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This is the On-line companion to my monthly column in
Enterprise Reengineering
The National Publication for BPR

Understanding the Intranet
(From the March 1996 issue)

"Internet", "Intranet", what's the difference? By now, you should be well aware that the Internet is the world's biggest collection of inter-connected networks. Through the Internet, organizations are receiving and sending information all over the planet.

It seems that the Internet's open protocols and applications have proven to be universally useful over a mixture of networks, server platforms and workstations. That sounds an awful lot like most like most enterprise-wide networks.

We've all seen organizations trying to integrate their diverse collection of computing resources. We also know that this can be quite a challenging task for most organizations. On the server side, there is a significant investment in legacy systems and many flavors of Unix solutions. For the client workstations, you have Windows and Mac advocates each pushing for their workstations.

With all this diversity, how are organizations going to build a cohesive information infrastructure?

This is where the Internet's technology shines. Intranet is the latest term to describe when the Internet's protocols and applications are used, not for accessing the vast resources on the Internet, but for moving information within an organization's boundaries. Intranet is an explosive new market segment, estimated by industry sources to be $1.2 billion by 1997.

Most BPR activities quantify an organization's workflows, and identify customers and suppliers which may be external or internal to the organization. Companies who have focused on using the Internet for external purposes, are now realizing that these same applications can also be used internally. Almost all the organizations I have worked with are making significant amounts of information available through internal web pages.

To get a sense of what companies are doing, a good starting point is Netscape's "At Work" page which will lead you to press clippings about Intranets and Netscape's Customer Profiles page. Here you can learn how companies such as , Eli Lilly, Mobil, and Sandia National Laboratories web-based Intranets for a variety of applications.

For example, AT&T has built a variety of internal web sites for billing systems, library services and office supply ordering. One of their most popular sites is POST, their employee phone book. AT&T already had an employee information database, but adding a web interface has caused it to be more widely used throughout the company. Using POST, employees can find complete contact information for fellow employees including their relationship to the organizations' structure.

Sandia National Laboratories has developed an extensive Intranet with every major department having its own home page. Sandia has a diverse set of server platforms and client workstations. It was this diversity in operating systems that made a web-based solution so attractive, because the web servers and clients ran on all different platforms.

Many large organizations are also copying the Internet's mechanisms to organize their large collection of internal web sites. Some organizations have Yahoo-style indexes (complete with announcement/ registration forms) so that employees can more easily publicize and find each other's pages.

These Intranets may sound good, but how do they relate to existing Groupware infrastructure and development activities? There are two phenomena occurring simultaneously. Traditional Groupware applications are becoming web-capable, and web technology is rapidly expanding to incorporate traditional Groupware functions.

Almost every major vendor from IBM, Novell and Oracle are making sure that their products support web protocols. This inclusion of web functionality is occurring on both the server and client side of most major Groupware applications. Oracle, for example has released it's own web browsers called PowerBrowser and WebServer - both with strong support for Oracle's databases. IBM/Lotus' InterNotes Web Publisher automatically publishes Notes documents and forms to the Web, translates them to HTML and captures information from forms submitted via the Web - incorporating it into Notes applications.

Meanwhile, the leader of the Internet web, Netscape continues to expand rapidly into traditional Groupware functions. Netscape has acquired Collabra Software, and will be integrating Collabra's electronic-forum software with Netscape's Navigator. Other conferencing mechanisms like Hypernews are also becoming widely used join the functionality of Usenet news groups into web pages.

Web technology and proprietary Groupware applications have been complimentary in their uses. As each camp expands into the other's territory, the competition will increase. Competition is usually a good thing, as evidenced by the recent price reductions in Lotus Notes.

Which approach will win? I am not foolish enough to pick sides on this one :-) This topic has been the subject of debate newsgroups such as comp.Groupware.lotus-notes.misc (be sure to look at their FAQ) By the way, If any of you are working on web development activities, the best online resource is the Web Developer's Library.

Russ Haynal

Please be sure to visit my Archive of BPR articles.

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