THE ROLE OF INTRANETS IN INFORMATION MANAGEMENT

By Brian K. Flowers



I. Background and Information

What is an Intranet?

An Intranet has been described as a enterprise-wide network which uses Internet technology as its underlying architecture.. Companies, universities and other organizations have been using computer networks for decades. The difference between an Intranet and any other network is its use of Internet technology. Moreover, an Intranet is more than just a network, it is an information system.(1) Because Intranets rely on computer hardware and software for processing and disseminating information, Intranets meet the definition of computer based information systems.(2)

Depending on how they are used, an Intranet can be considered to be a strategic or competitive information system. This argument is strengthened by the part Intranets play in electronic commerce systems.(3) Intranets run on Internet protocols, such as Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), and HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) for communications. These Internet protocols are common languages that can bridge different types of computers that run various operating systems.

Many Intranets need to connect to legacy systems - hardware and databases that were built before the Intranet on pre-existing, sometimes proprietary systems and mainframes. One of the advantages of Intranets is their ability to provide access to documents created by unrelated legacy systems. Examples of legacy documents might include contracts or text documents developed with word processing programs; budgets created from spreadsheets; magazines and brochures created using desktop publishing software; and company logos and graphics which are incompatible with Internet graphics standards. Some of the methods used to connect legacy systems to Intranet include CGI programs (common gateway programs), and Java programming language which can be used on virtually any operating system.(4)

Intranets help to overcome some of the limitations of existing local and wide area networks LAN's and WAN's). The justifications for creating Intranets as enterprise-wide information systems include at least five core functions: (1) E-mail, (2) Sharing of files, knowledge, information and ideas, (3) Accessing databases, organizing directories, and the management and manipulation of information, (4) Searching and querying databases, and (5) Network management, maintenance and modification of the Intranet's characteristics, and user access. Although current networks provide each of these functions, they usually provide them in different platforms and interfaces, and not on an enterprise-wide basis. (5)

II. Limitations of Traditional Networks And Proprietary Systems

Traditional LAN's and WAN's have problems that can be solved with the introduction of Intranet technology. The main problem with LAN=s and WAN's concerns the inability of different computers, programs and operating systems to communicate with each other. For example, file sharing might use IPX protocols (Internet packet exchange). Databases could be running on UNIX systems using TCP/IP. Mainframes generally use SNA(6) protocol. These problems were the result of companies using separate incompatible legacy systems. The solution to this problem required translation software or using a common denominator or protocol like TCP/IP on all systems.

The architecture of traditional networks required users had to be trained on, and master software on each different system. Persons working in one department could not access information contained in the information system of other departments. Even if they could, individuals were trained only to use the applications and systems specific to their departments. Data redundancy and duplication wasted scarce resources. Out of date information was often stored in obsolete systems, and it was difficult to access vital business information in a timely manner. The problems boil down to having Atoo many isolated sources of information and too many copies of the same information in different locations in the network..(7)

Other limitations of networks running proprietary systems include lack of uniform search capabilities, and the expense of proprietary software.

III. Rationale for Intranets

The rationale and approach used to determine whether a company will build or adopt an Intranet is similar to that used to determine whether any new information system will be brought in. These considerations include defining the project; studying the existing systems -- analyzing the problems/solutions to be achieved with the new system; designing the new system; programming or translating the design specifications into software code; installing the system; and post-implementation evaluation. One major difference between the development of an Intranet system and most other systems is that any company with an existing network already has most of the components already in place.

Typical reasons given for introducing an Intranet include cost savings, ability to report company performance data, cross-functional information sharing, improved employee communications, information access, employee morale and enhancement, productivity enhancement, sales support, teamwork and group support functions, and use as a means for management to communicate directly with employees across an entire enterprise whether it is one location, global in scope.

IV. Using an Intranet for Information Management

An Intranet is designed to be an enterprise-wide information system. Any person with a web or Internet browser(8) and access to the network can take part in information management on an Intranet. Most personal computers today come with web browsers pre-loaded. Intranets can provide a user interface for most applications today, as vendors continue to design programs for the Internet. Intranet information systems can retrieve virtually any document type on-line, display reports generated by external applications, support E-mail applications, support on-line real-time commercial transactions and automatically provide feedback on system usage.

Intranets are platform neutral and may be operated with legacy systems, existing databases and by departments that use different operating systems. Many application vendors are pouring resources into Web-based products. Thus, Intranet technology can be used to launch most specific application software. Because Intranet technology uses familiar graphical user interfaces with off-the-shelf browser software used by most persons today, the technology is user friendly, and requires little or no training. It is point and click technology.

