Intranets demystified

You could be forgiven for thinking that the Intranet is simply Internet - misspelled. But some Industry experts claim that Intranet business will be several times larger than the Internet. Is the Intranet another technology fad - or is it for real ?

Intranet or Internet?

Confusing Intranet with Internet is natural -- the technology, like the spelling, is nearly identical. Both require the same network protocol (TCP/IP) and both depend on open, well-understood standards.

What's the difference? The Intranet is essentially a private Internet operating on your company's internal network. Intranets exploit the incredibly popular and low-cost Internet tools to gain strategic advantage over competitors, cut costs, and improve operational effectiveness.

An Intranet typically has three features lacking on the Internet:

  • Speed - broad bandwidth, operatign at netwok speeds rather than dial-up speeds.

  • Security - private internal network (LAN/WAN), protected from Internet users by a firewall

  • Control - Enterprise network management to ensure reliability

    The Intranet can be viewed as an information utility for the enterprise. It doesn't matter whether you're using a Mac, Windows or a UNIX workstation - you plug in to the Intranet and find what you need, from documents to email to data to audio and video. Corporate and
    department information is accessed via the standards of the Internet: e-mail (SMTP, POP3, IMAP), WWW, file transfer (ftp), and other Internet services.

    Intranet compared to Groupware

    How is an intranet solution better than a groupware solution ?

    Cheaper. More versatile. More flexible.

    The bottom line difference between an intranet and "collaborative" computing solutions such as Lotus Notes is design philosophy. Designed as a proprietary system in an era lacking widespread connectivity, Lotus Notes uses a proprietary database structure, which replicates data and does not provide quick access to remote databases. Cheaper? . The use of client browsers with one standard Window interface, offers the easy integration with other applications, such as electronic mail, faxes, calendaring, videoconferencing, and hot links within messages. As a single interface to a variety of information sources, the browser is cost-effective, highly efficient, and very easy to use. Versatile? An Intranet server, eliminates the need to replicate database by providing users with easy access to source data. A single WWW server platform can support Internal and External applications for both internal information - sharing and external marketing on the Internet. Notes, on the other hand, is purely an internal application. Flexible? The Intranet enables users to centralize their information resources in a single point-and-click environment - the browser - which is avialable on a variety of client platforms (PC, Mac, Unix,etc) Content can be easily accessed by browsers on any platform, in any location. With Notes, data distribution is in realtime, on an as-requested basis, over a public (or private) network.

    How big is it?

    How big will the Intranet get? Zona Research, an Internet analysis firm in Redwood City, Calif., predicts that spending on Intranet software will surpass Internet spending by more than four to one and reach $7.8 billion by the end of 1998. Forrester Research predicts, more conservatively, Intranet server sales of $1 billion by the year 2000.

    The availability of free and highly reliable software such as Linux, Apache and sendmail makes trying out an intranet extremely easy too.

    What are the primary applications deployed on Intranet Web sites?

    The most popular applications use web publishing for existing documents, web forms for transaction entry or web-to-database links to access corporate data.

    Corporate phone directories - always current, as they can be updated and viewed immediately.

    Publishing employee information: Benefits, Cafeteria plans, procedure manuals, job postings, employee bulletins

    Multimedia employee training, featuring audio and visual tours of the company and mission statements from company leaders

    Providing access to information currently 'hidden' in corporate or departmental databases using web extensions from the DBMS vendor, or open tools.

    Sales - including catalog and price lists, product bulletins, item availability, drawings & specifications, and competitive information - including links to competitors Web sites

    Customer Service - order status and tracking, product availability, Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) & contacts - using secured access by the Customer, 24 hours a day

    Providing universal data entry for employee database changes, 401k enrollment, W4 Forms, etc.

    Corporate communications, company announcements & employee bulletins

    Publishing technical database libraries on the Intranet as HTML pages or downloadable files

    Document management - Web enabled work flow.

    What's the future?

    Intranets are helping businesses reap huge benefits by making information, once buried in hundreds of places in the organization, available to everyone. They have the power to change the whole business culture.

    There is little doubt that the Intranet is revolutionizing corporate computing - providing a bold new infrastructure for communication. As quickly as corporate bandwidth expands, audio and video applications are waiting to devour it. The real challenge is in managing fast-growing Intranets for maximum corporate advantage.

    Udhay Shankar N <> is a Random Networking Enthusiast who collects interesting people.