The Internet is here to stay. Its exponential growth rate has proven the point. And many government administrators are taking advantage of it. For example, the California Department of Motor Vehicles' Web site allows citizens to do everything from downloading a change of address form to updating a driver's license. Another example is the Washington State Department of Revenue's Web site that disseminates public information to its statewide audience.
Those state and local agencies that have regrouped and replanned Internet programs will be pleased to know that time hasn't been wasted. If anything, the wait may have been worth it because many software applications are beginning to mature and offer more capabilities than ever before. There are literally dozens of new applications coming to market every day, making it difficult to know which one will be well-suited for a particular Web site.
If an MIS department is ready to set up a Web site, there are some critical issues to research. "The first rule is don't become 'vendorcentric,'" said Todd Burke, webmaster for Illinois Central Management Services. "If you're looking to start a Web site, make a choice on a Web utility and server software not based on a vendor's promise but on open standards. We have tried to select the best vendor for an open-standard environment and have avoided proprietary technology. The second rule is don't underestimate the cost. Make sure to add extra money not only for proper tech support but for personnel who will manage the new technology. These are critical components to make a success out of your Web site."
Heeding this kind of advice will make the construction of a Web site much easier. Many states now have webmasters like Burke who are willing and able to lend some sage advice to any project. If your agency isn't familiar with what's available, the following Internet software will help get things started.
Long-time leader in the browser market, Netscape has recently gotten involved in developing server applications, like Netscape Enterprise Server 3.0. "Netscape has added a lot of functionality to their Web server product," said Martin LaFon, senior information systems analyst with California's Teale Data Center. "When you want end users to get the full robustness of software applications, you need advanced features."
Enterprise definitely boasts advanced features, including custom views and intelligent searches to make browsing and finding information easier. It publishes documents created in applications like Microsoft Word or HTML right from the desktop and enables users to build network-based applications deployed on Netscape ONE.
Perhaps one of its most convenient features is its content management capabilities. Users can sit at their desktops, and use Netscape Communicator to publish and update documents. This means that an individual workstation need not be set up exclusively to load documents on the server. Thus, webmasters can create a document, convert it to HTML and load it onto the Web site. And its Internet-ready access controls allow users to securely load documents and specify who can edit and view documents on the server. This permits group collaboration without compromising confidentiality. A document's integrity can be preserved in the group work environment by using the program's check-in and check-outs editing features which create new versions of documents as they are updated, providing a documentation history.
Netscape Communications Corp., 301/571-3914. Internet: .
One of the primary network operating systems is Windows NT. For users who want to take advantage of Windows NT power, it might be advantageous to consider investing in the Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS), which is offered free over the Internet. "Obviously there is a war going on between Netscape and Microsoft," said LaFon. "Microsoft is giving away some of their products for free in order to compete. Right now the functionality
between the two companies' applications is pretty much the same. There are, however, some technical differences."
Users to seamlessly integrate IIS with the Windows NT Server network operating system. "Customers have asked for a high-performance Web solution that is simple and provides a great development platform. And they want it as a core part of the server operating system," said Jim Allchin, senior vice president of the business systems division at Microsoft. "By integrating IIS into Windows NT Server, we are giving them what they want."
For users who prefer a graphics-based environment, ISS's graphical setup can run Internet services and can turn LANs into intranets by allowing users to publish files. These are then secured with its featured encryption scheme, allowing users to protect their data. It also centralizes administration from a single desktop for multiple servers -- an added bonus for government agencies that need additional server power from more than one terminal.
IIS supports existing standards such as Computer Gateway Interface and Perl -- a UNIX programming language -- and includes the open Internet Server Application Program Interface (API) extension to the Win32 API.
Another excellent feature, the ability to build interactive database-driven Web sites, allows access to information anywhere within an agency. Its Internet Database Connector is based on open standards which allow integration with Microsoft SQL Server, Access or other ODBC-compliant databases. And best of all, by using Microsoft Exchange Server, IIS ties Web information into e-mail systems so that users can share information across the board.
Microsoft Corp., 206/882-8080. Internet:
Not all agencies are focusing on just the Internet. Many are more interested in disseminating information across all platforms within an agency by using a system similar to the Internet. This is where the creation of an intranet helps get data out to an entire agency's personnel without having to create a firewall to limit access. "Intranets protect internal information," said LaFon. "And many states are discussing the creation of intranets for the whole state."
