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With an intranet, you can insert the power of the Web into your network line-up.

The Internet is everywhere. You can't turn on a TV or radio, look at a newspaper or magazine without seeing the influence of the Internet.

The Internet's explosion is largely due to the strength of web technology. Web technology enables a variety of forms of data to be moved between individuals with diverse computer systems and viewed in an intuitive user interface.

The same software that turned the Internet into a data party can enliven your network. And since most people already have browsers, the client side of the client/server equation is taken care of.

The server side requires some planning. Imagine putting all your internal documentation on a web site that is only accessible by authorized personnel. Users can search the database with an internal search engine, run java applets to manage workflow, and even set up their own home pages for easy information exchange. With an intranet, your company can become an information community.

Technology is not for every network, however. Smaller networks, for example, are easy enough to navigate without Web technology. Why spend money on human resources and buy new software just to make your network marginally easier to cope with?

Do you decide if your network should become an intranet? If you do choose to turn your network into a miniWeb, what are the best products to get the job done?

There are many advantages to turning your network into an intranet. If you can make use of some of these advantages, you may have an intranet in your future.

From a support perspective, web browsers are inexpensive, relatively easy to install, and universally available. Web-based applications are based on the server side, so they don't require heavy modification to the user's desktop. You can increase functionality by updating the server-based application, which you can set to automatically download updates to the web client. Reduced deployment costs alone may save large organizations enough to justify moving to web-based applications. Web browsers are simple to use and require little training. Web-based applications tend to act, feel, and look the same, regardless of the application's purpose. Many end users have become accustomed to browsers through Internet access on their home computers. Web-based applications require only that a user click on the appropriate blue-highlighted hyperlink to be taken to the appropriate information. Navigation requires only learning the action of a few icons, and the most difficult action required by end users is filling out forms and pressing a "submit" button.

Another huge advantage of web-based applications is that you can represent data to everyone in your company, regardless of the platform being used by the end user. Suppose your business side uses the Windows 95 OS and your production side uses the Mac OS. No problem. Web file transfer was designed for this type of problem. Web-based tools allow organizations to do what they've wanted to do for years-put every computer in their organization onto a single system which allows users to find information where it resides.

The chief reason to go to an intranet is to improve collaboration among employees. An Intranet is not an off-the-shelf solution. You must define your organizational needs as far as collaboration is concerned, and develop applications that meet these needs. Applications may be implemented across the enterprise or on a departmental basis. For this reason, an intranet can be very costly. But if your organization depends on efficient collaboration and workflow, it will pay for itself within an acceptable time frame.

Intranet-based applications may be classified as falling in a few areas, each with distinct directions on how data is created, maintained and presented. These areas are document management; workflow or process automation, and knowledge-based or data-sharing applications. Each of these types of Intranet applications is discussed in detail below.

Workflow applications

Workflow applications are specifically oriented toward automating businesses processes. Typical PC-based applications have historically been based upon raising the productivity of a single worker by automating or making easier the tasks that the worker performs on a daily basis. Word processing for those who create documents, spreadsheets for those who crunch numbers, databases for those who analyze data, and so on.

Workflow applications attempt to automate the tasks performed by a group of people interacting on a daily (or periodic) basis. The difference in workflow is the focus on a group of people who work together to accomplish specific tasks for the organization. A group of engineers, for example, working on a design project may need to generate periodic progress reports and deliver them to a manager, whose responsibility is working with someone in production to assure that the product can be built as specified. Based upon the production manager's review, the engineers may need to alter their designs to make the product more cost effective, or custom-build a solution for a specific customer.

Without workflow applications, the process is paper-based. The project manager may or may not respond to every delivered document in a timely fashion. Some documents may be lost in the piles of papers on their desk. A properly implemented workflow application would allow the engineers to post project information in a central repository, where it could be reviewed by both the design and production teams. Each member of each team might be notified by email of specific tasks which needed their attention. Each project manager might be notified if a critical task is overdue. Through this type of application, the project is not dependent upon a single person's ability to manage (or not lose) paperwork.

