Unleashing the power of intranets

The Internet and the World Wide Web are undoubtedly the fastest growing applications, driven by the need to access and share information across millions of users around the world. Services such as the e-mail, file transfer, product marketing, product support, and even electronic commerce are just some of the wide range of services used through the Internet. The Web technology, in the form of intranet, is also becoming an important tool in the corporate environment. The corporate information service managers are turning to intranet solutions in their organisation as it provides a cost-effective infrastructure for sharing and managing information in a private and yet familiar Web environment. Other non-Web related corporate network resources, such as the voice and video conference applications, are also being integrated into the same infrastructure.

The key to intranet is the use of Web enabled technologies. It uses the technologies developed for the Internet as a resource to be used on the corporate network. It's all about benefiting from billions of dollars being poured into languages, tools, network protocols and infrastructures that make the Internet easier to use. An intranet can provide all the services that the Internet and the Web offer, such as the e-mail, file transfer, information dissemination and even transaction processing. An intranet is used, not only to provide sharing of essential information among the employees on the local corporate LAN, but to the telecommuter in remote sites, employees on the move, and to facilitate the distribution of relevant information to business partners and customers. That is, an intranet is what allows one to take the office on the road and to remote places.

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The access to the intranet for remote users is achieved by providing a remote dial-in point of presence on the intranet. The end users for remote access may include the so-called telecommuters, travelling executives as well as small branch offices of the same company or other partner and customer companies. Whereas the teleworkers are permanently based at home and have a "static" connection, travelling executives move around between different locations. Security of delivering the user to the correct service is key here, as the user will come into the network from different points at different times.

The benefit of an intranet
The key to success of many corporations today is harnessing the power of information. The intranet makes this possible with higher levels of productivity and reduced costs. An intranet can cut down on time employees spend searching for information and answering routinely asked questions, by publishing frequently used information electronically. The Web environment is now one of the most widely used interfaces and with numbers increasing daily, most employees would already be familiar with surfing the Internet. This means employees will require very little training, if at all, before they are productive. An intranet is also inexpensive to establish as the Internet related products are relatively lowcost and widely available. The client software for most applications is free and the central site software is available from many vendors at a very competitive price. The Internet and intranet are built on open architecture with countless vendors already providing many exciting applications. Therefore the implementation of new applications in the intranet will be simple and cost effective.

Intranet building blocks
The explosive growth in the popularity of the Internet and intranet have inaugurated a most promising market for "Internet-related" products. This includes: terminal adaptors, modems, a numerous number of software applications, remote access clients and dial gateway. Outlined below, and highlighted in the diagram above, are some of the building blocks that need to be considered when implementing an intranet.

Dial gateway: This product is also referred to as point-of-presence multiplexer or remote access server. A dial gateway sits on the edge of the intranet and acts as the gateway for the remote users. It terminates all the communication links (both dial-up/permanent and analogue/ISDN lines) from the remote users using point-to-point protocol (PPP) or frame relay WAN protocols. It also needs to support as a minimum, the IP protocol which is the foundation building protocol of the Internet and the intranet communications. The type of remote connections that may need to be catered for by a dial gateway includes: analogue PSTN modems; GSM mobiles, ISDN PC cards or terminal adaptors; and remote LANs via routers.

With some dial gateways, such as the Jtec J1000 Series, it is also possible to use the same hardware platform to incorporate other non-intranet related applications. For example, a separate corporate voice network can be integrated onto the same intranet dial gateway and the network connections to it. This offers cost saving benefits from a consolidation and ease of maintenance. The corporate requirement of an intranet is diverse and often means being competitive. For corporate users it is therefore important that the dial gateway provides an array of communication ports and flexible in its architecture to meet the future growth in capacity and connectivity options.

Remote access devices: These devices allow the remote users, typically on a PC, to connect to the intranet. The most widely used device is a modem which allows connection from virtually anywhere where a telephone socket is available. Modems typically provide connection speeds of tip to 28.8, 33.6 and 56kbit/s. 56 kbit/s will become the defacto modem speed in the future once the performance and the standardisation issues are resolved. A more reliable and higher throughput connection can be realised by using an ISDN enabled remote access device. These may come in the form of terminal adaptors and routers and provide connection to the ISDN network. Using multilink point to point protocol (MLPPP), these ISDN devices can typically provide a connection speed of up to 128 kbit/s.

Network services: The most widely used network service between the intranet and the remote users is ISDN. This service can accommodate dial-up connections from a wide range of remote users including analogue and ISDN telephone lines and cellular mobiles. Even a frame relay service can now be delivered over an ISDN line to the intranet. The versatility of ISDN lends itself well for corporate intranet applications as it allows remote access to a flexible range of users including telecommuters, travelling employees and remote office LANs.

The type of ISDN service required depends on the number of remote users to be accommodated. A basic rate access (BRA) or a multiple number of BRAs is suited for small organisations that do not require more than six to eight simultaneous remote access connections. For those organisations requiring a larger number of access, primary rate access (PRA) is preferable as it is less expensive, only one physical cable needs to be maintained and the capacity can easily be expanded. With some dial gateway equipment, for example the Jtec's J1000 product series, the same PRA and the dial gateway hardware can be used to provide other non-intranet applications such as the voice and videoconference networks.

Client software: Web browsers such as the Microsoft Internet Explorer and the Netscape Navigator will allow the users to access information on the intranet Web server. These provide an easy-to-use point and click graphical interface for navigating through the information posted on the Web server. The browser runs on top of an IP stack (Winsock) which may or may not be part of the operating system. Windows 98 comes standard with the IP stack, whereas the Windows 3.1 would require a separate Winsock application software, such as the Trumpet Winsock. The IP stack normally uses the industry standard point-to-point protocol (PPP) to communicate with the dial gateway.

Central site software: The intranet central site is where the Web server is. The server application typically runs on a Windows or UNIX based environment and allows a Web browser to retrieve and navigate through the Web pages using the hyper text transmission protocol (HTTP). Other server applications may also need to be provided, depending on the use and the level of security required. Some of the server applications are: e-mail server, database server, audio and video server, RADIUS authentication and accounting server, proxy server and etc.

Security Devices: Security is paramount when extending the corporate network to remote places with dial-up connections. This is especially true for intranets that have Internet connections. The first level of security can be implemented on the dial gateway by using the calling party number (the telephone number of the remote user). A list of telephone numbers can be maintained in the dial gateway and used to reject calls that are not in the list. The next level of security is to use password and user authentication on the dial gateway. PAP and CHAP security and RADIUS authentication are good examples. Both the PAP and CHAP security operate by passing user ID and password, with CHAP being the more secure protocol by using a challenge-based encrypted password. The RADIUS authentication uses a single centralised database, normally outside the dial gateway in a separate server on the intranet. The primary purpose of the firewall is to block the public from accessing the confidential information on the intranet and at the same time, the firewall may also be used as a one-way service for the employees on the intranet to access the Internet.

A corporate intranet can dramatically improve productivity and reduce cost. Users, whether local and remote employees, business partners or customers, can be integrated to securely share and gain timely access to valuable information within the organisation. The development and implementation of corporate intranets often involves a wide array of issues that need careful planning and management. By choosing the appropriate building blocks and starting as small pilots and scaling upwards over time, increasing breadth of information can be provided gradually.

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Last revised: Sunday, 12 December 1999