Netscape and Microsoft may be battling for Internet browser supremacy but this is just part of the wider picture - both have identified the emerging intranet market as a top priority. According to US analysts IDC, by the end of 1997 up to 80 per cent of the world's Web servers will be used for internal sites and our whole working practice will have changed.
Microsoft is so keen to wrap up a slice of the action that it recently devoted an entire day to intranet product announcements. It is currently converting existing Office applications to take advantage of intranet protocols as well as releasing dedicated intranet server technology. "Intranets will have an immediate and dramatic impact on businesses over the next few years but this is just the beginning," said Bill Gates at the launch, for once perhaps not overstating the case. For its own part, Netscape is releasing a raft of products which will comprise its Full Service intranet software, comprising all sorts of clever browser, server and Java technology.
But before we get too carried away, what exactly is an intranet and what can it do for you? Setting one up gives you all the advantages of the Internet without the disadvantages. You get Web-delivered information and dynamic data and platform independence without bandwidth problems, security worries or employees wandering all over the Web when they should be working (see boxout page 46). An intranet can be as large or as small as a company wishes and uses the same standard set of protocols as the Internet itself, such as TCP/IP and HTTP. In other words, you can build your own small, secure Internet. There is obviously money to be made for the likes of Netscape, Microsoft and Lotus, but how can your company benefit from implementing a system?
Simon Baines, who runs Internet consultancy Business Partners, is just a little less enthusiastic than Gates. "A lot of hype about nothing - the intranet is really just the Internet with an 'r' in the middle," he says. He may be right. After all, we have had intranets for years, they just weren't called that. Instead, they were known as Wide Area Networks (WANs) and ran over standard telephone networks connecting different company locations. But Baines is not completely dismissive of the idea, just realistic - after all, his business relies on the intranet business. "Companies shouldn't expect too much. It's not going to transform them overnight," he warns.
Baines points to a number of advantages, especially for a company with many sites. It is far cheaper to connect offices and buildings over a TCP/IP base network than the old WANs, and platform-independent Web browsers are an effective way to deliver information to employees, be it from existing databases or electronic manuals. Even old legacy-based data can be configured to work with the new browsers, thus protecting previous investments. And, just to prove Baines is not completely pessimistic, he has no doubt that Web browsers are a "beautiful" way of working.
One company which has been extolling the virtues of intranets since 1994 is Silicon Graphics. Its UK headquarters in Reading is linked not only internally, but across the Atlantic to its world headquarters in Mountain View, Silicon Valley, demonstrating just how large an intranet can be.
Although the sites are so far apart, they are sealed from the Internet at large. "It's the backbone of the company: it really is that good," says Andrew Spybey, Silicon Graphics' UK communications manager.
"It started really as an informal thing when people started putting information onto internal Webs - everyone here has access to a Silicon Graphics Indy workstation which has Web serving capabilities built in," says Spybey.
By Christmas 1994 the company decided that this was too much of a good thing for anyone to miss out on so Silicon Junction, the company's global intranet, was officially born. These days, Silicon Graphics and Unix rival Sun Microsystems (with over 1,000 Web servers at work) vie for the title of world's biggest intranet.
The intranet is now so firmly ingrained in SG's corporate culture that it has, in Spybey's words, "become a natural extension of using the phone".
The company is now moving to put its business-critical services onto Silicon Junction, including parts ordering, inventories and work in progress.
It is a democratic system - everyone from the CEO down has access - although Spybey admits that some areas are password-protected. Business is still business and not all information is free ...
Intranets can even be set up to act as private Internet access points for company use only, says Business Partners' Baines. "For example, an oil company working in the North Sea can provide its engineers with local access to Web-based data held on a server in Aberdeen. This beats dialling into the London HQ or, worse, using a third-party ISP across the Internet.It saves money."
It's an inside job
So, if money is the bottom line for business, how much do you need an intranet? Will it save you money? Is your company working well enough as it is and how would an intranet improve life for you and your employees?
A company of just 10 employees is hardly going to need an intranet just to pass information around - a LAN-based email system such as cc:Mail would suffice - but again, it depends on the type of company and business.
If you mail out products, an intranet-based inventory system is useful no matter how few employees you have, just to provide them with up-to-date information on products. Answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) which are stored on a server stop salespeople pestering their support staff with the same stupid questions. Telling them instead to access a certain URL will save the company time and has the advantage of freeing up the support team to concentrate on more important matters.
