Intranets -- The Big Connect

Intranets have become the focal point of government and industry networking strategy.

by / April 30, 1997
On a Saturday night, at a gas station in Munhall Pa., a 2-year-old child sat quietly in his parent's car, strapped into his car seat in the back. Suddenly, violence erupted as rival drug gangs exchanged gunfire. A stray bullet crashed through the car window and killed the child.

Despite the mayhem, the police found some witnesses and obtained the name of the suspected murderer. They were even able to discover that a photo of the suspect was stored at the local Bureau of Criminal Investigation. The police badly needed the photo to obtain a positive identification of the suspect. But the bureau was closed and wouldn't open until Monday, nearly 38 hours later -- an eternity for a criminal investigation.

Luckily, the Munhall police had another, more accessible source. An intranet allows Munhall and six other neighboring police departments to exchange information on crimes and criminals. It also has a mugshot library -- a database of scanned photos stored on a server. Using a Web browser, Munhall police were able to search and retrieve a mugshot of the individual. Within three hours of the shooting, the police were able to make a positive identification of the suspect and then distribute his photo to other law enforcement agencies. The suspect was later apprehended.

It's unusual for a technology to have an impact on business and government so soon after its inception, but an intranet is not your typical technology. Less than a year ago, intranets were little more than a concept to most state and local governments. Designed to serve an organization's internal needs, they are based on software and standards used on the Internet, with additional security software to protect the network and data from outside use.

An intranet is a way for states and localities to publish and present information to many workers over computer networks, without regard to the type of computing platform in use. For example, instead of incurring the expense and labor of printing and distributing sick leave policies or agency directories, agencies can publish the same information on an intranet, where it can be accessed by any worker with a Web browser. The information also can be kept up-to-date more efficiently than any paper document.

But as police departments in Western Pennsylvania discovered, an intranet can do far more, given the right application. Research shows the intranet is already firmly entrenched as an information platform in the business world, and has moved beyond the "newsstand" model of the public Internet and into hosting business applications, according to Delphi Consulting Group, a consulting and research firm.

It's also clear that intranets, with their relatively simple and open design, represent a powerful trend in information processing in both the public and private sector. That's why some of the leading information technology firms are radically transforming their marketing strategies to take advantage of intranet technology. The vendors' success will depend on whether they simply market hype about intranets or bring something of real value to the customer.

For governments, the key to success will depend on how they use information on intranets. If it's used to publish mission statements and public relations material, then chances are they will never take off. "But if governments use it for commerce and customer service, there will be a big payback," said Sandi Ludwig, IBM's segment executive for government solutions.

IBM hopes to be in the forefront of government intranet solutions, thanks, in part, to its broad customer base. At one end, it has a wealth of state and local government customers still using IBM mainframes to manage legacy databases. "We understand databases well and we're providing products and services that enable governments to use them with the intranet," said Ben Pogue, IBM Government's manager of the Internet marketing solutions group. "Our goal," he added, "is to provide the broadest possible access to a government's intranet."

Already, IBM has been working with the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts and the Arizona Department of Motor Vehicles to allow workers greater access to legacy data via an intranet. IBM also hopes that Lotus Notes will become the foundation for an agency's intranet, allowing workers to exchange information and messages and perform scheduling and other collaborative functions.

The Missouri court system has begun implementing Lotus Notes as the intranet and messaging foundation for its information systems project, which will connect the state's 120 court facilities, 2,000 court personnel and 20,000 Missouri attorneys.

In Oklahoma, the state's Department of Commerce has been a Notes user for the past seven years. Last year, it began using Notes for its intranet. More than 200 users are accessing 30 databases relating to state economic and development information. Some of those users are located in Europe and Asia, where the department maintains offices to attract international business to the state.

Prior to the development of the intranet, the department's foreign offices paid as much as one dollar per minute in phone line charges to access databases back home. Using Notes, they eliminated those charges by accessing the same data via the department's intranet. Rex Wershell, a database analyst with the department, said that Web-enabling Notes databases was an easy process thanks to Lotus' new Web software, Domino Server. "It's pretty neat," he said. "Basically you throw the switch and poof, it [the Notes server] becomes a Web server."

While IBM builds intranet capabilities into its products and services, Oracle Corp. is busy transforming itself into an intranet/ Internet-based company. "We're undergoing a radical transformation," said Mike Hichwa, principal technologist for Oracle Government. That transformation centers around the concept of network computing. While most people presume this concept to refer to Oracle's network computer -- the Web-based PC that costs less than $1,000 and is supposed to replace the Windows and Intel-based PC -- it's actually more than that.

