With more than half of US businesses implementing intranets, it's high time for the UK's IT departments to get involved. IT managers all over the country are raising one question. It was last heard in the Great Client Server Debate of 1992 to 1994 and sporadic outbreaks occur whenever new technology is discussed.
The question is, where do I start?
Perhaps more so than with any previous technology, the answer for intranet developers is to start with whatever you have already. If you have computers that can run a browser and are joined to a network, you're halfway there.
Most of the issues surrounding building an intranet are cultural rather than technical. The basic browser can handle almost any application you throw at it but building those applications and getting the best from them is a cultural challenge which goes well beyond the remit of a network manager. Ideally, it should involve the whole company.
First off, though, you have to get the basics right - unless you start with a sound network, you're building on sand. And the challenges aren't huge. Dominic Storey, Novell's technical director, explains: "Don't worry about the protocols. They will sort themselves out. Worry about the applications."
Of the 90 million people connected to a LAN, most are connected using Novell's IPX protocol. To use an intranet, these IPX networks need either to be replaced by, or disguised as, IP networks. Both solutions are plausible - dressing up IPX as IP imposes a system overhead of 11 per cent, admits Storey, but unless you are distributing video, bandwidth is not a problem, even with a standard 10Mbit Ethernet network.
The choice of server is more important. Currently, the server software wars are being fought by Netscape, with its Suitespot server, and Microsoft, with its Internet Information Server or IIS. There's a profound difference in world view between the two. Netscape puts its efforts into building server and browser support for Windows, Unix and Macintosh while Microsoft is more focused on a tight coupling of the server to Windows NT and promoting the benefits of ActiveX, the renamed OLE for the Internet age. It also gives away its Internet server as an add-on to NT Server.
What this means for intranet developers is that a Microsoft-based rollout today (and tomorrow) will give full functionality only to Windows clients, although of course, anyone in the organisation with a browser can see basic Web pages. Yet many are finding the NT environment a quick and intuitive development base, not least because if you have Visual Basic skills, ActiveX isn't a huge challenge.
Putting aside these narrow considerations, the management issues of developing an intranet are more important. First, you have to decide what problems to solve, then you have to decide how to solve them. Along the way, many users are finding that an intranet is very different from most IT projects.
"My advice is, find a problem and use the intranet to solve it," says Microsoft Internet evangelist Bruce Lynn. "Don't get hung up on re-engineering the enterprise."
His words are echoed by Serge Bernard, Netscape's director of intranet business. "Using an intranet for email and collaboration is the classical way to start. It's better to think about things like BPR before you plan an intranet, not at the same time," he advises.
Netscape's own research shows intranets evolving from a browser-enabled workforce. Of its 40 million users, 11 million use the browser's email client for their email needs. On an internal basis, this is stage one of the intranet.
The most important step is putting real applications on the intranet to encourage collaborative working. That's not hard, says Paul Watkinson, IT consultant, Webmaster and intranet project leader at Parcelforce: "I put together a server for testing new ideas for our Web site and started to get requests for access to that server, so we decided to make it a project. We started out with 50 users, now we have 200, and by the end of 1996 we will have 400 users, which puts the intranet in the same league as a mainframe application."
What was this growth built on? Simple applications. Take the company phone book. "You have to start simple because people are not used to preparing their data in an electronic way. The phone book only took a couple of hours to write but our users can look up data on it - and they can change it, too. That means it is always up to date."
London Underground followed a similar curve when it established an intranet for 2,500 users. The target - to provide safety manuals online. "At present," says consultant Alec Bruty, "we're mostly using static HTML and simple databases but over the next 18 months we hope to provide access to more of LU's strategic data stored on heritage databases."
Parcelforce and LU used consultants but not everyone looks outside the organisation for intranet skills. If there's an existing Internet site team, the intranet is a natural development of their job. And for site maintenance, says Netscape's Bernard, right from the earliest application it's not an IT function.
"We are creating a new internal medium. It's not server or network management that counts, it's content management and the IT department is unable to do that. Instead, human resources departments, for example, should take the lead," he says.
But this has to be costed. An IDC report shows the return on investment for an intranet to be consistently more than 1,000 per cent shows. Seventy per cent of the operating cost is managing content and this has to be budgeted.
Another issue that has dogged the introduction of new technology is training. It has slowed down the rollout of new systems, ensured that they never get adopted at the highest level and created a them-and-us culture. Since a browser is a more simple device to use than most, intranet training is often informal. "We give five minutes of informal coaching to each employee," says Barbara Bauer, communications director for telecoms giant US West.
At Parcelforce, part of the idea of the gradual rollout was to give the the intranet to the most browser-savvy first so that they could pass on their knowledge to the less technically literate users. And at Norwich Union, Simon Durbin, head of IT for the investment management division, explains: "Using a browser is simpler for the inexperienced user than using either Windows or legacy systems. Some users are computer-literate, some are not."
The next step in an intranet application, and one that many companies are yet to take, is the extension of the intranet to co-exist with existing applications. This is an order of magnitude harder but Netscape and Microsoft have plans for us.
