Internal networks make data access fast and easy.
he latest rage in Internet computing is the creation of internal networks that use inexpensive and user-friendly Internet technologies such as browsers and servers. These intranets enable workers to quickly tap into enterprise computing systems and share data or applications as easily as they would surf the Internet.
Since intranets manage documents in the World Wide Web's HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) format, databases can be accessed via simple pointing and clicking instead of using complex syntax required on standard database management programs. In addition, information contained on intranets is processed and distributed via Internet standards such as TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) and SMTP (Simple Mail Transport Protocol). Hence, workers do not have to be trained to use various types of proprietary software.
Intranets provide an simple way for employees-especially those at geographically dispersed agencies-to exchange information and expedite administrative processing. The Army Corps of Engineers, for instance, uses its intranet to connect 40,000 workers and their disparate information systems at more than 60 locations. And the Pentagon is constructing an intranet that will supply data to its Global Command and Control System and Global Combat Support System.
Intranets also enable the creation of internal home pages-similar to Web home pages-or organizations or individual employees. A human resources department, for instance, can set up a home page providing information about benefits, vacation leave and sick days. Employees can instantly update their own personnel records by adding address changes or other relevant data.
Dozens of federal agencies are eliminating electronic bulletin boards and moving to intranets. The National Science Foundation's intranet, called Inside NSF, is used to help program managers find their way around the agency. Many NSF managers are on loan to the foundation for short periods and therefore need an easy way to orient themselves. Inside NSF has home pages on everything from human resources and finance to administrative rules and research resources.
The Centers for Disease Control uses its intranet to ensure the timely distribution of critical medical reports. All correspondence is quickly logged and routed throughout the CDC system.
"Our intranet enables all the right people to see the documents as rapidly as possible, with their actions automated to the highest degree possible," says Joseph Reid, associate director in CDC's information resources and management division. "With disease and prevention, human life is at stake. It's simply not acceptable to risk losing correspondence on someone's desk."
Intranets also are being used to collect information that is then made available to other agencies or the general public via the Internet. The Postal Service uses a firewall to separate internal organizational data from a zip-code tracking service that resides on its intranet. A Web interface makes the database instantly available (usps.gov/ncsc/lookups/lookup_zip+4.html).
The Bureau of Mines, which was recently abolished, had used its intranet to catalog more than 20 years worth of mining-related publications and photos. That intranet is now being maintained by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health at the Centers for Disease Control's Pittsburgh Research Center. Government agencies conducting research on mine safety can still obtain information from the intranet via the Web at www.usbm.gov.
"We needed a way to manage our research publications and make the information available to the public," says Laura Crabtree, manager of information systems at the Pittsburgh Research Center. "With secure Web access, we've opened the doors of our publication information to the public for easy access."
The market for intranet products is growing even faster than the Internet market, with sales expected to total more than $1 billion this year, according to Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. Vice President Gore's National Performance Review team has been sponsoring free workshops throughout the Washington, D.C., area to give agencies an overview of intranet products and management strategies.
The basic toolkit for deploying an intranet includes a Web browser and server-from companies such Attachmate, Microsoft and Netscape-in addition to a TCP/IP communications infrastructure and HTML authoring tools. Also important is network-management software from suppliers such as Computer Associates, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and SunSoft, plus an object-oriented database program from firms such as Informix and Oracle.
Document database programs from Electronic Book Technologies, Folio Corp., Information Dimensions and Lotus enable users to quickly deploy document-management applications by using special Web-page templates. These programs are linked to Web browsers so that intranets can store thousands of constantly changing documents. They also ease search and retrieval.
Software such as Digital's Workgroup Web Forum and Microsoft's FrontPage enable intranet group discussions via Web browsers. Companies supplying groupware, which enables multiple users to work on the same documents at the same time, have been busily redesigning their programs to make them non-proprietary, less expensive and able to accommodate intranet architectures.
Commercial groupware offers unparalleled security, workflow mechanisms and document management-but also costs up to five times more than groupware applications created on intranets. Lotus, the leading groupware supplier, believes its Notes groupware complements intranets. The company recently introduced its Domino Web server technology, which extends Notes databases and applications to intranet users who do not have Notes installed on their desktop computers. Domino combines the open networking environment of Internet standards and protocols with the application-development facilities of Notes. The product is targeted at agencies interested in expanding their enterprise networks.
"One of the reasons we were able to build our intranet in only three months was because we already had a Notes infrastructure in place," says Joe Thompson, chief information officer at the General Services Administration. "Now it's a core business tool for 4,500 users."