A Web portal helps a company share information with its employees, enabling the creation of an intranet that management or a specific group can use to view the status of a number of corporate or other activities.

These can be simple applications, unconnected to internal databases, such as news feeds on relevant topics, or perhaps a link to a Web service that provides a live local weather report. More often than not, portals help to share useful data (from a database) about the inner workings of the business – data that can be used to ensure that levels of quality, customer satisfaction or sales numbers are on track. Here are five ways portals are changing for the better, and scaling down to help smaller companies like never before.

Multi-task masters

A web portal lets you manage different applications through a single user authentication framework. If you have four or five different applications and you don’t want your people wasting time logging in and out of each of these individually, you can hook all of them up to your portal for a single sign-on.

New portal pieces

Increasingly, portals are being put together with off-the-shelf components. Web designers – within SMBs or their technology providers – are creating customized solutions, taking pre-canned components, putting them together and dropping them onto screens that can be viewed by whoever has permission to view them. A new community is developing these parts – which work in Microsoft and Linux environments – and either selling or giving them away. “When we build portals for clients, which we do quite often, that’s often how they’re put together, using components that we either acquire on behalf of the client or in rare cases that we’ll have built for clients,” says Ross Chappell, partner at EPI Internet Direct. These components – known as Web Parts in Microsoft lingo – are tailored so they go into dialog boxes and bring in fields of information. A good example includes DotNetNuke parts, which can be viewed at, among other sites, Snowcovered.com.

Vendor strategies are a changin’

The success and usefulness of portal applications depends upon how well they tie into the back end systems they’re talking to, says Chappell. “Are they part of some sort of integrated solution, or are they kind of a half hazard mish-mash of things that someone has to create these custom Web Parts to go in, find and pull together?” Chappell says there is a trend toward better integration with the back end systems, especially from IBM, Microsoft, SAP and a few other vendors. Better integration will allow companies’ applications to talk at the same level so that business process applications understand each other and work properly together.

Affordable prices pending

Though portal technology is not extremely complex, there is clearly a learning curve associated with it, especially for those with small IT departments. Depending on experience, it can range from about four to 10 weeks. But it’s not so complex that users need to spend tens of thousands of dollars, says Chappell. He estimates a relatively sophisticated portal can be built today for between $3,000 and $10,000 whereas five years ago it might have cost $30,000 to $50,000. And users will be able to do more in the future without substantial increases in cost, as more vendors release components that can be used in conjunction with their technologies.

Not as hot to handle

As the number of Web Parts and other components become available, less and less customization will be required to build an effective portal. Customization costs rise not so much when putting the nuts and bolts of the portal together, but when providing a unique look and feel. “The good thing is you’re not talking the kind of dollars you were talking five years ago,” Chappell says. “So a lot of businesses can put a basic portal together for what should be affordable to a lot of the SMB market. We certainly see that.”

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