Finding the right Intranet technologies to buy

By David Strom (6/10/96)

(Note: a recent translation into Serbo-Croatian can be found here.)

N.B. While I wrote this paper a while ago, it is still relevant. If you'd like to read some of my recommended books on Internet and Intranet technologies and business practices, go to this page.

Intranets are everywhere it seems: they have become the buzz word for the year, and maybe for the remainder of the millennium. Just about everyone has "Intranet-enabled" their products, making finding the right one a daunting proposition. So let's try to cut through all the hype and get down to brass tactics, and come up with a reasonable way to figure out what you need to buy.

This white paper will address the following issues:

First off, before we get any further, let's try to define exactly what an Intranet is. Everyone has their own concept of an Intranet, making it difficult to get started. Rather than make up our own definition, we asked four end-user IS managers who are in the process of building their own Intranets what the term means to them, and got surprising agreement. Greg Hubbard, who is a systems architect for the consulting firm SHL Systemshouse Corp. in Dallas, TX, says that The Intranet is "Internet tools among family." John Dubiel, who works at the electric utility Boston Edison, says "the Intranet is the Internet in a bottle." Both sentiments wrap up many things in a nice tight package, and get the point across that their is a strong relationship between the Intranet and Internet.

Marc Dodge, who is a telecom manager for United Parcel Service in Mahwah, NJ, says, perhaps a bit defensively, "the Intranet is an organism that creates joy for users, concern for marketing and sheer terror for telecom." A nice description and prediction of what each department inside a corporation can expect from an Intranet project. Finally, the narrowest definition that we got was from Adam Kuhn, who is in end user computing support for Edison Electric Institute, the DC-based trade association of electric utilities: "A non-public website devoted to one company and for one company."

1. How Intranets benefit corporations

Intranets take these existing Internet technologies and allow corporations to benefit in several ways. First off, they are quick to deploy and assemble, since in many cases the basic software components have been around for a long time. Being based on the Internet, this means that technologies have standard interfaces and programming constructs that make it easier for corporate developers to mix and match the right kind of features and products they need.

Intranets also provide more than just point-to-point communications, as is the case with email technologies, because they can be used for tracking conversations or used for group collaborations.

Intranets are more than just web servers and browsers: they make use of the web for sure, but extend it in ways that help a corporation manage their work flows and discussions, as well as keeping track of their work product of documents, spreadsheets, and presentations.

And unlike traditional groupware products such as Notes, Intranet technologies can fit in to existing corporate data structures on both the back end -- where the data is stored and maintained -- and the front end -- where users create queries and reports on their office automation tools such as word processors and spreadsheets.

2. Picking the right Intranet platform

Finding the right Intranet platform isn't simple: while it is nice to have choices, it can be confusing. There are the four different flavors of Windows NT (Intel, Alpha, RISC and PowerPC), even more varieties of Unix, Macintosh and Novell's NetWare. A number of products only run on a single brand of processor (such as Intel NT or SGI Unix) and others work best under certain system components (such as using Open Transport for the Mac to support TCP/IP networking).

We recommend examining the following five criteria before picking the right set of operating system and hardware:

Ease of setup refers to how quickly you can install the hardware, OS, and various Intranet applications and configure them to get up and running. Windows NT seems the clear leader here: not only is the OS itself fairly simple to setup, but many of the Intranet applications themselves don't take much to get going. A close second and a strong contender is Macintosh: in some cases, Mac apps can be even easier to get running than NT. Unix and NetWare are more complex to setup both from the operating system as well as the applications.

Functionality is a difficult one to call, but Unix seems to lead the pack, followed quickly by NT. To Unix' credit, you get just about all you need to set up an Intranet as part of the basic OS: mail, news, and ftp servers aren't extra products as they are with the other OSs.

Chances are you probably have a NetWare network already running at your shop, so integrating any Intranet into your existing file and print services would probably be easier using something based on NetWare -- maybe. NT is a strong alternative here, given Microsoft's and Novell's integration efforts to date and the number of products that are available to bridge the gap.

As far as scalability, or the ability to increase the performance of your platform as more demands are made on the various system resources (disk, memory, processor, network connection), Unix and NT are the clear favorites here.

Finally, the availability of third party tools is also hard to pick a winner. However, we have a clear loser: NetWare. The remaining platforms have a variety of tools available for constructing Intranets.

