What's an intranet, and why build one?

What's an intranet, and what can it do for you? Think of it as a private, small-scale Internet that isn't accessible outside your company. More sophisticated than a LAN, an intranet is part of a self-contained, platform-independent, internal corporate network. An intranet lets you take advantage of available TCP/IP Internet development tools to bring a variety of server-based information to desktops.

The Promise of an Intranet
The appeal of an intranet for many companies, at least in theory, is the variety of TCP/IP tools--Web browsers, FTP clients, and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) clients--available as a result of the recent surge in interest in Internet access. For example, you can get Web browsers for Windows 3.x, Windows 95, Windows NT, Macintosh, and Unix platforms. These commonplace tools transcend the issues of desktop hardware and OS.

This platform-independent nature is an attractive feature of intranets. With an intranet, you can put information on one network server (or several) for your users to access, regardless of their computer or terminal type. Neat trick, eh?

With a little effort, you can even access Web-based information from character-mode terminals using nongraphical Web client software such as Lynx and WWW. In short, Web access is available from most desktop computers and terminals. This availability applies to other non-Web intranet services such as FTP and IRC, which you can easily implement because of their nongraphical nature.

Living Up to Potential
After you build an intranet, what information do you offer? Unfortunately, the intranet concept loses some steam at this point. Most companies use intranets to reduce paper memos and make important corporate information available to all employees. Therefore, many intranets display internal phone lists, job notices, employee profiles, departmental reports, and other information you usually find on real, not electronic, corporate bulletin boards or disseminated through interoffice mail. Although you can distribute such information on an intranet, you're not realizing the full potential of intranet technology.

Let's consider what you can do with an intranet if you apply the crossover Internet tools available now and in the future. Add-on Web tools and utilities can extend Web functionality beyond typical look-at-the-graphics-and-read-the-text applications. You can tie database information into Web pages, add full-text document search capabilities, implement interactive chat forums, sponsor USENET-style newsgroups, and provide Web-based terminal emulation. This software direction is growing rapidly, and companies are marketing new and unique products weekly.

Several examples illustrate how an intranet lets you apply Web-related tools to typical business problems. If you create a Web database-connectivity interface, you can use a Web browser as a query front end for a SQL Server database. Similarly, you can use a Web browser's forms capability to implement a data entry front end for a SQL Server database. In both cases, this Web capability eliminates the need to deploy a custom client-based program using a client-side package such as Microsoft Access.

A Web-based search engine can locate and retrieve centralized business correspondence and reports on a server on an ad hoc basis. Newsgroups or chat forums help you implement online Help desk information. Instead of always calling support personnel, users can describe their problem in a forum, and a technician--or another user--can respond. This implementation also provides a detailed history of user problems and resolutions.

Also, you can deploy Web-based terminal emulation software for your character-mode host computers, such as mainframes, AS/400s, and VAX/VMS, and eliminate the need for client-based terminal emulation packages. Additional host-related functions such as printing and file transfer are available through standard TCP/IP functions such as Line Print Daemon/Line Print Remote (LPD/LPR) and FTP. You can even implement file sharing via TCP/IP-based Network File Systems (NFSs).

The Intranet of Your Future?
Now that you've seen some examples of what you can do with some of today's basic Web-based tools, what about the tools of tomorrow? You'll find even more capabilities with high-end Web-related technologies such as Java and ActiveX. However, these new capabilities come with a big limitation: Not all Web browsers or platforms support them.

Let's look at the good news and bad news associated with Java and ActiveX. Sun Microsystems designed Java as a platform-independent language for downloading small applications (applets) to a Web browser for execution. In an intranet environment, you can, for example, use Java to implement simple client-side business rules that interact with server-based data structures. The problem is that despite being platform-independent, Java relies on a Java-enabled Web browser. Unfortunately, at present, not all Web browsers on all platforms are Java enabled.

Microsoft's ActiveX technology is similar in concept to Java. Whereas Java is a program-oriented technology, ActiveX is an object-oriented technology that uses several Object Linking and Embedding (OLE) controls. Although Microsoft often presents ActiveX as a multiplatform, multi-OS solution, Microsoft designed it to address the needs of Windows 3.x, Windows for Workgroups, Win95, and NT platforms. To enable ActiveX on non-PC platforms such as Macs and Unix systems, you need additional products from third-party (non-Microsoft) companies. Not all Web browsers support ActiveX controls, even in the PC-only market.

Java and ActiveX can help balance client/server processing loads in an intranet (and on the Internet, for that matter). With most of today's Web-related tools, the bulk of the workload falls on the server--the client (the Web browser) is just along for the ride.

While Sun and Microsoft are wielding Java and ActiveX to battle over the market, other companies want to shape the definition and future of your intranet. These other companies are offering Windows-based terminals, X-Windows-to-Windows access software, and TCP/IP-based groupware products.

If you want to use the TCP/IP tools of today and tomorrow to distribute company information to various platforms and OSs within your organization, an intranet is the answer. To what extent you decide to use an intranet will vary depending on the tools you use, your users' needs, and the platforms and OSs you support. Just remember, intranets are dynamic and ready for an explosion similar to the one that blew the Internet into the open several years ago.