Intranets permit communication both within and outside of an organization B using E-mail and electronic commerce. Because Intranets are used for electronic commerce, they are a type of transaction processing system. A Asecured server@ is often little more than an Intranet with restricted access.

Mainframe vendors are responding to Intranet technology by producing Middleware - software that bridges the gap between mainframe legacy databases and desktop web browsers. Middleware is based on ODBC (Open Database Connectivity) standards. Both IBM and Oracle have developed similar programs. In fact, the Internet/Intranet technology is viewed as an opportunity for software makers to revitalize their businesses with new Web-based products.(9)

Another advantage to the use of Internet technology is the availability of powerful search engines which allow data to be retrieved by anyone with access to that portion of the system. The process of simply entering search terms is contrasted with the conventional method of trying to find information on a particular server, in a specific directory or subdirectory, by a specific file name. Internet search engines are designed to retrieve data based on simple, user friendly keyword searches. Information that is accessible and timely is certainly a strategic asset. In terms of timely information, the process of updating pages on the Intranet no longer requires HTML authoring skills. Both Microsoft Word and Corel WordPerfect are shipped with HTML conversion and authoring capabilities.

Intranets are used to facilitate document management functions. In most cases, document management functions are specific to particular departments, or hardware or software platforms. Since companies began to adopt Internet technology internally, the need for document conversion, publication, and information dissemination, and retrieval has increased. Intranets have become intertwined with the concept of data warehousing. A data warehouse is a database which includes reporting and querying tools that store current and historical data useful to managers. The data in a data warehouse is generally in a form that cannot be altered, but merely retrieved and organized into different reporting formats. Unlike conventional networks, an Intranet provides access what some consider the world's largest data warehouse - the Internet. The advantages of data warehousing include simplicity, and better quality data.

Most Internet or Intranet documents are written in Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). HTML's most prominent feature is the use of hypertext links which permit users to proceed from document to document, and site to site with no knowledge or programming nuances. There is some concern that the adoption of Intranets would require large volumes of data to be converted to HTML. This is not necessarily so.

One way for companies to access non-HTML documents is to use a Gopher system. Gopher is a TCP/IP based system. Gopher was developed as a hierarchical, menu-based filing structure for storing files on the Internet.(10) As such, it is not necessary for organizations to convert all of the documents to HTML format to be used with an Intranet. The documents can be retrieved in their native format just as they were prior to the installation of the Intranet, if need be. These documents can include text or image files. Other universal methods for transferring files over the Internet include File Transfer Protocol ( FTP), or Adobe's Portable Document Format (PDF). Intranets also support multimedia, permitting both sound and video to be sent to employee's desktops.

Among the challenges of managing legacy systems and Intranets is how to integrate them both into new dynamic databases. Without an integrated database, persons do not know where to look for information. Intranets are not used only for static HTML. HTML has continued to evolve. Newer versions of HTML emphasize interactivity. This is generally referred to as Dynamic HTML (DHTML).(11) Information on DHTML pages is generated from a database in response to queries from end users. Properly designed web pages can be intelligent enough to connect to a database, retrieve the data, display it, and allow end users to add, delete, or update the data.(12) More companies are relying on Intranets for (1) mission critical information and (2) accessing legacy databases, customized content, and other applications that are dependent on the availability of current data which can be manipulated to meet the needs of the user. Today, database vendors have developed programs to allow users to query and extract data from many legacy systems, including mainframes.(13) These programs include software such as ORACLE, SQL and Java.

Intranet Security Issues.

An Intranet, because it may contain a vast amount of proprietary and confidential information must be secure from unauthorized access from both outside and within. Like any network, an Intranet can be configured to restrict and grant access to those persons or departments who need specific information. This is even more sensitive with Intranets because they are often linked to the Internet which provides unrestricted access.

The solution for Intranets is often referred to as a AFirewall@. Generally, a Firewall is erected between an Intranet and the Internet. A Firewall is a combination of software or hardware that permits persons from inside the Intranet to access the Internet, but which either prevents persons on the Internet from accessing the Intranet data or restricts that access (e.g.: when someone orders a product from the company's Intranet. This is typically achieved through the means of a proxy server, a server which is situated between the Internet and Intranet. The proxy server acts like a sentry, permitting access to authorized users and blocking access to others.