So, given these criteria, it seems as if NT and Unix have the best possibilities and most choices. And if you examine most of the reports about Intranet installations, that is pretty much in agreement with what is happening today.

3. Making the move to TCP/IP

Part of this integration effort will involve deciding on your deployment of TCP/IP in your enterprise. TCP/IP is the mother's milk of the Intranet, and one way or another you'll need to start drinking it if you intend to make the best use of your Intranet. You have several strategies here: deploy IP to every desktop, have a mixture of IP and non-IP desktops, or keep IP on your LAN servers and mainframes and make use of various IP gateway technologies to connect your desktops.

Before you decide on your IP strategy, carefully consider one other important infrastructure issue: your existing mainframe connectivity. What do mainframes have in common with Intranets? Plenty. First off, most of your corporate data probably resides on your mainframe and will continue to do so: developing an Intranet ignoring this fact is foolish. Second, many corporations have built extensive infrastructures to deal with connecting up desktops and mainframes: some of this technology can be leveraged to support Intranet applications. Finally, many of the current mainframe connectivity products now come with the utilities needed to support IP and Intranet applications.

Until relatively recently, the notion of mixing IP connections with 3270 emulation software wasn't very popular: the TN3270 emulators required to access mainframes in this fashion were underpowered compared to the older methods of running PC 3270 communications. However, with products such as Attachmate EXTRA Personal Client, corporations can connect to their mainframes with IP and still have most if not all of the functionality necessary such as host-based printing and file transfer. EXTRA comes with rather extensive support for a variety of micro-to-mainframe connection options, including various SNA gateways from IBM and Microsoft as well as IP connections.

If you choose the "IP everywhere" route, then you'll want to ensure that you can manage IP properly, and that usually means installing a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) server or servers on your network and upgrading your routers to pass IP packets correctly around various subnets. DHCP was developed by Ralph Droms and became an Internet standard, and has since been incorporated into various products from Microsoft, Farallon, Sun, and other vendors. It allows you to manage IP addresses with a minimum of fuss and bother. Both topics are outside our scope here.

If you choose the other options that usually means running a special WINSOCK.DLL on your Windows machines to fake any IP-oriented applications (such as a web browser) into thinking that IP is present when it isn't. Products from Novix/FTP Software, On Technologies and Quarterdeck, for example, are available that act as IP gateways and run on NetWare and NT servers. For example, with Quarterdeck's product, when the web browser opens the Windows Socket connection, the request goes over IPX from the desktop to the server, where it is placed into an IP packet.

4. Buying all the right products

An Intranet project can include a wide variety of products, as we've already mentioned. To help with your decision, you should think in terms of whether your needs are publishing-based or discussion-based. For the former, you'll likely center your project around a web server and its various components. For the latter, you'll likely look at a discussion management server and its various related components. Let's first examine what pieces are required to fit together with a web.

But the server itself is just a starting place. You'll also need these other tools:

Microsoft, IBM/Lotus, and Corel/Wordperfect all sell suites of software for both Windows and Macintosh that contain word processors with HTML publishing features. Each of these products has good and bad points, and supports different subsets of HTML commands and tags. Our best suggestion is to try the HTML extensions of your existing word processor: if that doesn't produce the kind of documents you need, then learn the tags yourself and use a text editor to compose the documents.

Another alternative to using these HTML editors to make changes one at a time to various documents is to use a product that treats your entire set of documents as a whole entity. A tool such as HTML Transit from Info Access (htp://www.infoaccess.com , Bellevue, Wash.) allows you to create a single style sheet and then apply it to the entire mass at once very efficiently.

Why is looking at your logs key for Intranet builders? It is one of the few means of providing feedback to your developers: from your logs you can see what pages are the most often requested, and what links are broken. You can quickly tune your server to meet the needs of your public. Even if you thought that you had designed the site with them in mind, there is no better way to obtain this feedback.

Our recommendation is WebTrends, from e.g. Software, (http://www.egsoftware.com, Portland, Ore.) which runs on various Windows platforms. There are several log analysis tools that are either in the public domain or else available for minimal cost; these can be found at Yahoo's site (under http://www.yahoo.com/Business_and_Economy/Products_and_Services/Computers/Software/Internet/ World_Wide_Web/Log_Analysis_Tools/).

Search engines vary widely in terms of the kinds of documents that they can index (some only do text, some others do graphics as well), how the indices are prepared, whether you can index just things on your own site or extend the index outwards towards content that is on the Internet itself.

