Should your company have an intranet? The answer is: Should your company depend on computers? An intranet not only gives your company all the benefits of a Local Area Network (LAN), it makes the Internet available to company employees. Intranets also provide access to common-interface open applications for many business needs.
Mail transfer protocols make it simple
Instead of slugging it out with proprietary (incompatible) email systems, you can use Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), Post Office Protocol (POP) and software like Eudora (www.eudora.com) to create a company-wide mail system. Think about the savings you'll see from not having to maintain multiple mail systems and not having to worry about multiple mail gateways.
Intranet applications can offer powerful business advantages. Groupware software for intranets, for example, allows employees to send memos quickly. Software like ZooWorks Research (www.zoosoft.com/ zooworks) records the Web sites your users' visit, as well as their annotations, to create libraries of information that can be searched by other team members. And by making corporate documents available via a Web browser, you allow instant access to information. Lotus, Microsoft, Netscape and Oracle are among the major players offering intranet suites, including groupware options.
There may be some additional expense when going from an intranet to the Internet, including connectivity to the Internet and a firewall to make sure your internal network isn't accessible from outside. But intranets (and the TCP/IP-based apps that run over them), as opposed to traditional LANs, are easier and less expensive to maintain. Applications like some database management systems still require specific network protocols, but even databases are shifting over to Internet/intranet-compatible versions as fast as their developers can input the code. By the year 2000, every LAN that handles more than a handful of users will more than likely be an intranet, and will be hooked into the Internet.
Setup is easy
Many businesses have the problem of a pre-existing, non-TCP/IP LAN standing in their way, but the problem may not be as big as it seems. The newest versions of all the popular operating systems, and many network server operating systems, are coming with TCP/IP support included - the network protocol of both the Internet and intranets. Most of them come with automatic setup routines that make hooking up a TCP/IP network connection easier than ever.
Basically, the only reason to stay with a proprietary LAN system these days is lack of funds. But there are programs that can supplement existing operating systems with TCP/IP protocols. Even though server and Internet connection costs can be quite high, intranet server software, servers, T1 connections (US term for 1.544Mbps) and routers are inexpensive.
If you use Windows NT, for example, Microsoft offers its Internet Information Server (IIS) for free (www.microsoft.com/InfoServ), which is a combination Web, Gopher and FTP server. Other intranet software, like Usenet News servers, is also reasonably priced. DNews (netwinsite.com) costs $485 for an unlimited licence and is available for Windows 95 and NT, Macintosh, OS/2 and Unix platforms. Serverwatch at (serverwatch.iworld.com) reviews many of the servers available today.
But the real upfront costs are the hardware and communications links. To run an intranet, you'll need a minimum of 32Mb of RAM and at least a gigabyte of hard disk space for a single server. Connection costs are another matter. You can have an Internet connection, even for multiple users, using just a 33.6Kbps modem, although it's not ideal. It would be more practical to go with a higher capacity line - ISDN for a few users and up to a T1 connection for a full staff.
Choosing an ISP
To start the process, go to (thelist.iworld.com/
country/United_Kingdom.html) or (www.limitless.co.uk/ inetuk/providers.html) for a comprehensive list of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and look for an ISP in your area that can supply the connection speeds you'll need. Most ISPs can provide up to T1 connectivity.
When choosing a provider, make sure the ISP is reputable. Ask questions such as how many other companies will be using the ISP's Point-of-Presence (PoP). If the company won't give you this information, you can count on it being a crowded PoP - and you may never reach your connection's full speed because the PoP is swamped with too many users.
Another expenditure for an intranet that you won't have with a LAN (at least initially) is the additional personnel to run the system. For example, you're almost certainly going to want a Webmaster to perform the HTML coding for your Web site. And you'll want a separate Webweaver to design attractive and informative pages.
Easy-to-use software and easy-to-learn products are available that make site creation and maintenance fairly straightforward. Web site management is now built in to many HTML authoring products such as Microsoft's FrontPage and NetObject's Fusion. There are also packages designed as site-management products such as Adobe's SiteMill (www.adobe.com) and Interleaf's Cyberleaf (www.ileaf.com/ip.html).
Keep track of your intranet
To track and manage your intranet, you'll want one of the many programs made for the task. Intranet administration programs - software that can deal with the complex security relationships of an internal network that has partial access to the Internet - are another matter entirely. There are some programs such as Marketwave's Hit List Pro (www.marketwave.com) and EveryWare's Bolero (www.everyware.com) that can squeeze out every bit of data about users from a Web server's log files. Unfortunately, that's as far as intranet administration programs have come.
You can find great programs for the network which are good for Web site creation and Web data collection. But as for running the intranet itself, you'll be doing a lot of manual security work.
So, intranets can be pricey and, in some ways, hard to manage, but are they worth it? The answer is yes. Proprietary LANs like Novell NetWare have run their course. The future clearly lies in intranets, where getting information anywhere, anytime, is possible.
- Steven Vaughan-Nichols ([email protected]) is a freelance writer and author of Intranets, by Academic Press.
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