Stephen Desselle, senior project manager for the Washington State Department of Revenue, said, "Intranets are useful for agencies like ours where you have 1,000+ users who need access to the same information. The idea is to avoid internal duplication of that information."
This is where companies like NetManage Inc., in Cupertino, Calif., are providing solutions with intranet-specific applications. One such program is called Chameleon HostLink, an advanced information access solution that seamlessly extends IBM mainframe, AS/400 and Vax/UNIX host access with Internet and intranet connectivity features, including Web and messaging technology, single information access solutions, asynchronous network connections and more.
HostLink makes it possible to easily share printers, Internet access, document collaboration and desktop management. It also features the ability to create discussion groups -- which are similar to newsgroups -- standardize e-mail and messaging and host videoconferencing. It also features diagnostic tools enabling administrators to automate, customize and integrate business programs.
NetManage Inc., 408/973-7171. Internet:
Many government agencies are taking advantage of Lotus Notes' intranet and Internet capabilities. One such agency is the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. The agency used Notes, InterNotes and Domino -- a new interactive Web application server -- to enable staff members to easily share and collaborate on data. The agency has 3,000+ staff dispersed geographically who now have access to online discussion databases, an electronic bulletin board and agency documentation.
Notes provides a communication infrastructure by combining enterprise-ready, client/server messaging and the access and distribution of the Web for deploying group applications. It features client/server messaging with an enhanced interface based on cc:Mail; tools such as intelligent agents for users to store and navigate information; remote management abilities; and Internet
integration to allow users access to the Net and the ability to integrate resources into a Notes environment.
Lotus Development Corp., 617/577-8500. E-mail:
ACCESS FOR ALL
Agencies who either don't have the hardware or software to access the Internet or would prefer to rely on experts to host Web sites can look to private Internet Service Providers (ISP) to outsource Internet connections. Many big companies can provide ample storage space and technical support to help an agency launch a Web site. One such company is MCI, which touts itself as "one of the world's largest Internet services providers."
MCI's InternetMCI provides a backbone network which operates at 155MB per second, which according to MCI, is "the fastest and largest network of its kind." InternetMCI features direct Internet access connections; direct connections to its Internet network from 450 locations in the United States with 800 number and local dial-up service available in 300 cities; and offers Internet/intranet alliances with BT/Microsoft, Intel and Digital Equipment Corp.
MCI Communications Corp., 202/887-3000. Internet:
LINK AROUND THE WORLD
Earthlink Network, in Pasadena, Calif., has not only established a foothold with private users, it is also beginning to amass a list of government users.
Earthlink features services that include a StatePage service -- a personalized Web service that delivers news headlines, weather forecasts and a host of customized information each time an Earthlink customers logs on. For agencies that need heavy-duty bandwidth, Earthlink also offers Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) service with a choice of three different ISDN terminal adapters from 3Com Corp., Ascend Communications and Diamond Multimedia as well as a high-speed serial card from Lava Computer MFG.
Earthlink also offers a flat-rate connection; provides 28.8Kbps Internet access in more than 313 cities across the country; offers Web hosting services and optional services such as secure credit card transactions and domain name registration; and comes with ExpressNet Suite, a CD-ROM which includes Netscape Navigator 2.0, SurfWatch, Internet Phone, Eudora Lite and Internet Coach.
Earthlink Network Inc., 818/296-2400. Internet: .
HERE IT IS
This rundown is a limited examination of Internet tools available not just to government agencies but to all businesses. There is such a wide range of software applications and ISPs available that making a choice among them is a difficult task. The best way to approach the challenge is to read up on what's available and then narrow the field of choices. Focus on a few specific applications and services and decide which would best fit your agency's needs. Big agencies will want to keep Internet services inhouse, because private ISPs may not be able to provide ample service and in the long run will not be able to add more capabilities. Small agencies may opt to outsource to a private ISP that can provide enough server space for an average-sized Web site.
The delivery of electronic services is now. Citizens are coming to expect it, especially with so many private companies delivering services in the bitstream.
Michelle Gamble-Risley is the publisher of California Computer News. E-mail: .