It is important to consider the level of support for various Internet-related standards in choosing the right set of IP desktop applications: for example, if support for HTML frames and tables are important, you should make sure that the web browser component of your desktop applications supports these features.

Now, that is a lot of software to keep track of, debug, ensure cooperation and compatibility, and maintain -- especially given that many Internet-related software companies update their products almost monthly it seems.

Some of the products are included as functions in some web servers, some are bundled together with the server, and some are sold separately. One choice is Attachmate's Emissary Host Publishing System, which we'll get into in the next section. If you are interested in a bundle of products, perhaps the best collection of tools is O'Reilly's WebSite Pro. It has an HTML and graphics editors, a link checker, and a few helper applications included as part of the product, along with database connections we'll get to in a moment.

Let's now look at the second category of products, discussion management software. Products such as Attachmate's Open Mind, Netscape's Collabra, and even Lotus Notes are used to set up and document electronic conversations among work groups. If all you want are discussion groups, then Notes can be overkill. Open Mind has the advantage of being able to connect to Usenet news group feeds on the back end and be viewed in a web browser on the front end, making it very flexible piece of software.

RadNet's WebShare (http://www.radnet.com, Cambridge, Mass) and DEC's Workgroup Web Forum (http://www.digital.com, Maynard Mass.) are the two of the better products that make use of web browsers as front ends to manage discussion groups. They both run on NT servers: users can view discussions and add to them inside their browsers. Another product with similar features is Amicus Networks (http://www.amicus.com, Austin, TX ) Community Builder.

Another alternative is to use Unix's news server as the basis of your discussions. Unix has the advantage of having the support for these types of servers built-in as part of the operating system, but if you don't have Unix expertise, now is not the time to learn it. If this is the case, NetManage's Intranet server provides an NT-based news server, although the product is fairly primitive.

5. Beyond the web: linking to enterprise data

But any Intranet isn't complete with some thought to how you'll move what data you've already created into the project. Just copying the files (if indeed that is even possible) isn't really a satisfactory solution: you don't want to rely on individuals to do this on a regular (meaning, more than twice) basis: that is what automation is intended to do.

So what tools are available to publish our data on the web and inside discussion groups? Let's look at several situations:

First off, you have data residing on some host-based application and wish to provide access via a web browser or some other Intranet-related application. You should consider products such as Attachmate's Emissary Host Publishing System, which enable applications to be built that have HTML-like front ends, while the data still resides on host-based systems such as CICS applications and also host databases such as DB2.. The product includes, several of Attachmate's application-building tools such as Quick App and Quick DB, back end TCP/IP connection to the host to move information into and out of the host, and an ActiveX custom control that generates HTML.

Another situation may be where you have an existing SQL database server and you want to grant some kind of access to a subset of this information to people using a web browser. Better yet, you'd like to design a web page that incorporates pieces of your databases, such as showing the current status of your projects, or a corporate phone directory, or a list of various forms that are available.

There are a number of products in this arena and more appearing almost daily. Some of them are gateways that connect existing SQL database servers to web servers, so that clients using web browsers can query the data. Others support a variety of database formats and have more extensive development environments that allow more involved forms creation and can retrieve indices of documents that are generated on the fly.

It sounds good in theory, but the web/database junction is still fairly new: things that have long been possible in client/server systems such as data validation at the client end and the ability to tab across the dialog box while scrolling down the screen are more difficult to implement with HTML forms.

Products that do these tasks include:

And finally there are a number of products that extend the office environment to include Intranet awareness. This includes the ability to save files in HTML format, or collaborate over the Internet using a variety of word processing and spreadsheet tools. For example, all of Microsoft's and Lotus' Office component applications have Internet features -- with Microsoft Excel, you can save your spreadsheet into a web table format, and with Lotus' Freelance, you can save your presentation into a series of GIF files that can be viewed by browsers.

6. Decision points on setting up your first Intranet

You need to consider these four questions when you attempt your first Intranet project.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

David Strom is the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine and has written hundreds of articles on networking and communications. His Web Informant site has information on various Internet marketing issues, along with an Intranet Information page (http://www.strom.com/pubwork/intranet.html) that keeps track of current developments with Intranets. His Web Compare site (http://www.webcompare.com) has detailed functional comparisons on over 50 different web servers running on a wide variety of operating systems.