Workflow applications can be very difficult to develop, and may easily fail if the organization does not spend the proper amount of time analyzing the process before beginning development. The key to successful workflow applications is in fitting the application to the way people work. The key to failure is to take a canned application and attempt to make people fit into its method of operation.

Knowledge applications

For years, organizations have been accumulating data and storing it in "legacy" systems, making access difficult for the common user. Minicomputer and mainframe systems have long been notorious for their lack of user-based tools to assist in reporting or "massaging" data. In recent years, access to corporate databases has been handled through various application interfaces such as ODBC, or by allowing end users to download data and then go at it with PC-based database applications such as Dbase, Paradox, Microsoft Access, or Microsoft Foxpro.

Implementation and usage of these tools has required a great deal of end-user support and expense in purchasing end-user applications. These types of tools also require that the user learn the application before being able to do anything with the data. After clearing these hurdles, end users might make discoveries about new products or new markets through data analysis, but still have poor tools with which to share their discoveries with other users or, more important, management.

With the deployment of web browsers, information technology (IT) departments can provide easy-to-use-but-sophisticated applications to the desktop while controlling all processing and application code in the server environment. Over the past couple of years, web-based database integration tools have been crude, requiring high maintenance and customization for each specific interface. This is rapidly changing as venders recognize the need for these tools and are responding by quickly bringing sophisticated tools to market.

End users can begin using these web-based knowledge applications immediately without a lengthy training curve. Since the browser interface is the same regardless of the application or corporate database being accessed, users may easily move through corporate information, performing ad hoc queries as needed.

Document management

Document creation is done using another universal tool-the word processor. Whatever the reason the document is created, the fact is that it is created by a select few users to be shared with others throughout the organization.

Each department within an organization has a specific task. In a large financial organization, for example, a department may exist to create documents that explain procedures to be used by brokers when investing a client's money. Other documents might be created to inform the brokers of special marketing promotions designed to increase sales.

These documents might be distributed through newsletters, training materials, procedural manuals, or employee handbooks; with the distribution medium being paper. In a large organization, a single procedure might be printed, then copied and distributed 100,000 times. Clearly this is a huge and continual expense, because the creation and distribution of documents never ends but must be repeated each time they are distributed.

If your organization wants to improve workflow between collaborators, increase the efficiency of database management, or make your documents available online to all employees, you should be able to justify an intranet.

There are three major players in the Intranet market, Netscape, IBM/Lotus, and Microsoft. Each vender has recognized the amount of money that will be spent developing intranet applications over the next few years. For obvious reasons, they are all pushing hard to gain market share.

Intranet applications may require the implementation of several tools from several venders. The decision on which vender's tools will be used is many times based upon which vender the organization has chosen to align itself with rather than which vender delivers the best tools to fit the needs. IT departments tend to see themselves as "Microsoft shop," "IBM/Lotus shop" or "Netscape shop" in an attempt to define standards rather than examine specific products. This leads to ignoring applications or tools from other lesser-known venders even though they may be supplying a better solution.

Lotus domino

Lotus has long been involved in development of corporate intranets providing Lotus Notes, which has been the leader in groupware for the past several years. Notes provides an excellent environment for collaborative applications.

Notes clients and applications have traditionally been expensive to implement, use, and maintain, especially in the area of end-user training. It is sometimes difficult for end users to become accustomed to the Notes environment, as there is no other application which closely resembles it.

Recently, Lotus recognized the need to compete with less expensive web-based manufacturers, and has responded with the Domino 4.5 release of Notes. Previous to the 4.5 release, Notes servers were confined to sharing data with Notes clients, meaning that an organization not only had to install and maintain Notes servers, but the Notes client as well.

With the 4.5 release, Lotus has renamed the server product Domino in order to convey its ability to share data and applications with web browser clients as easily as it shares data and applications with Notes clients. Applications can be written so that they may be simultaneously used by either Notes clients or web clients. This allows an organization to take advantage of Lotus's rich complement of add-on products, data delivery, and integration capabilities.

Lotus has recently begun releasing a set of templates called Domino.Appli- cations for the Domino server which automate the creation of intranet applications. These templates enable developers to customize intranets to the needs of their organizations. Each of the Domino.Application templates can be integrated with CGI- and Java-based scripts, allowing for a high level of customization.

