Computer Networks

It's a god-awful buzzword. But an intranet is also a useful business tool

Now that you've figured out what the Internet is, along comes the next piece of trendy technojargon: the "in tranet." Don't panic: just think of an intranet as a World Wide Web site that's used only within a company. An intranet looks like an ordinary Web site, but it's often not connected to the rest of the Internet. And unlike many hyped technology trends, this one can make sense for small companies. Though intranets are still fairly new, more than 20% of this year's Inc. 500 CEOs say they have already installed one at their companies.

What's all the fuss about? Companies using intranets have found that an internal Web site can be an easy-to-reach and easy-to-update place to store information employees require. Intranets can simplify life for users and network managers and can work on any kind of computer. Two years ago a small company with a local area network of computers might have used database software to organize sales statistics; meeting software to track schedules; and word-processing software to create an electronic version of the employee handbook. Today that company can store all that information on an intranet. Instead of mastering multiple software programs, users can just navigate the internal Web site. Meanwhile, the systems administrator doesn't have to manage network versions--and multiple users--of all the different software. Instead, he or she can load the data employees need onto the intranet.

At its simplest, an intranet is a Web site stored on a computer that's connected to other company computers by an internal network using TCP/IP standards. (TCP/IP is the way Internet computers communicate.) Employees reach the intranet site with standard Web-browser software such as Netscape.

Sometimes, an intranet is connected to the Internet at large, but usually only so suppliers and customers can visit, using company-issued passwords. In such cases, smart companies add firewall software, which acts as a barrier between the internal systems and unauthorized outsiders.

How does a small organization use an intranet? Forsyth Dental Center is a nonprofit in Boston that launched an intranet earlier this year. Forsyth, which had $4 million in 1995 grant revenues, has 150 employees who had been working fairly independently. "There wasn't much centralized management, and the lack of good record keeping ran us into some legal problems," says Douglas Hanson, the center's director of computing and network technology. To better organize data such as research guidelines and grant-application updates, Hanson had considered the popular Lotus Notes groupware for sharing data files. But when he was making his choices, Notes proved prohibitively expensive for Forsyth's 40 computer users. (Lotus has since dropped prices and added Web-server capability to Notes.) Instead, Hanson decided on an intranet. At that time, he spent $400 for additional licenses for the Microsoft Windows NT operating system, so that many employees can get into the intranet site at once. For $300, Hanson bought Vermeer's FrontPage software (now owned by Microsoft), which can be used to design an internal or external Web site. Finally, he purchased a Dell Optiplex XMT 5100 computer server for about $6,000. That computer currently houses the intranet plus an external Web site. Hanson set up Forsyth's intranet himself, in about a week.

"We have only two people running the network and not a lot of money," he says. "You had to have a lot of administrative resources to maintain Notes. FrontPage is nice because it's easy for department heads to contribute to the site." Hanson does, however, have to prod managers to keep their sections up-to-date.

Once an intranet is in place, possibilities for more advanced uses begin to unfold. Winkler McManus, a San Francisco advertising agency with $7 million in 1995 revenues, set up a pricier intranet, which is available to its clients and overseas advisers. The internal Web site is basically part of the company's two-year-old external Web site, but access to the internal section is controlled by passwords and a firewall. Clients log in to track project timelines and electronically sign off on campaigns in progress. Traveling employees can use Winkler McManus's library or client databases. Founder Agnieszka Winkler says that the electronic client interaction moves projects along more quickly.

The bottom line? An intranet probably won't transform your business or your management style. But if your company needs a centralized information clearinghouse, an intranet is worth considering.

Intranet pros and cons

Reasons to Set Up an Intranet:

1. Your business uses several different types of computers--and the users all need to reach the same company information.

2. You need to centralize data in an easy-to-access way.

3. You'd like to give employees controlled use of more of the information stored on your network, but...

4. You don't want to administer network versions of various software packages.

Reasons Not To:

1. You don't have a local area network, or your network's operating system--like some older versions of Novell NetWare--does not use TCP/IP, the Internet communications standard.

2. You don't have any compelling business justification for one.

3. Many of your employees don't use computers.

4. Nobody is available to set up and manage the intranet.