If you are into supplying corporate companies there is no question about it - right now you have to be capable of talking about and supplying a service for intranets.
'The intranet is at the top of the board-room agenda,' says Matthew Hathorn, business development director at Techex Communications, a distributor specialising in the provision of Internet and intranet services. But there is a lack of skilled resellers able to clarify the market and meet their demands.
Intranets seem to have come from nowhere to become the flavour of the year with larger firms. One reason is that the Internet can't deliver what most big companies really need - bandwidth.
'The Net has been held back by a lack of bandwidth, particularly in countries where there has been a lack of investment, like the UK,' says Dave Kerrell, Internet marketing manager at Digital.
David Smith, channel sales and marketing manager at Microsoft, adds: 'Since it is based on Lan technology, the bandwidth is greater so you can embrace newer technologies that you can't use on the Net today.'
The technologies he is referring to - video on demand, voicemail, video conferencing, interactive Web sites, multimedia documents - are all too much for the Internet to handle at present.
On the intranet, many users have high bandwidth available on the local network, and can thus move forward with the technologies that can't yet be supported on the open system. Security is also a concern. Firewalls are not cheap and if the main concern is movement of information around the organisation, the intranet is a perfectly good, more secure and easier to control solution.
One day, the Internet will have the bandwidth and the security and then all these technologies will be available on the global network. This will be a major leap forward, but until that day arrives (and it probably won't be for years) we have an opportunity to provide intranets and develop services.
In any case, there is a role for the intranet, and there will still be a role for it after 'the glorious day'. Intranets are the new Lans - the new medium for the movement of information around the client/server computing model. It sounds wild, but it is what software vendors are saying. The browser will be the front-end of the corporate network. Kerrell describes the intranet as 'a means of empowering employees within an organisation by giving them access to information'.
'Previously you had to build a client/server network to do this. Now, with Web technology, it's very simple and very empowering,' he says.
Today, says Smith, the intranet is 'marketing speak for what is basically a private Internet - the technology that is used is exactly the same'.
In essence, the difference between the Lan and the intranet is the interface: an intranet has a browser front-end; the Lan is based on folders, files and directories. That, claims Microsoft, is something the user does not need to see.
The company has already decided that the browser is the interface of the future. It is, says Smith, a more natural interface for the user.
'We believe the browser is a much better, more intuitive way of viewing information than the traditional folder-based, MS Explorer view. Our tests show that the user interface associated with browsing is a much more intuitive way of accessing and finding information.'
The major software vendors are doing their utmost to make it easy for users to set up intranets. Within a few months, setting up an intranet may be as simple as creating a new folder in the file manager. Novell could hardly have taken a more dramatic step with the launch of Intranetware earlier this year, signalling the displacement of the Lan with the intranet.
Netware has become an intranet system.
Microsoft is moving in the same direction. The inclusion of the point-to-point tunnelling protocol in Windows NT 4 will enable the creation of a Lan-based intranet with a few mouse operations. But Hathorn has a warning for resellers. They should not be deceived, he says, by everyone jumping on to the intranet products bandwagon. 'The channel is still trying to understand intranets. The trouble is there are a lot of vendors out there that are calling their products intranet products when in fact they have none of the core technologies.'
Dealers need to be discerning about the products they chose to sell and base their services on. 'They need to cut through the hype and find products they can make money on. A lot of people are selling products like Intranetware because it is the same price as NT4 but there is a lot of stuff in the box that they don't understand how to use,' says Hathorn.
One way or another, all this means that the intranet is going to become big business in its own right. It is seen as an opportunity by hardware vendors as well. 'We see a lot of customers buying PCs to be able to run intranets,' says Vincent Smith, marketing manager at the IBM PC Company.
'It's a big opportunity for us because we have a lot of corporate customers and for them, being able to adopt a consistent set of standard protocols across the organisation is very attractive,' he says.
Vendors such as the the Mitsubishi PC division are joining in the intranet feeding frenzy. The company has produced a guide to intranets. Vice president Brian Androlia says: 'We have a small group of people available to provide consultancy and help to resellers. We are doing as much as we can to help because it gives us more credibility. In any new development you get periods when everybody feels they have to be involved, and then you go to an intermediate stage when the hype dies down and we can start to look at the business benefit. I think we're now reaching that stage.'
PC vendors unquestionably believe that they must be seen to be involved in the intranet, such is the clamour from the corporate sector. It could have implications across the hardware spectrum, on servers as much as on PCs. Intranets might even make network computing more attractive. In PCs, users may people feel they are buying functionality that they don't need to access information.
Vincent Smith believes the intranet is certainly a better opportunity for resellers in the short term than the Internet itself. 'I think the intranet is of more interest to our large customers than the Internet.
Most dealers would probably have larger customers, and the Internet has not yet been largely embraced by commerce. They'll have a Web site but not a great deal are planning to trade over the Internet so the intranet is more attractive from the business perspective,' he says.
But with software making it relatively straightforward to set up intranets, resellers must provide more than the basic product. 'It is pretty easy to set up the Web server but it gets complicated on the security side and large networks are a very different prospect,' says Kerrell.
Eugene Forrester, Internet/intranet market development manager at Novell, says that while most resellers will find themselves able to supply and install the basic intranet products, taking companies beyond this stage and providing the consultancy and real added-value services require specific skills.
'There are lots of services they can provide but it depends on the calibre of the reseller. Once they have installed their intranets, the next step is to make the information more dynamic, so they will need to work with databases like Oracle and program the interface into the browser.'
Acquiring the skills needed to provide a basic intranet service will not be beyond most resellers, says Forrester. But they will only attain the knowledge through training - all the major software companies have schemes designed for intranet services now - or through practical experience.
Hathorn believes that personal experience is by far the best way of getting into intranet services. 'What resellers need to do is get the technology in-house and start using it. They must not be scared of the technology.
Then they've got a finite, solid business case and they can prove it works,' he says.
When they try to get into intranet technology, most resellers will not find it beyond them, says Forrester. 'It is not a great leap for most resellers. We have an Internet skills matrix as part of Partnernet. We can train people on the technologies.'
Companies like Techex can help as well, says Hathorn, by helping resellers understand the technology and providing the necessary services. 'What we can do is provide the stepping stone - getting people into Internet email - then going to the intranet and the electronic catalogue and, finally, putting in a pipe to open it up to the outside world.'
It is not that difficult to get started in the intranet market, but some investment and technical knowledge must be acquired to make the venture work properly for a reseller business. But resellers must take a services approach to the intranet, says Hathorn - they must go beyond the fulfillment of demand.
One of the most important aspects of doing this is understanding the commercial issues and how the intranet can be used to achieve certain business objectives. 'You have got to understand the organisation before you can understand what they can do with it,' he says.
The opportunity, says Forrester, is enormous. 'This is a very new market and we are at the start of the process. There is a lot of demand for the additional services. It is the ideal time to get involved.'
Products - intranet software, HTML tools and groupware products.
The hardware platform to run them on and the Web-enabled operating system to sit underneath.
More and more Web-enabled applications with browser front-ends are also becoming available.
Upgrades - lots of Netware 3 users may be persuaded to move to Intranetware or NT 4.
Set-up of the Intranet Web server and establishment of the procedure for putting pages up on the intranet.
Training users to use HTML tools and management of the system.
Training in how to use the system to extract information.
Development of custom data access applications using HTML-based tools, Java, Active X etc.
Consultancy that helps to define what needs to be published on the intranet, and how it should be made available to the users.
Security establishment of procedures, maintenance and checking.
Provision of mail systems and integration with existing mail services.
Integration of system with existing network.
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