Intranet, the WEB behind the firewall.

How times have changed. Twenty years ago a large corporation which had a fax machine was considered a pioneer of new technology. Today, even the smallest firms wouldn't be without their own fax. As technology advances more and more rapidly, it's safe to predict that, in a few years at most, the Internet will be the global communications channel of the business world, from multinational corporations down to the one-man or one-woman operation.

At the same time a new corporate phenomenon is emerging within the Internet - internal networks based not on proprietary standards but an open Web technology - in other words, the birth of the "intranet". In simple terms, intranets are the Internets behind the firewall. The technology involved is not even that complex.

As the German weekly "Computerwoche" recently put it: "Get hold of a TCP/IP-based network, a separate World Wide Web server, a cheap browser on every desktop - and you've got yourself an intranet. Conceptually, intranets are based on a whole new philosophy. They represent a move away from targeted information distribution toward active "information seeking" on the part of the user.

Instead of information being sent out universally or to special recipients, it is simply made available in a domain where users can get at it as and when they please. For this to work properly there are, howevewr, a few basic principles that have to be applied.

Only the reference to the new Web page, its URL (uniform resource locator) has to be registered with the intranet master when it is set up.

On the one hand, this requires a clear structure, for example, through strict definition of a particular nomenclature; on the other, the page providers - potentially all company employees - must accept the appropriate self-discipline. For every Web page they have to provide the index administrator with suitable search strings and context references.

Intranets demand relatively low levels of investment. The server can be a Windows-NT or Unix server - in many cases already present running the appropriate server software. On top of this come the browsers which, depending on what discounts are available for bulk purchase, cost between $30 and $75 per employee.

The main advantage is platform-independence
The network costs depend on whether LANs are already installed and, if so, in what configuration. Here too, many firms can build on their existing infrastructure. If no LAN is available, the internal or public telephone network - ideally ISDN - can be used (in which case each PC connected to it must have a modem). Companies and organisations which don't want to set up an intranet on their own can call on external suppliers to do it for them.

One of the driving forces behind the current Internet boom is also behind the success of the intranet. All protocols, the document-formatting language HTML, and the programming language JAVA are platform-independent, so only the browsers need to be adapted to the user's system environment. There are no complicated, and therefore expensive, interfaces between different platforms and training expenditure for the easy to operate browsers is negligible.

Every so often, the debate "Intranet versus groupware" flares up again - but these discussions are becoming less and less frequent, for the simple reason that the Web is getting closer and closer to the functionalities of widespread groupware programs such as Lotus Notes, Microsoft Exchange, or Novell Groupwise. By reverse, these and other suppliers are increasingly making their software Web-compatible.

As far as "Intranet versus workflow" is concerned, there is in fact no contradiction. Workflow - the processing and forwarding of data - can be fully integrated. Once workflow solutions have been centrally installed in an intranet, users only need browsers to he able to work with them. The administrative outlay for an intranet is also quite moderate. As a general rule of thumb, a company needs only one decentralised Web master for every 1000 employees, looked after by a central intranet master.

What's more, the experiences of various firms which operate their own intranet belie one common fear: The risk that staff using the Intranet will "surf the day away", thus wasting time and money has proved to be minimal. Once the initial - healthy - curiosity has died down, aimless surfing just becomes too boring.

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Last revised: Tuesday, 26 January 1999