This article originally appeared on our sister site, TechRepublic.

Portal software has finally gone mainstream; just ask IBM. The company has revamped and retooled its venerable WebSphere Portal Express product to target small to midsize companies that need Web collaboration but do not have the technical expertise or budget to implement a full-blown portal solution.

With collaboration software becoming a more accepted form of communication among business groups and the time and expense associated with travel, portal software is entering into a high-growth phase of the product life cycle. “Enterprise portal solutions comprise a rapidly growing market opportunity because they assist enterprises in overcoming the barriers of what can be characterized as today’s ‘complexity crisis,'” says Alexander Motsenigos, senior analyst at Enterprise Portal Services.

So, what kind of bang for your buck can you expect should you decide to implement a portal solution? Let’s use IBM’s WebSphere Portal Express product as a guinea pig to find out how a portal solution can help your organization.

First off, what does a portal do?
In a nutshell, a portal can extend the reach of companies seeking better supply chain management. Portals come in many shapes and sizes, but essentially their creation stems from the result of a distributed workforce that has a need to collaborate. In addition, a portal’s function can help develop vendor/customer relationships. In the past, portal projects suffered from scope creep and became overly complex (and expensive) for large user deployments. Today’s portal is more streamlined and segmented to offer specific solutions for smaller organizations.

For instance, the IBM WebSphere Portal Express product is designed to allow customers easy deployment of employee, business partner, or customer portals using an intuitive interface. With a little coding background, the IBM WebSphere Portal Express uses portlets that can be custom developed with an included toolkit to match virtually any business need. In addition, access to application integration (such as Lotus Notes Domino and Exchange Server 2000) is accomplished with the aforementioned portlets.

Where is a logical place to implement a portal?
Perhaps the most logical (and simplest) area in which to deploy a portal solution is for a project team or department that needs the basic online collaboration features of a portal. This situation implies a dedicated team of employees who need a single source to submit, update, and store work documents for a specific purpose. With today’s portal, this focused solution-oriented approach can be extended to include other areas of the business as the department or project team becomes better acquainted with the technology.

Using the WebSphere Portal Express portlet tools, you can build a bulletin board type of portal that includes calendaring, document sharing, news feeds, and e-mail. The project or department members sign on to one logon screen for access to all the same resources and are presented with a secure Web-like interface to access portal resources. This interface can be customized by the individual, but within the limits specified by the portal administrator.

After the initial buzz of online collaboration wears off, portal users will undoubtedly want to do more. The next logical implementation is to develop a cross-departmental portal that allows collaboration among similar corporate units (for example, Accounting and Human Resources). Once the cross-departmental hurdle is cleared, the portal customer should feel comfortable enough to extend the reach of portal software to include customers and vendors. Perhaps the biggest barrier to reaching this stage is customer or vendor requirements. The payoff, however, is tremendous when you consider how much you deal with vendors and how valuable knowing your customers’ needs is.

How much does it cost?
In the past, portal deployment costs became unwieldy as the project grew in size. To minimize the budget battles faced by IT managers, IBM has decided to use per-user pricing for its WebSphere Portal Express product. At $72 per user (digital delivery only) for its basic package, IBM’s WebSphere Portal Express allows customers to do smaller implementations more cost effectively before expanding the project. As more functionality is added to the portal, the price scale remains relatively flat. IBM offers a Plus offering at just $114 per user. With the Plus package you get all the basic features of the Express product, plus instant messaging, team rooms, online awareness, group calendaring, document check-in/check-out, and project management.

Why now?
With the recent advancements in portal technology, the market outlook has never looked better for portal vendors. According to research firm IDC, the portal market is expected to grow to $3.1 billion by 2006. So it is no wonder major players such as IBM are entering the fray to capture a piece of the action.

Customers will also benefit from the increased competition of IBM entering the small- to midsize portal market. While Plumtree still holds a majority of the market share, the resurgence in interest from customers needing portal solutions should shake up the market considerably. You can expect more features included with better pricing as vendors compete for your IT budget.