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What is a portal?

Have you ever noticed that many new Web sites these days call themselves a portal? Well, if the Web site is a portal, what is a portal and how can you tell the difference between a portal and a regular Web site? Which Esri products use portals and how are they helpful? This blog post explores these questions and more.

More and more organizations are striving to improve their customer service while reducing their labour costs by providing commonly requested information and services online. Use of self-serve shopping, internet newspapers and online mapping is becoming a common practice these days. In the business world, users can easily buy a gift, reserve a hotel room or book a flight with the click of a mouse. Traditional news and information businesses are being affected because people are now going online to get news updates or sports scores instead of purchasing a newspaper or magazine. Governments are also enhancing services while improving efficiencies by providing some of their information products and services online.

So where do you go to get these online products or services? Do you go to a Web site or a portal? Well, let’s look at the situation.

A Web site is defined as a set of related Web pages typically served from a single Web domain. A Web site is hosted on at least one Web server, accessible via the Internet through an internet address known as a Uniform Resource Locator (URL). For example, the Esri Canada domain is and the home page URL is All publicly accessible Web sites collectively constitute the World Wide Web.

The word “portal” on the other hand comes from the architecture world where it means a doorway, gate or other entrance, especially a large and elaborate one. In the Internet age, portal has now come to mean a particular internet site that provides access or links to other sites.

Esri has two products with the word “portal” in their name. The first is the Portal for ArcGIS extension for ArcGIS for Server (aka Portal for ArcGIS). The second product is the Esri Geoportal Server.

Portal for ArcGIS helps users organize and share information throughout their organization via maps and apps. It provides a framework to easily manage and secure geographic assets within an organization. Portal for ArcGIS provides the same great experience as ArcGIS Online or the Community Map of Canada, but within an organization’s infrastructure (on-premises or in the cloud). Users can create, organize, secure and manage geographic assets and connect end users with useful apps, maps and geographic data.

Topographic basemap of Canada within the Portal for ArcGIS map viewer.

Esri Geoportal Server is a free, open source product that enables discovery and use of geospatial resources, including datasets, raster files and Web services. It helps organizations manage and publish metadata for their geospatial resources to let users discover and connect to those resources. The Geoportal Server supports standards-based clearinghouse and metadata discovery applications. With the Esri Geoportal Server, users can reduce time and redundancy, maintain data integrity and enable easy search and discovery.

You can find records containing specific words using the metadata search tool in Geoportal Server.

So, Portal for ArcGIS provides restricted access to an organization’s maps and apps in a fashion similar to ArcGIS Online, while the Geoportal Server provides access to geospatial resources via a custom user interface and can be put on the World Wide Web with unrestricted access.

So do these products help users create simple, functional and useful portals? The answer is “yes”.  Both products are based on different back end technologies and user interfaces, but they each allow an organization’s users to access and use geospatial assets online. Call it a portal or call it a Web site; the key is that both products help organizations and their users improve productivity and make better decisions based on the available geospatial data.

So should these products contain the word “portal”? Well, this question is really moot. In the end, Portal for ArcGIS and Geoportal Server both:

  • Provide a user-friendly front end to mapping Web sites
  • Enable the selection of various apps
  • Allow the use and reuse of data
  • Quickly generate maps
  • Provide controlled access to geospatial resources

About the Author

Gordon Plunkett is the Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) Director at Esri Canada. He has more than 30 years of experience in GIS and Remote Sensing in both the public and private sectors. He currently sits as a member of the Community Map of Canada Steering Committee, GeoAlliance Canada Interim Board of Directors, the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) Technical Committee, the Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB) Committee on Geomatics, the University of Laval Convergence Network Advisory Committee and the Advisory Board to the Carleton University Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre. During his career, Gordon has worked on projects in more than 20 countries and has contributed to numerous scientific conferences and publications. At Esri Canada, he is responsible for developing and supporting the company’s SDI vision, initiatives and outreach, including producing content for the SDI blog.

Profile Photo of Gordon Plunkett