Specifically, network computing is an architecture -- Oracle refers to it as Network Computing Architecture -- of common technologies that will allow PCs, network computers and other client devices (PDAs, etc.), to work with all Web servers, database servers and application servers over any network.

Oracle is pushing a centralized vision of computing with the Internet as the means of bringing people, data and computers together. The goal is to come up with a more stable and less complex way to process information. "Three out of four information systems fail to work or perform according to their original intentions," remarked Hichwa. "So many computer systems fail because they are a nightmare to deploy and upgrade."

Oracle believes Internet standards and Web technology overcome the complexities of today's computing environment with its high implementation costs and proprietary standards. By merging Internet standards with the strengths of client/server computing (namely robust business applications), customers can get the best of both worlds. The result, according to Hichwa, will be Web-enabled applications such as finance, payroll and human resources appearing on government intranets.

Sun Microsystems has always proclaimed that the "network is the computer." With intranets, that proclamation may come true. Bruce Elder, Sun's director of international government business, says you have to look at computing economics to understand what's happening. "Supply and demand is changing," he said. "For a long time, microprocessors were cheap and bandwidth was expensive. Now bandwidth is becoming much cheaper." As a result, agencies can build information infrastructures more economically.

At the same time, the Internet has ushered in the era of the thin client; PCs that rely on an intranet to access information don't need a lot of horsepower, memory and storage. "The result will be fat pipes and thin clients," remarked Elder. With Sun giving away Java, its Web-based programming language, expect to see platform-independent applications that run on intranets popping up in the government sector in the near future.

Elder believes these applications will help break down the barriers that have remained in government for so long. "We can now begin to think of government as true enterprise services," he said. For example, the police, courts and prisons will become a criminal justice enterprise, with information flowing more readily between the three once-separate entities.

Meanwhile, Microsoft, the world's largest PC software producer, has been rapidly adapting its core products -- Windows 95 and NT operating systems and application software products and tools -- to take advantage of the Internet/intranet. As part of its "embrace and extend" strategy, Microsoft has rolled out Internet Explorer for the desktop and Internet Information Server for backend services.

With the latest version of Windows Office 97, users can easily turn reports, budgets and presentations into HTML format for use on the Web. Other tools make it possible to quickly e-mail and manage all the published material from any PC.

The upshot is that publishing, presenting and using information across an intranet is becoming vastly easier for governments. Just look at the seven police departments in Allegheny County, Pa., that turned to an intranet to do something that's never before been feasible: share police information in a timely manner.

Using a $105,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce, the seven participating departments (out of 132 in the county), built, in a matter of months, a platform-independent communications system and an information database containing more than 170,000 names of individuals with whom the police came in contact. In addition, the intranet has more than 12,000 Web pages that contain information on individuals who have been arrested. More than 1,300 of the pages also contain scanned mugshots.

Built by Tulip Systems and using software from Microsoft, the TUPPER project is transforming the way neighboring police departments share information. Lt. Dennis McDonough of the South Park Township Police recalled how a drug investigation two years ago dragged on because it was so difficult to track criminals. At one point, South Park Police spent a month trying to find the whereabouts of one criminal, only to learn over a cup of coffee that the neighboring police department knew where he was all the time.

With the intranet, police departments can keep the lines of communication open via e-mail. "The system has really enhanced communications with other municipalities as well as inside our own department," said McDonough. Putting scanned mugshots on the Web has also helped. Plans are under way to include photos of missing children and adults.

As Police Chief Darrel Parker of Munhall, Pa., pointed out, the intranet has helped police close the gap on a major advantage criminals have had over the police -- their ability to move from jurisdiction to jurisdiction without the police tracking their whereabouts. "This system has given us instantaneous access to information that overcomes that problem," he said.

With so much momentum behind intranet technology, state and local governments might find it tempting to plunge in before they understand what their needs are. IBM's Ludwig believes governments should view the intranet as a way to open up the business of government. "Government needs to add electronic channels to reach their internal and external constituents," she explained. Used correctly, an intranet can benefit governments politically, fiscally and economically.

To gain those benefits, Ludwig pointed out that governments have to address their concerns about intranet safety and security. "State and local governments need to set up effective policies to ensure that intranet commerce can occur, such as legally acceptable electronic signatures," said Ludwig. So far only three states have done so.

Meanwhile, intranet use steamrolls ahead. Nonexistent three years ago, intranets are expected to reach near-full deployment in the business world in another three years, according to Delphi Consulting. With the right leadership, state and local governments should also be in the thick of it.