Six months ago, nobody had heard of intranets. Today, companies are crying out for them. So, what is an intranet? I found definitions of intranets on the Internet that vary from ?deploying Internet technology inside an organisation? to ?a replacement for Lotus Notes?.
Personally, I believe the term intranet means the deployment and use of Internet technologies such as the Web, email and TCP/IP on a closed network. This could be within a single organisation or across a group of organisations (eg suppliers and customers).
Some people say the intranet is all hype ? that certain large vendors, disappointed by the slow uptake of Internet technology within enterprises, are looking for new ways to exploit their investment. They are finding a ready audience in IT managers who feel that intranet technology promises to move control from the user back to the IT department.
A more positive view is that intranets allow firms to benefit from Internet technology while avoiding the drawbacks associated with the Internet, particularly the lack of security.
Commentators are predicting that growth of intranet implementations will mushroom. Netscape believes that by 2000, the number of corporate users accessing intranets will outstrip the number of corporate users accessing the Internet.
But are intranets just another bandwagon, or can they deliver business benefits? To find an answer it is necessary to consider in more detail what an intranet can do.
Because intranets are based on Internet technology, they promise a great deal. In principle, an intranet can act as an enabler for communication and collaboration; information retrieval, sharing and management; and access to databases and applications.
None of these functions are new; in fact, they?re all probably delivered today in many organisations using a variety of legacy and packaged solutions. The promise of an intranet, though, is that it can use Internet and Web technologies to do all these things in a more integrated way than before.
For example, to help communication, Newsgroups (virtual work groups) would be established to debate and solve enterprise-wide issues and groupware applications such as job scheduling, project costing, even holiday requests. Video-telephony could be delivered using the multimedia communications ability of TCP/IP.
These benefits could be available to intranet users, although the establishment of a company information system, for example, products catalogues, customer and employee directories, and corporate newsletters, are likely to represent the first, and for some, the only use of Web technology within the enterprise.
According to Sun Systems and Netscape, the Web browser could become the single standard interface used to access databases, legacy applications and data warehouses throughout the enterprise.
The open standards used for Internet technology also represent good news for IT departments. Because of the open nature of Internet tools, intranets could easily be installed across many different platforms and environments, with control and administration being centrally managed. As closed systems, intranets would present the IT department with none of the security headaches associated with the Internet.
Customers in turn can benefit from the improved communication, greater collaboration and the promise of reduced IT expenditure associated with intranets. Many will be able to access their customers? intranet services directly.
There are several hurdles to be negotiated along the way to achieve an enterprise-wide intranet implementation. All of them must be considered and resolved before implementation even begins.
First, resources must be available to establish the service and the TCP/IP network over which it runs. It should be noted that establishing an intranet requires more than just expertise in HTML. Resources will also be needed to train users.
Second, the impact of the intranet on existing systems must be considered. This includes the capacity of the current network to support an intranet environment, and the cost of doing so. Decisions must be made about the fate of existing legacy systems and sufficient desktop hardware will be needed to support the high-quality graphics and multimedia applications.
These hurdles are widely recognised and easily negotiated. Unfortunately, many companies start intranet implementation without realising they will have to face more hurdles.
The first is the issue of content. It is necessary to decide what the intranet is going to be used for, what information is going to be presented on it, and where the content is going to come from. Once this is decided, mechanisms must be put in place to ensure the accuracy of the information and ensure it is updated according to its users needs.
Lastly, intranet implementation has to be viewed in the context of company culture. If the company operates on a need-to-know basis, an intranet may be wholly inappropriate. Even if the principle of information democracy is accepted, conflicts may still arise.
The number of corporate intranets is small, but increasing rapidly. Some vendors believe they are selling more browsers and Web servers for internal use than for Internet use. The number of companies with unofficial intranets is many times greater than the number of companies with official intranets. Often, they are little more than electronic gossip columns, but are nevertheless indicative of a trend to adopt Internet technologies internally.
I don?t believe organisations will move rapidly towards the kind of fully fledged intranet being predicted by some vendors, with a single browser-type interface and thin clients downloading applications and data all at once. Investment in non-intranet solutions is too great and organisations have become wary of bandwagons.
It?s more likely that intranets, as currently defined by the browser suppliers, will be distinct from and complementary to existing systems for some time to come. None the less, if implemented sensibly, they will benefit many companies. But as the Gartner Group recently pointed out, an intranet should not be seen as the next hammer for every nail within the enterprise.
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