Art, Geeks, and Power Ploys: How to Build your Intranet

by David Strom (appeared in Forbes ASAP, 8/96)

If you are about to begin your first Intranet project, you need to gather together people of diverse skills: computer geeks, artists, diplomats, and negotiators. It seems like a motley crew, but you'll need these diverse talents, along with some careful choices in hardware and software, if you will be successful.

Before you get started collecting your renaissance crew together, you should first narrow your focus and pick your first project carefully. Intranets can cover the enterprise or focus on particular workgroups, and run the gamut from publishing applications to more traditional groupware-style discussion tracking. They can cover inward-looking applications of various Internet technologies such as the worldwide web, email and Usenet news groups, and run on a wide variety of operating systems and servers. And you'll need both technical and artistic help to handle the myriad of details.

"Most managers might not know that Intranets have three big advantages," says Greg Hubbard, a senior systems fellow at SHL Systemshouse, Dallas TX, "You only have to publish things in one place, everyone can get to your information no matter what kind of machine they are using, and you can get the tools for next to nothing if not completely free."

Even though Intranets are the buzz word of the year, they still may be a tough sell for some managers. "Some of them think Intranets are a waste of time, or else they think they are so easy to setup that no extra resources are necessary," says Adam Kuhn, a senior LAN analyst did for the trade association Edison Electric Institute (EEI), Washington DC.

"It is hard to justify a return on any Intranet investment, but this was the case ten years ago when we were trying to justify email. No one could project any hard cost savings, yet nowadays few organizations would be willing to throw out their email systems and go back to printing memos," says Hubbard.

Do you want to save money by publishing something that frequently changes yet that everyone needs access to, such as a corporate phone book or policy manuals? Marc Dodge, a telecom systems manager for United Parcel Service, Mahwah, NJ has put together a project for 40 sales executives there: "they have access to corporate presentations as soon as they are posted on-line." Hubbard wrote an application that allowed anyone to search their internal corporate phone book. "This ability to write your own applications is a real diamond in the rough, and that there is a lot of potential with Intranets to facilitate information integration," he says.

Bryan Bredehoeft, a senior business consultant, Kraft Foods, Glenview, Ill. feels that "Intranets provide for cheap, rapid, and easy alternative methods of information delivery that used to be expensive and slow -- this means Intranets can't help but save our company money. You can also track your own hits and determine what information is important to your own people." This feedback mechanism makes Intranets both valuable and unique: imagine trying to get the same level of interest from your average corporate paper memo.

Sometimes the project can be more modest, such as designing a default corporate home page that Kuhn did for EEI: "The page gets loaded every time one of our users brings up Netscape, and has popular search sites along with business-specific sites for our staff. We wanted something that could help newbies learn about the web and reduce our own help-line support calls."

Sometimes the advantages can be rather compelling, and once you get beyond the first project, subsequent Intranet efforts are often easier. With Bill Dinner, vice president at ESI Securities, Inc., New York NY "it was amazing how quickly our the list of Intranet applications grew: overviews of all the projects that were in development; contact lists and our corporate phone directory, the establishment up various research-based systems, publication of project reports and internal news groups. The Intranet became a required tool that saved time and energy. We were able to work smarter not harder."

While many pundits have made the Intranet and the web synonymous, that doesn't have to be the case. Sometimes, Intranets can be formed around more group collaboration projects, such as sharing progress reports and discussions. A number of tools are available for this purpose, including traditional groupware products such as Attachmate's Open Mind and Lotus Notes, along with Usenet-style news servers including various Unix and NT-based products from Netscape Communications Corp., Frontier Technologies Corp., and Netmanage, Inc.

Ward Mundy, as MIS Director of Atlanta-based US Court of Appeals, found his first Intranet application moving in this direction, where summaries of law review articles are shared among 500 judges and their law clerks to help them keep current. "I think the web is great as a publishing tool, where we can put all our court decisions in one place at one time and not have to fiddle with them again. But as something to share information and build a central repository where you want broad participation, it has a long way to go to being a turnkey groupware application. Open Mind allowed us to do all the web publishing plus give us the groupware part as well."

