The term “portal” denotes everything from a souped-up Web site to a turbocharged intranet. Add the word “enterprise” and the hype machine purrs even louder.

More than 100 vendors are peddling enterprise portal software products, but analysts predict that fewer than a dozen will survive the mass consolidation currently taking place in the industry. The vendors wiped out are likely to be hawking products that are little more than a pretty intranet front end, with weak back-end integration abilities and uncertain security.

“Everyone is coming in these days and saying they have a portal version of their software,” says portal user Dave Snyder, director of e-application services at Unisys Corp., in Blue Bell, Pa. “You’ve really got to break it down and find out: Do they have a flexible front end, and do they have an architecture to bring in your back-end systems?”

Such integration is clearly the key to today’s enterprise portal, which has become the front end from which users do everything, from viewing legacy data to collaborating with colleagues. Companies that have successfully implemented such portals find them be the oil that keeps their businesses running as they throw more resources and applications onto their networks.

But massive consolidation and partnering in the industry has made a maze out of product choices. While portals have saved companies time and money, the wrong product will do neither.

Picked wisely, portal software will reduce network traffic by streamlining access to internal and external functions. Advanced features such as collaboration shouldn’t create a bottleneck. Security and scalability are both issues; the former because a portal can be a single point of access to all sorts of back-end systems, the latter because proper placement of servers and load balancing needs grow as more resources are tied to this single front end.

Mears is a writer for Network World (U.S.). She can be reached