The next release of Netscape's server will, ironically, integrate much more closely with Microsoft Office, as CEO Jim Barksdale announced when the company set out its plans for 1997. Netscape, under the grand title of "the third wave of the intranet", will integrate the Collabra groupware, a media server for video and audio, an enterprise server and a messaging server. At the client end, the standard Netscape client will have calendaring, HTML authoring and collaborative products such as a shared whiteboard built in. This will be called Netscape Communicator.
"Connection with applications is the hardest part of the intranet," admits Netscape's Serge Bernard. "We are just beginning to make tools that perform synchronous translation from the corporate database to the intranet server.
Today, you need to use an agent programmed in Java to do the translation work."
Microsoft hasn't bundled its browser with other applications - they are in Office or Windows 95. Instead, it will release the next version of IE into the Windows 95 desktop. It has also offered to make ActiveX an open standard, like Java.
Clearly, this poses a continuing development question when you're setting up your intranet but Roger Collins, general manager of the interactive division of developer BIT, doesn't think the language you use for data access should be an issue now. "I'm always nervous of making people throw away development they've been doing so take these new products on board over time," he says. Instead, achieve what you can using simple end-user tools: "Desktop software has been Internet- and intranet-aware for a while now, so use that to start with, is my advice."
Watkinson at Parcelforce has followed this path and he has a word of warning for users who want to use the intranet for publishing documentation.
"We use ActiveX and the NT database connector for getting live content onto the site but most important is to prepare your data to be viewed in an electronic way. It's quite a skill - internal documents are often too complex and involved to read well on the Net," he says. "There's a knack to making them less dry."
For instance, an internal reference document can be 200 pages long but that text has to be broken up and hyperlinked if it is to be used as HTML.
Design is also important. The images you use for printing are often too large for Web publishing - you need smaller files and simpler designs.
"Change your print contracts to include the provision of manageable image files. And make sure you have the copyright to publish text and images electronically," Watkinson warns.
Another possible benefit of the intranet is that it gives staff Internet-like functionality without full access to the Internet. The provision of outside information sources is often overlooked but it is one way to control the potential information overload of the Internet. Norwich Union gives many of its intranet users a page of user-compiled Internet links, with which they access outside sources. "Access to the Internet will remain very restricted," says Durbin. Instead, he uses the Evening Standard Online, sent to NU's server direct by arrangement with the publishers. Because the link is to the intranet server, users who have no intranet access can still get the news every day.
Another company hoping to take advantage of the intranet is Reuters, whose Business Information products cover specialist areas such as insurance and media, as well as offering access to an eight million article database.
"Relying on a library is difficult for companies because it is difficult and time-consuming but they need the information to compete," explains Michael Foster, RBI managing director. Originally, Reuters developed its product for Lotus Notes users. Now, Foster admits: "The growth in groupware is encouraging but it's especially the intranet where we see the service being used."
Among all the new technology, the intranet is unique. It doesn't mean starting again, nor does it involve hiring new IT staff. The biggest challenge is to keep the content current. Analysts IDC report that, typically, users spend as little as four per cent of the cost of an intranet on hardware and the same on software. Most of the remainder goes on building and testing applications and providing content. The good news, says IDC, is that once you take care of that, your intranet will pay for itself in six weeks.
10 dos of intranet development
1 Start now. The rewards are potentially huge and chances are your competitors have already begun development.
2 Fix the network first. If your users aren't connected, they can't use the intranet.
3 Roll out simple applications at first. Don't try and solve everything at once.
4 Listen to the suggestions of the workforce. Seek out the people who use the Internet and form a user group.
5 Ensure you have access to corporate data. The intranet pays best when it is coupled with existing applications.
6 Use a test server to iron out the glitches before you roll out an application - it's a business tool.
7 Encourage everyone to contribute. Give them templates if necessary, for example for a personal home page.
8 Encourage users to integrate applications, even if it's only a case of saving a document in HTML and posting it on the intranet rather than printing it.
9 Develop higher level skills to enhance the intranet. Java and ActiveX can make a huge difference.
10 Keep the project moving and keep development times short. Users get frustrated if the pace of development is lost.
10 don'ts of intranet development
1 Re-engineer the business to adopt the intranet. Use the intranet to re-engineer the business if you so wish.
2 Implement in a "big bang" fashion. Control the rollout at first.
3 Waste too much time training. If you need to use expensive and long-winded training sessions, your pages are too complex.
4 Leave out interested staff. If you can't give them the intranet, try giving them email.
5 Pass the baton of ongoing development to unpaid enthusiasts. By far the biggest time and expense of an intranet is maintenance and development.
6 Worry too much about bandwidth. It's not important yet.
7 Compromise your security. Make sure firewalls function so that no-one can get access to data they shouldn't see.
8 Forget that everyone should be able to comment or respond. You've got the mechanism - a comments page or email.
9 Fall into the trap of thinking you need a consultant to do this for you. You know your business best.
10 Throw away what you have already. If your applications work, run the intranet alongside them - for now.
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