Another application is to tie together far-flung workgroups by offering a common place that team members can go to monitor progress on their joint projects. "We have several staff that are located outside of NY headquarters as well as several consultants that work strange hours," says ESI's Dinner. "The Intranet will allow us to keep track of projects and encourages discussion on the systems we are developing." Realize that the core of any successful Intranet is the ability to transport data efficiently across the enterprise. "A good solid way to build the database connection is the most important item missing from current Intranets. Most of the database products available are very immature," says Dinner. Therefore, before you get involved in any Intranet effort, first tabulate where your data is coming from and in what format or formats it exists. Then look carefully at those products that claim to work in these formats.

Who is in charge of the project? Figuring out the kind of skills for a project leader can be difficult. Hubbard feels that artists should be Intranet project leaders. "The temptation is to strong to put a senior geek in charge and let him call the shots, but you really need an artist in charge of any Intranet project. As computer scientists, we like to think of our work as 'art' but I doubt any of it will make it to the Louvre. A successful Intranet team needs the left-brain types and the right-brain types, and someone to help them get along with each other."

Realize that often the best Intranet projects cut to the core of corporate turf battles, so deciding on who takes ownership over the project may be a tough fight. "People are not anxious to post information that might get into the wrong hands, especially for the department down the hall," says Hubbard.

And, often an Intranet project can be a fight for Information Systems group to regain control over developing new systems: "Whether or not IS owns the Intranet can be a difficult issue," says Kuhn. Part of the problem is how Intranets are perceived in various different departments: "The Intranet is an organism that creates joy for users, concern for marketing and sheer terror for telecom and IS departments," says Dodge.

Do you have to connect everyone in your company with TCP/IP [transmission control protocol/Internet protocol]? It helps. Intranet technologies are based on TCP/IP, and if you haven't deployed this protocol to every desktop yet, you may want to think carefully about doing so. One way to make the transition is to do what EEI did -- they started out by using a gateway than run TCP/IP on their NetWare servers: "We did not want to put TCP/IP on every single workstation and Firefox's Novix software allows you to avoid just that. By not having to manage IP addresses, we've saved a major headache and memory on our already crammed workstations," says Kuhn.

Others realized quickly that they would need to deploy TCP/IP to every desktop to support Intranet applications. "While we started out without having TCP/IP everywhere, by the end of the summer we intend to have TCP/IP on every desktop. Moving data from our Novell LANs to TCP/IP on our wide area networks has been painful," says Mundy. John Dubiel, the manager of planning for Boston (Mass.) Edison, agrees: "Learn how to manage TCP/IP before you deploy any Intranets."

New technologies from Microsoft and others called Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol can manage frequently-changing desktops and can help deploy TCP/IP across the enterprise. This comes included as part of Windows NT and new versions of Novell's NetWare servers. "With these technologies now available for Windows and rapidly being adopted by the industry, TCP/IP is significantly easier to roll out. When we started we had all sorts of problems bridging TCP/IP to other protocols," says Bredehoeft.

What kind of servers should you use for your Intranet project? You'll need to carefully match your needs with what is available, but many companies are looking towards servers running either a version of Unix or Microsoft's Windows NT. The major difference is the expected load on the servers themselves and the kinds of tools available to create your content: while Unix is the more capable choice in both respects, NT may be more than adequate for smaller-scale projects.

"NT is clearly our server of choice -- it makes things easier to have a single platform for file and print, database, and web services. Plus, the NT versions of database servers are much cheaper than corresponding Unix versions. However, NT is not totally ready for prime time: Unix is easier to administer and manage in a large network and NT is not as stable for mission critical tasks," says Dinner. United Parcel's Dodge is using Unix as well, "mainly because it provides the best tools."

What about Apple Macintosh-based servers? "A customer thought that a Macintosh-based solution was cheaper, but the savings disappeared when we factored in all the extra labor we would need to make up for the lack of management tools in the Apple environment. If all you need is a simple Web site, anything will do the trick. Sophisticated needs require more horsepower and better tools," says Hubbard, who is using Unix-based servers.

Remember: the incremental approach often works best. Do lots of quick prototyping. "Document everything. Start small and then grow," says Dodge. "Put the basic Internet tools (email, web, news) into the hands of end users and provide some basic training and let them decide how to exploit these services," says Dubiel.

Kraft's Bredehoeft agrees: "Intranets are an iterative process. Start developing and modify where necessary. And you will modify!"

Sometimes the job isn't done even after an application is finished, according to Hubbard: "It is a struggle for people to stay motivated after their Intranet site is built and they go back to their real day jobs. People lose interest in static and stale sites. An organization has to make a commitment to keep their Intranet sites up to date, or they will just drift away into irrelevance."