The impact of intranets is only just dawning on many industry pundits.
The term has been bandied about for a few months and most people understand that at least some access to the intranet is an important part of a company's IT network.
Intranets may be used solely for internal communication, or they may allow customers, suppliers and other external computers to electronically access the company for information or communication. But the full potential of intranets is only just becoming apparent.
Once the software becomes available, which shouldn't be too long, intranet technology will eventually supplement and then replace groupware, EDI, and most surprisingly, client/ server computing.
The effect that the adoption of intranets will have can only be guessed, but it will be another one of those sea-changes like the arrival of the first PCs in the 80s. Many believe the benefits of intranets to users are equally great and largely unappreciated as yet. Intranets will remove, for example, any barrier of legacy or proprietary systems and will allow far cheaper and more efficient computing.
Many analysts have been talking about network computing without actually understanding what it means, and to coin Scott McNealy's phrase, 'the network is the computer'. But once you start thinking about it in terms of intranets, the picture starts to take shape.
Most software vendors have already seen the light and are adjusting their marketing strategy and their products to encompass intranet technology.
From SAP to IBM, developers are taking into account the potentials of including the intranet in an environment, and companies such as Oracle are pushing the low-cost terminal as aggressively as they can.
A PIECE OF CAKE
Even Lotus has announced that it is unbundling its precious security and replication code and making it available under licence to other developers rather than being left high and dry when the intranet tide goes out.
For resellers, the process of putting an intranet into an existing customer site is not technically difficult, particularly if the customer has a TCP/IP network. Bill Wolfe, vice president of business development and marketing for Isocor, says it is easy to set up an intranet. 'Of course the technology must be 100 per cent reliable. It must also be able to cope with the ebbs and flows of traffic.' Some systems, says Wolfe, are not designed for heavy usage and will cause problems, for example, when everyone wants to access their mail at the same time each day. 'But with software that controls and observes the intranets, these issues will no longer cause problems'.
He says it is important that resellers get up to speed on intranet technology in a classroom or theoretical situation. 'You cannot have resellers experimenting or learning by going into a customer site and just getting on with it,' he says. Training is essential, even though it is an easy learning curve.
Once an intranet is in place it becomes a long-term revenue stream for the reseller as whoever sets it up is likely to take responsibility for its long-term support. 'As part of the intranet, resellers can have a direct hook into the system. It can provide remote diagnostics and support,' says Wolfe.
Stephen Allott of Micromuse says the role of the reseller in selling and setting up intranets means that the profile of reseller employees must change. 'We are no longer looking for traditional sales or technical staff, but some kind of all-round consultant able to explain the business benefits and the issues in setting up and support,' he says.
This view is reinforced by David Sallit, services account manager of C-Cat. 'The decision to adopt intranet technology is a business issue rather than technical issue, and users should appreciate the impact it will have on their business processes,' he says. An intranet can liberate all the information that was previously locked up in different parts of a company, says Sallit, but using that information and changing the way an organisation works so that it exploits the information in the best possible way is far more than the basic work of setting up the intranet.
'An intranet provides a cheaper groupware than Lotus Notes and interface to legacy systems. Any need for expensive specialist applications disappears, and any information or application can be accessed simply by using a Web browser. The differential that resellers have to offer is knowledge and an understanding of their customer's business, its existing networks and applications,' says Sallit.
Many major corporations, particularly in the US, are moving fast to adopt intranet technology, and it won't be long before it reaches the UK.
Kurt Christopherson, marketing manager of US Robotics, is an evangelist for intranet-based applications. He says that a recent survey by Computer Intelligence showed that 80 per cent of firms believe dial-up remote access is a priority issue which must be fully addressed. The survey also showed that remote access is already being used for communications with clients (51 per cent) and communications with suppliers (37 per cent). Seventy-nine per cent of the 140 UK corporate network managers surveyed said they expect their bandwidth needs to grow dramatically over the next 18 months.