Microsoft

Microsoft has brought new products specifically oriented toward Internet and intranet development. It has also continued to update existing products to accommodate web-based integration. Microsoft's approach has been to rely on the integration of several different products to aid in intranet development, rather than rely on a single product line.

Microsoft's NT Server 4.0 platform has become the server platform of choice, even for Microsoft's closest competitors. It includes a web server and Internet Information Server (IIS). NT provides the network operating system platform on which intranet applications reside, being served up by IIS. At the high end, database management is provided by Microsoft's SQL Server. If a client/server database system isn't required, then Microsoft Access provides database functionality. These applications provide the "back end" of the intranet application.

Recently released Office '97 has been updated to allow integration with HTML, allowing users to create documents that can be easily integrated with intranet applications. Word can read and write HTML-formatted documents, while Excel can pull information directly from web pages. Documents created in these applications would be hosted in the server environment described above. If users make changes, Office 97's revision control can track those changes.

Provided as a low-end development tool, Front Page '97 is a separate product but considered part of the Office family. Front Page '97 offers simplified intranet creation, content management, and graphics design. Front Page works hand in hand with the Office suite able to read suite application native file formats. It also includes database connectivity so that intranet sites created in Front Page can use interactive queries to corporate databases.

As a high-end development tool, Visual InterDev was released at the end of March. Visual InterDev interleaves with Front Page but is geared toward developers in the IT department. Visual InterDev is comparable with Visual C++, but with a web-based perspective.

Microsoft's approach allows customers to cover the needs of a particular intranet development project with a single vender's products. A disadvantage to Microsoft's approach is that it requires a highly varied skill set on the intranet development team. It can also be confusing for the implementation team to be aware of which Microsoft product is the proper tool for the job.

Netscape

It may be argued by some that Netscape is largely responsible for the creation of the Internet/intranet explosion through the development of its Navigator web browser. Netscape recognized that it cannot merely live by its browser alone and survive due to Microsoft's willingness to give the Explorer browser away. In response Netscape quickly began developing a number of products to take advantage of both the groupware and intranet markets.

Netscape has two key components in its product line: Communicator for the client side, and SuiteSpot for the server side. From the end user's perspective, Communicator is a superupgrade of the existing Navigator product. Communicator includes the Navigator web browser; Messenger, which is an email component that supports the primary specifications of the Internet; Collabra, which provides discussion groups through a common protocol used by Usenet newsgroups; Composer; an HTML editor; and Conference; which provides network-based chat and audio conferencing. Netscape has also released a calendar and scheduling component, as well as a calendar server product.

On the server side, SuiteSpot 3.0 includes a messaging server for email services, calendar server, enterprise server which provides the web-serving component, Collabra server, and a directory server which stands as a centralized "white pages" site within your organization.

A media server, included in SuiteSpot, provides content management for the audio conferencing portion of Netscape Communicator. SuiteSpot also includes Certificate server, a server-based product which provides Secure Sockets Layer authentication, important if your organization must have a secure intranet site.

Netscape is missing a key ingredient to intranet development; a database component, which Lotus's Domino has, and which is provided by Microsoft through Access and SQL Server. Netscape's components can be integrated with existing corporate database systems, but lack of a database product means that Netscape will always be reliant on a secondary vender to fill this gap.

According to the Gartner Group, over 40 percent of Fortune 2000 and similar-size organizations will have implemented some sort of intranet applications by the end of 1998. By the year 2000, this number will rise to over 60 percent. Venders recognize the amount of money to be made in intranet development, and are in a mad dash with product updates. The mad rush puts a strain on IT resources, forcing support and development personnel to be aware of updates as they come available.

>From the consulting perspective, the intranet marketplace is a dream. Resources are currently so strained that even novices can make a pretty good income without a heavy investment and learning curve.

In order for intranets to be effective, proper resources and methodologies must be applied to ensure sufficient intranet architecture. Management in many organizations may fund intranet on a pilot basis, or in small projects to test its worthiness. In order for management to accept continued development, clear business needs must be defined, prioritized, and executed, complete with a follow-up which includes analysis of return on investment.

 


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