Intranets are private networks that use standard Internet access methods. By definition, an intranet site is restricted to use within an organization. No public access is allowed. Unlike firewall-protected networks, intranets can't be seen by the outside world. Out of sight is out of mind -- and out of reach.
Users access the intranet using standard Internet browsers and file transfer methods. These universal client tools are safe and reliable because they are field-tested and used by millions of Internet users worldwide. The intranet provides a single point of internal distribution for a wide variety of information. Standard home pages provide links to data of nearly any type. Home page data can be more accurate and timely than paper because it is maintained directly.
Electronic data distribution is another step toward reducing the mountain of paper that circulates through an organization. Project histories, phone books and work schedules can be made available to the enterprise without incurring printing costs. Administrative functions such as company calendars, employment policies and holidays are readily accessible to all users. The graphical interface provides for easy viewing of charts, graphs and maps.
In most organizations, paper documents become obsolete soon after they are printed. With an intranet, the online copy is the one that is current. Traditionally, large inventories of preprinted forms for insurance benefits and other company business were made available to employees. Locating one of these forms was often a time-consuming adventure. A single change on a paper form rendered it obsolete. The remaining forms usually wound up as a large deposit in the local landfill. Electronic forms can be readily changed without waste or printing delays.
Intranets are not intended to replace groupware products like Lotus Notes and Novell GroupWise. These products offer collaboration and document database systems that are currently beyond the reach of intranet systems. Existing groupware systems are enhanced by an intranet publishing system.
Lack of replication is another intranet limitation. Lotus has a highly developed replication scheme in Notes that is currently unrivaled. Changes made to data on the first Notes server are transparently propagated to all other Notes servers.
Internet style e-mail and news groups won't replace existing mail and work group systems on the corporate LAN. None of the POP3/SMTP-based mail packages offer any significant advantages over existing mail systems. Although NNTP (Network News Transfer Protocol) performs well for news groups, it won't supplant Lotus Notes as a collaborative working environment.
Industrial-strength client/server computing does not yet exist on intranet technology. HTML code is too weak for this use and CGI back-end applications are being replaced by newer technologies. Java offers much promise, but has yet to deliver.
Intranets operate with the same TCP/IP protocol suite used on the Internet. Every workstation accessing the intranet must have a unique IP address. Installing and administering these addresses is an important step in the planning process.
Most of the popular Web server packages include DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) to ease the burden of IP address administration. DHCP dynamically assigns IP addresses on demand from a predefined pool rather than manually installing a dedicated IP address to each desktop.
For NetWare users, Novell's new IntranetWare includes its IPX/IP gateway that allows IPX networks to connect to TCP/IP resources. The gateway operates as a proxy server by providing TCP/IP connections to work- stations running only IPX.
NetWare workstations send all their TCP/IP traffic to the gateway using IPX packets. The gateway translates these requests to TCP/IP packets and routes them to the desired intranet server. Only one IP address must be maintained, the one used by the IPX/IP gateway. One benefit of the IPX/IP gateway is that no IP stack is required on the workstation.
Intranets by themselves do not have the stringent security requirements of networks that connect to the world at large. However, the time may come when the internal network becomes connected to the outside world. Because of this, the intranet should be designed with the organization's security policy clearly in mind. Security is easier to administer when implemented at the start of a project, rather than as an afterthought.
Firewalls and proxy servers are the enforcement tools for an organization's security policy. Without a well-defined policy these devices are ineffective. Lax or nonexistent security policies expose the network to break-in and abuse.
Invasions occur when an organization connects hundreds of LAN users to the outside world without having security in place. This type of seat-of-the-pants flying is begging for problems. Experienced break-in artists can exploit these weaknesses and gain entry to the internal network.
Unsecured systems are ripe for abuse and the software developers know it. They have created products like the Optimal Networks Internet Monitor to allow administrators to police their users. This software product works as a Big Brother that eavesdrops on all IP connections. It tracks users who visit inappropriate sites or surf all day on company time. Afterthought security measures like these consume both time and resources.
The hardware requirements for intranets are modest. Software costs vary by the product, and must be carefully considered. Windows NT server licensing has been labeled as predatory because of the high cost for connections. By comparison, Novell's Web server product offers unlimited HTML connections using only a two- license version of IntranetWare.
Training funds are required for server administration and HTML publishing skills. Departmental groups responsible for maintaining their own home pages will need training in basic graphics-publishing techniques.
Most Windows users will soon be operating on either Windows 95 or NT. Both operating systems have a TCP/IP stack built in. This saves the expense of purchasing and installing a separate TCP/IP stack on each desktop.
Microsoft shops will naturally install the highly respected Internet Information Server (IIS) that comes bundled with Windows NT Server. IIS is a full-featured, mature Web server that integrates seamlessly into an NT network.
Novell users have a choice of using the Web server bundled with IntranetWare 4.11 or running the Microsoft IIS server as an NDS object. The Novell server currently lacks several of the bells and whistles found in the Microsoft offering, but is more attractively priced. Novell has the additional advantage of outperforming the NT-based IIS server on similar hardware. UNIX shops should take full advantage of any of the top-quality UNIX server packages available.
Intranets are not a replacement for the file, print and database functions currently existing in your network. When used within their design criteria, intranets provide an excellent means of inexpensively publishing company data.
Bruce Gavin is a Novell CNE. You can reach him at <70137,firstname.lastname@example.org> or .
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