COME ON IN, THE WATER'S FINE
Like many Internet suppliers, US Robotics sees the intranet market as an extension of its Internet expertise. 'Workgroup and applications software are only part of the picture,' says Christopherson. 'Providing seamless, transparent access to information and communications resources to intranet users is just as important.'
According to Wolfe, one likely problem with intranets is cultural resistance to change. 'Many MIS managers have only just got around the idea of distributed computing. Re-introducing the idea of more centralised computing can be a real problem.' Other difficulties can be in working with a combination of real-time applications and store-and-forward messaging technologies, and tying the two together.
'Users have to be trained in the best way to use an intranet-based system,' says Wolfe, 'and resellers are undoubtedly the best people to do that.'
Steve Hanbery of Essex-based Ranmore Computing, which specialises in providing systems for large companies, says the adoption of intranets is presently limited to bigger companies. But once the benefits become apparent, the technology is bound to filter down to smaller companies.
'There is currently an element of fashion and hype in the Internet and intranet markets, and some companies are using it as a sledgehammer to crack a nut,' says Hanbery. 'But that's usually because they are only using the intranet for email when they could be using it far more effectively for, say, document sharing or internal document publishing.'
NO DOUBT ABOUT IT
Hanbery says that if users start adopting intranets without the right business advice, and if resellers do not explain its full potential and the impact it has on business, there is the likelihood of disappointment.
'Some corporates already have high expectations of intranets, and unless the integrator or reseller adopts the consultancy role, the customer may miss out on its widest impact and the most benefit.'
Doubts about intranets are usually based on fears of security, says Hanbery. 'Security should not be an issue if the system is properly set up. There is plenty of firewall technology available to protect companies.' In fact, he says, a network-based computer system can offer far more control over individual use of computers. 'Efficiency and security can improve, not degenerate. Control is often a political issue and MIS managers prefer the kind of arrangement that an intranet solution can offer.'
The problem for many small and medium-sized companies, says Karl Roe, managing director of reseller Redbox Communications, is finding someone to give them independent and reliable advice. 'IT is so critical for so many firms these days,' he says, 'that they are wary of even starting discussions with computer dealers. That's why resellers such as Redbox, which specialises in intranets, will be so well placed.' But any reseller which has the experience of linking site or linking mainframes will find that the jump to intranets is a small one, according to Roe. 'We recommend that our customers set up an internal intranet before setting up a system which allows the public to access the company.
'Essentially, we set up an internal bulletin board and publish documents on it which are freely available. That gives the company confidence. It sees the potential that can be achieved by opening a full intranet which its customers and suppliers can access.'
Roe believes that resellers have a responsibility to help customers manage the cultural changes that an intranet will bring and that a time for training and education has to be built into the consultancy specification. 'We find that directors who have read about intranets in some business magazine decide they want it now, and will just call in an expert to advise and consult on getting set up. Few of them have actually thought through the after-sales requirements, but we see every intranet site as a long-term relationship.'
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
Alastair Martin, marketing programmes manager with FTP Software, which is currently recruiting resellers and channel partners that want to build intranet solutions for their customers, says the opportunities for resellers are huge. 'The potential of the Internet as a business tool is still limited. It is unclear whether the Internet will ever be more useful than a marketing forum, but intranets are a whole different world.' Martin expects more than 80 per cent of servers bought for Internet use to be actually employed wholly for intranet applications. The revenue for resellers will come from the software products they supply, including browsers and Web servers, and networking hardware and software upgrades, particularly if there is no existing TCP/IP in place, says Martin. 'Most users will want to increase the amount of memory storage they have, and there will be ample opportunities to sell consultancy services such as Web page design and technical expertise.'
The beauty of intranets is that when the knowledge of many MIS managers stops, they feel unable to take full responsibility for setting up their company intranet, says Martin. 'They want to call in an expert and the most likely candidate is the reseller providing the hardware and software.
Users and corporates are looking for a one-stop shop when it comes to getting their firm on the Internet and setting up and external and internal intranet. As always resellers have to interpret the technology for the user and have to express it in terms of business benefits. With intranets, that is not a difficult thing to do.'
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