For larger companies, intranets make a lot of sense for the same reasons and then some. For a start, intranet-based Web sites can be as whizzy and content-rich as you like because HTTP services run at blazing speeds across Ethernet networks, especially the faster 100Mbps installations which are now appearing. Company notices and announcements have a certain resonance when accompanied by animated GIFs and ShockWave components.
It does work, as Silicon Graphics' experience clearly shows.
But perhaps in the long term we will not have a choice. Company intranets won't just be an optional way of relaying information, they will be crucial to a new way of working. The development of Microsoft's Office applications points to this quite clearly. Web-based information and PC tools are beginning to merge and the Windows desktop is set to become a browser or container for active documents using both HTML and ActiveX components. We could be entering a corporate world where dynamic data transmissions, realtime videoconferencing and database access are achieved from ordinary applications such as Word and Excel, all working together across a TCP/IP-based intranet.
As the corporate world takes to the intranet, Lotus is working hard to convert its Notes applications into fully fledged intranet tools. Fundamental to this is its new Domino server technology and InterNotes Web Publisher.
The original InterNotes Web Publisher converted information stored on a Notes database into HTML-compliant information. This made it readable by any Web browser but it still needed a separate Web server because Notes couldn't support HTTP, the backbone of Web-based information, natively.
The Domino technology, unveiled in July 1996, may make Lotus a big player in the emerging intranet market. It is fully HTTP-compliant, able to read Java applets and, Lotus promises, ready to accept any future Web technologies and standards which emerge in the future.
According to Lotus, Domino converts Lotus Notes into an intranet (or Internet) applications server, allowing any Web client to take part in Notes applications. It will also allow companies to develop new applications for the intranet using their existing Notes setups.
But Domino is more than just a way of creating an intranet of static information. Combined with InterNotes Web Publisher, it boasts Rapid Application Development (RAD) tools designed to create form-based applications without the need for traditional CGI scripts, and will offer direct access to legacy systems. All important considerations for larger corporates looking to make information available to employees via simple Web browsers. If they can use the tools in Domino to build access to such information, they may well be interested in talking to Lotus. While the coding behind Domino and InterNotes is complex, Lotus claims that almost anyone will be able to create Web content without knowing a single HTML tag. All you need are word processing skills.
Amazingly, Domino is a free download currently available for NT and Unix platforms. You also need Notes Release 4.0 Server and an IP connection.
Whether Lotus can become dominant depends largely on whether companies with existing Notes setups agree that the easiest step to building an intranet is to install Domino and continue with what they know. If it as easy to use as Lotus claims, it may be a more popular option than starting over with Netscape or Microsoft technology.
Just recently, Lotus signed a deal with PointCast to allow corporate developers to build their own internal news channels on Domino-based Web servers. So, in the near future, office PCs could have company announcements and news running as interactive screensavers across their monitors.
The Lotus Web site contains a bundle of useful information about its intranet strategy, a Freelance Graphics presentation to download, and the Domino server software.
Big brother is watching you
If there is one activity at which all employees in any company are adept, it has to be not doing the thing they are paid to do. Access to a Web browser usually results in hours wasted surfing over-indulgent Web sites on the Internet or areas which feature people in a state of undress.
When companies are paying for Internet connections - and most of them have to use dialup ISP connections - it seems natural that they wish time spent online to be to the company's benefit. The easiest answer is to provide a locked-in intranet which blocks access to anything other than the corporate information.
But when access to the Internet is required, some kind of control is also needed. So how can companies monitor and control access to the Web?
Ironically, they are looking increasingly at software originally designed to prevent kids from accessing obscene material, such as SurfWatch, which puts a block on any site containing obscene words or pictures. Sites have to be blocked either individually or by using the default listing supplied by the manufacturers. Another product, CyberSentry from Microsystems, is just another version of its Cyber Patrol software for parents but extended to block access to sports and leisure sites.
A better solution is the new PICS system (Platform for Internet Content Selection) which can be found at www.microsys.com/pics. PICS is supported by Microsoft's Internet Explorer 3.0 and automatically blocks sites using PICS, but again, this is a service aimed at parents who rely on an automated certification system. However, the system does enable supervisor settings to be made at the server level and customised versions of the browser can be used which will always lock out PICS-rated sites.
These sort of software solutions are fine for smaller companies but larger corporates are probably better off looking for a more permanent server-based solution. This usually involves employing firewall consultants to design a blocking mechanism at point of entry, a much more effective way of controlling hundreds of PCs which are vulnerable to employee tinkerings.
For the truly paranoid, these systems can be set up to see which naughty employee has tried to access the seamier side of the Web and which site they were looking for. You have been warned!
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