP which can respectively enable the independent development of plug-in tools for portals and content aggregation. Sakai uses the first of these plus the Open Knowledge Initiative's open service interface definitionss (OSIDs, developed with funding from the Andrew Mellon Foundation) which could be extended for a variety of purposes. For Grid-based services there is the WS-I Web services stack which has strong Java support but is language-agnostic enabling remote research services to be accessed from lightweight clients such as Web browsers and programming libraries. This is being augmented to create WSRF, the Web Services Resource Framework which is currently being debated in the Grid community.

The interest in Sakai is shared by the Virtual Learning and Digital Information communities of the JISC portfolio, and indeed the proposers have been involved in discussing commonality between the three ``pillars'' and are signed up to the Sakai Educational Partners' Programme, SEPP. There is clear interest in cementing a common and re-usable set of services, see e.g. http://www.grids.ac.uk/ETF/public/WebServices/classes.html and many of these are already addressed by OKI. Whilst the JISC circular 05/04 refers to a Virtual Research Environment, and thus focuses on tools specific to e-Research, discussions over the last few months have indicated that a ``bigger picture'' can be realised. We therefore believe that adopting a state of the art 2nd generation Web portal environment (such as Sakai) and adding a re-usable set of tools which can be customised for various end user communties is a desirable and cost-effective way of proceeding.

The project will also aim to forge close links with the OMII, the UK Open Grid Midlleware Initiative Institute based at University of Southampton. We will also work closely with e-Science Centres within the UK, e.g. the National e-Science Centre (Edinburgh) and their equivalents overseas. We will have especially strong links with the Sakai and TeraGrid OGCE portal developers and members of the Sakai Educational Partners' Programme (please see their letter of support in Appendix A). This will ensure full participation of both tools and services developers and end users. As part of the Portlets Alliance, a usage evaluation activity will grow as the requirements of e-Research grow and become more expressive. By its very nature then this project aims to assist the creation and invention of tools and services as well as assisting and guiding others with the use of the Sakai VRE interface.

Sakai Evaluation.

Two of the developers, Rob Allan and Rob Crouchley, received JISC funding to evaluate Sakai in mid 2004. A draft report showing work undertaken so far in this evaluation is available at http://www.grids.ac.uk/Sakai/sakai_doc.pdf. It focuses on:

As part of this evaluation, we have recently put up a simplified Sakai demonstrator at http://redress.lancs.ac.uk:8080/sakai-uPortal (username=Guest, passwd=eResearch). This will allow you to view the proposed Sakai Alliance worksite.

Coordination of the Portlets Alliance.

The proposed work packages of the project are described below. Coordination of the Portlets Alliance is the principal activity, but the others are desirable to facilitate the community process of contributing open-source, open-standard tools to a VRE framework. The project overview is as follows:

  1. Coordination of the Portlets Alliance;
  2. Evaluation of Portal and other open VRE Frameworks;
  3. Provision of Alliance Community Facilities via a Sakai Portal;
  4. Alliance Dissemination;

Working with other JISC VRE projects.

There has been a lot of interest in using the Sakai portal framework as a front end to a suite of tools and services comprising a Virtual Research Environment. We know of several independent demonstrator and tools deployment bids to JISC to enhance and work with this framework. Other developers of portal-based tools for virtual learning and digital information management may be willing to port their tools into the Sakai framework to make their services available.

We will work together with them and other projects to help achieve integration and inter-operability of independent project outcomes and to ensure common goals are met in an efficient and effective way.

Working with the JISC programme managers.

We will work closely with JISC programme managers to ensure that this binding project meets the requirements of the VRE programme and meshed with JISC goals in other areas.

Interaction with JISC IE projects.

We will aim to ensure inter-operability and mutual benefit of integrating VRE and IE tools.

Interaction with JISC VLE projects.

We will aim to ensure inter-operability and mutual benefit of integrating VRE and VLE tools.

Interaction with SEPP.

We will be working closely with the Sakai developers and SEPP. We will provide feedback from UK projects and act as a point of contact for bug reports and other comments.