Some of the major goals to security measures include (1) to prohibit access to the Intranet from unwanted outside visitors, (2) protection of confidential data, (3) protection from viruses, (4) the desire to ensure that internal information stays inside, (5) to restrict competitors access to data, and (6) to protect the system from internal hackers.(14)

Among the security precautions that have been taken to protect Intranets include (1) data encryption, (2) Fire walls, (3) Multiple server locations (mirrors), (4) Password identification, and (5) Explicit policies with clear consequences for violations.

Hardware

Intranets run on the same hardware as other client/server networks. Networks need routers, switches, wires, cables and network interface devices, as well as client and server computers. Generally, servers have faster processors (Pentium 166 at a minimum) and large amounts of hard disk storage. A server may be any type of computer mainframe or PC, running different operating systems (e.g.; Windows, UNIX or Macintosh). Current Windows NT software already supports networking. An Intranet may be established on any existing network that supports Transmission Control Protocols and Internet Protocols (TCP/IP).

V. CONCLUSION

A 1996 survey found that more than 50 percent of major corporations either have Intranets in place or plan to implement them.(15) Every day, more companies are producing software which is Internet compatible. In fact, Microsoft is building Internet capabilities into all of its programs.(16) Among the advantages of Intranets include their relatively low cost to implement; that they are user friendly and require little or no employee training; can retrieve any type of document on-line, can run on any type of platform, support E-mail and groupware, support on-line commercial transactions, and automatically provide feedback on system usage.

Thus, an Intranet provides an excellent choice for an enterprise-wide information system.



Bibliography



Adhikari, Richard Migrating Legacy Data,Software Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 1 (January 1996), 75 - 80.

Courtese, Amy, Here Comes the Intranet Business Week (February 26, 1998)

Foo, Schubert, A Hypermedia Database to Manage World-Wide-Web Documents Information & Management, vol. 31 (1997), p. 235 - 249

Greer, Tyson, Understanding Intranets Microsoft Press (1998)

Holtz, Shel Intranet Advantage Ziff-Davis Books (1996)

Laudon & Laudon Management Information Systems: New Approaches to Organization & Technology Prentice Hall (5th Ed. 1998)

Rice, Ronald Relating Electronic Mail Use and Network Structure to R&D Work Networks and Performance Journal of Management Information Systems (Summer 1994), Vol. 11, No. 1, p. 19 - 29.

Sprout, Alison L. The Internet Inside Your Company Fortune (November 27, 1995).

Tanler, Richard The Intranet Data Warehouse: Tools and Techniques for Building an Intranet Enabled Data Warehouse Wiley Computer Publishing (1997)

Watson, Fritz, Mary Beth ACommunication and Coordination in the Virtual Office@ Journal of Management Information Systems (Spring 1998)



Internet Sources

Building a Corporate Intranet <http://www.intramark.com/resources/sem_1.html>

Catalyst Intranet Systems <http://www.catequity.com/subpgo4.html>

Intranet Architecture <http://www.amdahl.com/doc/products/bsg/intra/infra.html>

Intranet Information Page <http://www.strom.com/places >

Intranet Research Center <http://www.cio.com/forums/intranet/>

Intranet Journal <<http://www.techweb.com/netbiz/archives/intra0107.html>

1. 1An information system is defined as a Aset of interrelated components working together to collect, process, store, and disseminate information to support decision making, coordination, control, analysis, and visualization in an organization. Laudon and Laudon, AManagement Information Systems: New Approaches to Organization & Technology@ Prentice Hall (5th Edition) at 7.

2. 2See Laudon at 8.

3. 3Secured transactions also are conducted over AExtranets,@ which are defined as secure networks between organizations that are built using the same Internet protocols as the Internet or Intranets. See Greer at 70.

4. 4Adhikari, Richard AMigrating Legacy Date,@Software Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 1 (January 1996), 75 - 80.

5. 5Greer, Tyson, AUnderstanding Intranets@ Microsoft Press (1998) at 5.

6. 6Systems Network Architecture developed by IBM.

7. 7Greer, Tyson, AUnderstanding Intranets@ Microsoft Press (1998) at 167.

8. 8A Aweb browser@ is software that permits individuals to access information on the Internet. A browser contacts servers, requests data, receives data, and interprets the HTML files for display. Greer at 65.

9. 9Courtese, Amy, AHere Comes the Intranet@ Business Week (February 26, 1998)

10. 10Holtz at 3.

11. 11Greer at 158.

12. 12Greer at 181.

13. 13Holtz, Shel AIntranet Advantage@ Ziff-Davis Books (1996) at 286.

14. 14Greer at 103.

15. 15Courtese at 76.

16. 16Courtese at 78.