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The Intranet – red hot or just hot air?

This article appeared in The Sydney Business Review on 15 November, 1996

Almost every time you pick up a computer publication these days or read the computer supplements in the daily newspapers you will see that the "corporate intranet" is coming to revolutionise the way businesses operate. The articles are usually written by experts in the field who suggest that without this brand new technology, corporations are doomed to lose control of the vital information which is the lifeblood of the business. Following a few hundred more words of cliches and obscurity, there is usually a suggestion that the particular expert can solve the problem with the application of a suitable volume of dollars.

Some questions need to be answered about this: What is an "intranet"? What do you need to make it work? How expensive is it? Do you really need it?

An intranet is the application of Internet technology, specifically World Wide Web technology, to the distribution of local information within an organisation. The idea is that the same software and skills used to access the Internet can be used to access internal data, therefore reducing training and support costs. This is an excellent concept, and is an extension of the psychology underlying graphical interfaces like Windows or the Macintosh, where the common interface for many programs means that users can concentrate on what they are doing not how it is to be done. If you already use Netscape Navigator to look at web pages on the Internet, it makes good sense to use the same program to read procedure manuals or look at production statistics.

Because we are talking about a more effective use of the data already held in an organisation, the hardware and database management software is probably already in place for storage and distribution of the data. The additional software to actually serve and see the web pages is generally available at little or no cost, and both the major local area network operating systems (Novell and Microsoft NT) include much of what is needed. Data-sharing systems such as Lotus Notes also provide facilities to serve data in a form suitable for use with browser software. If you plan to link your network to the Internet you will need additional communications and security systems, but that is not an intranet issue.

The cost depends greatly on the scope of the project and what you want to achieve, and comes almost exclusively from the effort needed to extract data from existing sources and turn it into something which a web server can use. If all you want to do is give everyone a better way to look at procedure manuals then the problem is trivial and the cost is low. If you want to make financial or manufacturing or sales information available on demand then you have some programming to do and the job needs to be planned and budgeted like any other development project.

Like the question of cost, the answer to the question about whether you need an intranet is that old standby, "It depends". It makes good sense to have common and familiar methods to perform tasks, and workstation operating systems are going to become more integrated with web browsers and other Internet tools. Only you can decide whether the benefits exceed the costs, but you should be aware that this is not a silver bullet which will magically make all your information distribution problems disappear, nor will it necessarily bankrupt your organisation if you don't have it. It is merely another option you need to consider.

Copyright © 1998- Peter Bowditch

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