Six months ago, nobody had heard of intranets; today, we’re apparently crying out for them.
So what is an intranet? Definitions vary, but we’ll call it `an internal Internet’. Here’s the difference. The Internet is the global, open, public network of computer networks currently linking 64 million users. Anyone with a computer, a modem, the software and a subscription can use it.
With an intranet, Internet services are deployed on a closed network access to which is limited – to company employees, or a group of organisations. Beyond that the two are essentially the same – even down to the TCP/IP protocol.
Some say this is all hype. They say certain large vendors, disappointed by the uptake of Internet technology, are looking for new ways to exploit their investment. A more positive view is intranets allow users to benefit from Internet technology while avoiding the security and reliability drawbacks. No one wants unprotected channels of communication – or poor performance in the afternoon (when the USA starts work). No wonder the wags call the WWW the `World Wide Wait’!
Because they’re based on Internet technology, intranets can act as an enabler for: information retrieval, sharing and management; communication and collaboration; and access to databases and applications. None of these is new; but intranets can use Internet and World Wide Web technologies to do them better.
The WWW is the most popular means of accessing information on the Internet. Web aficionados claim that it provides an intuitive way of finding information – with text and graphics pages, jumps via hypertext links, downloads, etc. It’s the browser software that gives us all this.
In fact, the browser could become the single interface for database and application access. It’ll be a radical change in computing – with data and applications being downloaded via the intranet (as Java applets) rather than being locally resident.
In practice, what could an intranet deliver? For information retrieval, you could have a Web-based company system, with products and services directories, electronic libraries, etc. By structuring this as a network of Web pages, you get ease of use, speed of access and comprehensiveness. This is the first, and for some the only use of Web technology.
For comms and collaboration, it would be easy to set up virtual workgroups. Groupware applications, such as job scheduling, or project costing, could also be implemented. Video-telephony and real time editing of, say a spreadsheet, or a SCADA page from separate locations, can also be supported.
Then again, the Internet’s open standards are also good news for IT departments which implement and manage networks. Intranets could easily be installed across many platforms and environments.
Although implementing an intranet is not straightforward, the problems are certainly not new. In fact, they have much in common with those encountered in posting information onto the WWW itself.
First, resources must be available to establish the service. Establishing an intranet requires a lot more than just expertise in creating Web pages. Second, the impact of the intranet on existing systems must be considered. This includes determining the capacity of the current network. Decisions must also be taken about the fate of legacy systems. Should they be replaced, or can they be integrated into a single interface? Is this desirable? Also, it will be necessary to provide desktop hardware to support graphics and multimedia.
Third is the issue of intranet content. What is the intranet to be used for? Mechanisms must be in place to ensure accuracy and updating, wherever data comes from. Resources must be available for this. Content management accounts for over 75% of the running costs of a WWW site.
Intranets are likely to be implemented widely in the near future – although I don’t believe companies will move rapidly towards the fully-fledged intranets predicted by some.