Intranet: The in-house Internet
by DANA H. SHULTZ
Tired of publishing never-ending updates to your firm's phone directory and personnel manual? Is your environmental conscience telling you to reduce the number of trees killed to feed your laser printers? An intranet may be just what you need!
An intranet is an internal network that uses Internet-based technologies, such as Web servers, browsers and discussion groups, to share information within an organization. The intranet resides on, and coexists with, the network currently in the office.
The principal attractions of an intranet are low-cost software (relative to other methods of storing and retrieving information) and ease of use. Software prices are low because competition in the Internet market is intense.
Intranets are easy to use because the browser in place for accessing the World Wide Web (typically Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator) becomes the same tool used for retrieving internal information. With a modest amount of additional training, users who are comfortable with Web browsing can jump right into a firm's intranet.
At one time, UNIX was the operating system of choice for Internet and intranet sites. Recently, however, Microsoft Windows NT Server has become very popular -- in large measure, because Microsoft includes its Internet Information Server software at no additional charge.
Novell was slow to respond to the Internet/intranet craze. However, that company's recasting of its NetWare operating system as "IntranetWare," a complete intranet hosting environment, illustrates Novell's commitment to this emerging market.
The latest software makes it easy to put information into the hypertext markup language (HTML) format used by Web browsers. With such products as Corel WordPerfect and Microsoft Word, virtually anyone can become an intranet publisher.
As the amount of information on an intranet server grows, search and retrieval software is required -- users won't sit still for multiple layers of never-ending menus.
Fulcrum Technologies, Verity Inc. and ZyLAB International, among others, have adapted their high-performance software for use with documents on Web servers.
Conversely, products such as Folio Infobase Web Server and Lotus Internotes Web Publish-er allow Web-browser access to existing document collections.
Tools for threaded discussions (similar to those on Usenet newsgroups) generally are immature but are growing up quickly.
Leading products include Digital Equipment's Workgroup Web Forum (sophisticated discussion capabilities for large enterprises) and Microsoft FrontPage (complete Web-server product with limited discussion capabilities but easy to set up).
Of course, there are limitations. Intranet software does not provide the powerful collaborative capabilities of traditional groupware such as Lotus Notes. HTML is not suitable for client-server data base applications. The TCP/IP network protocol must be added if it is not already in use. Every new intranet application increases the network administrator's management burden.
The most dangerous trap is to assume that because an intranet uses a Web browser, no training is required. People need to be shown what is on-line and how it can be retrieved most readily. Things that are obvious to an intranet designer may be less clear to the average user.
Nevertheless, the intranet has its niche: quick, easy access to existing information. And it is safe to predict that the popularity of intranets will continue to grow for the foreseeable future.
Dana H. Shultz, an Oakland-based lawyer, may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on the World Wide Web at http://seamless.com/ds/.